More than a decade ago, we brought you the story of the ‘lost’ church of All Saints in York, where, between 2007 and 2008, On-Site Archaeology’s excavations uncovered not only the remains of the building, but also the burials of over 650 people (see CA 245). Among these was an unusual grave within the church’s apse (the curved space behind the high altar), containing the remains of a woman who had been laid to rest in a tightly crouched position. Burial in such a prestigious part of the church would have been reserved for wealthy benefactors and important members of the religious community, and it was suggested that the woman could have been Lady Isabel German, an anchoress known to have lived at All Saints in the 15th century.
Anchoresses (and, if male, anchorites) were religious recluses, usually of high social status, who chose to be walled up within a cell so that they could devote the rest of their lives to prayer and contemplation. During the later medieval period, it was particularly popular with pious lay women, for whom it represented an alternative to marrying and becoming the property of their husband. Instead, becoming a ‘living saint’ gave them a degree of autonomy over their life – even if that life was restricted to the confines of their cell – and an important status within their community.
Dr Lauren McIntyre of Oxford Archaeology has carried out osteoarchaeological analysis of the All Saints skeletons (which are now curated by the University of Sheffield, of which she is an alumna), including that of the possible anchoress. Now a paper recently published in Medieval Archaeology (see ‘Further reading’ at the end) sets out new insights into the woman’s life, drawing together Lauren’s osteoarchaeological and historical research, as well as information from radiocarbon dating and isotope analysis.
A biography from bones
Although most of the woman’s skull (other than her lower jaw) was missing due to her grave having been truncated by a later infant burial, the majority of her skeleton was well-preserved, revealing signs that she had suffered from septic arthritis and probably osteoporosis during her life. Some of her remains preserve even more distinctive signs of ill health, however, testifying to a widespread infection that Lauren suggests could have been venereal syphilis. The most characteristic signs of this disease affect the skull, but Lauren has identified gummatous lesions, another diagnostic symptom, on the bones of the woman’s chest and shoulders, both arms, pelvis, legs, and feet.
‘Gummatous lesions are formed when a bone and the surrounding soft tissue is so infected that it needs to create a hole so that pus can drain – but, because of how syphilis works, that bone is simultaneously being destroyed and remodelling itself, which creates these characteristic lesions,’ Lauren said. ‘They would have been very visible as big open sores on the woman’s body.’
It is possible that this disease, rather than ageing, was also responsible for the woman’s arthritis, Lauren added; septic arthritis can be caused through infection of the joints, though this remains a ‘best guess’ as it leaves fairly generalised marks on the bones. Nonetheless, the woman was not elderly when she died: assessment of her skeleton suggests she had been between 30 and 50, though it is difficult to be more exact as the key parts of her remains that would help to establish her age are so affected by the lesions.
Analysis of isotopes – chemical signatures preserved within the woman’s bones and teeth – has shed more light on earlier periods of her life. She was not born within the Vale of York, but appears to have grown up either in the north-west or north-east of England, or possibly the Welsh borders – probably in a rural location, as her lead isotopes indicate that her early years were spent somewhere less polluted. We can also tell that, in childhood, the All Saints woman ate only terrestrial meat, which might suggest that she lived somewhere very far inland. This changed in adulthood, however, when fish featured much more prominently in her meals – something that could reflect a change of location, or perhaps increased piety, as such a diet would be in keeping with medieval religious fasting rules.
As for Lady Isabel, we do not know where she came from, nor the date of her birth or death – indeed, very little is known at all, except that she was an anchoress associated with All Saints Church, and that she was active at least between 1428 and 1455, as seven wills from this period mention her by name, in bequests from those hoping to benefit from her prayers.
Radiocarbon dating of the All Saints woman produced a rather wide range (albeit one that does overlap with when Lady Isabel was alive), placing the burial in AD 1443-1632. It seems likely that she would have been interred in the earlier part of this range, however, as the church is not thought to have survived long after Whitby Abbey (to which it belonged) was suppressed in 1539, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
While we still cannot say for certain that the All Saints woman is Lady Isabel, the location of her burial within such a prestigious part of the church does indicate that she was someone special within her community – and, if this is the skeleton of the anchoress, we now have a host of new details about the life of a woman preserved only in snippets of historical records. Moreover, if we can attribute the remains to someone known to have lived in the early to mid-15th century, this represents an important addition to our understanding of medieval syphilis. It has long been debated whether the disease was brought to Europe from the ‘New World’ following Columbus’ voyage of 1492, or if it was already present. As archaeological research progresses, though, the emerging picture is that syphilis was indeed already in Europe before Columbus, with other early examples including skeletons from the cemetery at Spitalfields in London (CA 270).
If Lady Isabel did have syphilis, how might this have affected contemporary perceptions of her? As Lauren notes, although the anchoress ‘lived in a period of history where we typically think of there being a strong association between visible and disfiguring illnesses and sin, with that type of suffering seen as a punishment from God… such severe disease could also have been viewed positively, being sent by God to grant martyr-like status to someone special.’
All images: On-Site Archaeology
Lauren McIntyre, Lauren Kancle, Janet Montgomery, Joanna Moore, Darren R Gröcke, and Geoff M Nowell (2022) ‘The All Saints anchoress? An osteobiography’, Medieval Archaeology 66(2): 368-399, https://doi.org/10.1080/ 00766097.2022.2129682.