The destructive force unleashed by Vesuvius, Krakatoa, and Mount St Helens made those volcanoes household names. Yet all three are dwarfed by the largest eruption of the last millennium. It violently ejected between 200 and 600 megatons of sulphate into the Earth’s atmosphere, around eight times the yield from Krakatoa. Probably occurring in early 1258 AD, this was an eruption on a cataclysmic scale.
Despite its magnitude, the identity of the volcano responsible remains a mystery. El Chichón in Mexico, Quilotoa in Ecuador, and, most recently, a site in Indonesia have all been named as possible culprits. But while the source of the sulphates remains elusive, the eruption’s fingerprints can be found around the globe. Ice cores from both the northern hemisphere and Antarctica preserve its debris, while a thick layer of ash lies among the sediments in Lake Malawi, nestled between Mozambique and Tanzania. Traces can even be found in the records of contemporary chroniclers writing far from the tropics.
The unseasonableness of the atmosphere
Wherever the volcano lay, Matthew Paris was living thousands of miles away when it blew – a Benedictine monk writing in St Albans abbey. His Historia Anglorum covers the period from 1250-1259, and intersperses commentary on contemporary events with observations on that most British of obsessions: the weather. Paris was perplexed and troubled by what he saw in 1258. The year got off to a bad start, with the monk recording ‘such unendurable cold, that it bound up the face of the earth, sorely afflicted the poor, suspended all cultivation, and killed the young of the cattle’. But that was just the beginning. As the year progressed the situation deteriorated, and by midsummer Paris had cause to put pen to parchment once more:
when April, May, and the principal part of June, had passed, and scarcely were there visible any of the small and rare plants, or any shooting buds of flowers; and, in consequence, but small hopes were entertained of the fruit crops. Owing to the scarcity of wheat, a very large number of poor people died; and dead bodies were found in all directions, swollen and livid, lying by fives and sixe’s in pigsties, on dunghills, and in the muddy streets… When several corpses were found, large and spacious holes were dug in the cemeteries, and a great many bodies were laid in them together.
Although he could not have known it, Paris’s account is likely to be eye-witness testimony to the devastating fallout of the 1258 eruption. The sheer quantity of aerosols forced into the atmosphere would have been sufficient to create a phenomenon known as a ‘dry fog’. Weakening sunlight and increasing rainfall, it formed a volcanic veil that shrouded the world, blighting crops and leaving thousands starving. Now, Don Walker of Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) believes that some of the emergency ‘large and spacious holes’ Paris described being dug have been detected in London’s Spitalfields cemetery. For the first time the human cost of the last millennium’s largest eruption has become archaeologically visible.
St Mary without Bishopsgate
The Medieval cemetery at Spitalfields is probably the largest excavated graveyard in the world. Work by MOLA between 1998 and 2001 unearthed a staggering 10,516 burials, of which just over 5,300 have been studied in detail. Allowing for those portions of the cemetery destroyed during the construction of Spitalfields market, it is probable that around 18,000 people were once interred there. As well as providing an unparalleled corpus of skeletal material for the period, a rigorous programme of Bayesian radiocarbon dating (see CA 259) by Alex Bayliss and Jane Sidell has provided a tight chronology for the Medieval cemetery. Securing detailed phasing for a site-type that is notoriously hard to date proved crucial when it came to understanding how the cemetery population met their fate. It also allowed change within that population to be studied over time, providing vivid insights into the evolving nature of London life.
Spitalfields cemetery was closely associated with the priory and hospital of St Mary without Bishopsgate, later known as St Mary Spital. Claimed to be the largest hospital in London when it was closed during the Dissolution in 1539, the institution was originally founded in around 1197. Intended to minister to the poor, sick, and infirm, as well as women in childbirth, the new establishment was a reaction to the care needs of London’s growing population. The first burials in the cemetery, however, seem to have been a response to pressures of a different kind. Radiocarbon dated to about 1120, the earliest bodies pre-date the priory by a good 70 years. Far from occupying ordered rows, the corpses were dumped in open quarry pits. Such opportunistic interment away from any known religious house evokes an emergency situation in which large numbers of bodies needed to be disposed of rapidly. The reason remains uncertain, but it was not the last time that a catastrophe heralded the suspension of normal burial practices at Spitalfields.
The foundation of St Mary Spital brought the construction of a priory church at the north-west corner of the cemetery, while the other buildings were clustered nearby. Although the majority of those laid to rest in the graveyard were placed in individual grave shafts sunk in neat rows, excavations revealed a group of 140 large pits clustered along the south and east margins of the burial ground. Dug as far from the priory buildings as the cemetery allowed, each pit contained between 8 and 40 bodies. A sure sign that the death rate had once again outstripped existing burial measures, the desire to keep these mass graves away from inhabited areas underscores a very real fear of the dangers the bodies could pose for the living. In London, as elsewhere, the natural reaction to discovering such mass burials is to interpret them as plague pits from the 1348 Black Death. This can be misleading.
One of the difficulties with identifying victims of the Black Death pandemic is that the bacteria dispatched sufferers long before it could make a lasting mark on their skeletons. This makes it hard to distinguish the plague dead from famine victims – another Medieval mass killer. In such cases starvation is only rarely the cause of death. More often diarrhoea or opportunistic infectious diseases such as measles overwhelm the body’s weakened defences and finish off the afflicted. A lack of nutrition will also allow any pre-existing health problems, such as tuberculosis, to flourish. A third stimulus to digging mass burials does, though, leave a strong archaeological signature: warfare. The brutal nature of Medieval conflict often inflicted clear, and sometimes shocking, skeletal trauma (CA 171). In this case, study of the skeletons quickly ruled out combat fatalities, leaving plague the most likely explanation.
Excavating the pits revealed that they were not all dug at the same time. Instead, there were two phases. The first pits were roughly rectangular and aligned west-north-west by east-south-east, while the second group were square and orientated east–west. An attempt was made to slot the later pits into gaps between the originals. This was only partially successful, and the later pits clipped the earlier ones in several places. A grisly consequence was that numerous limbs from the earlier corpses spilled out into the new pits. Still articulated when the archaeologists found them, these bones must have been held fast by ligaments when pit-diggers inadvertently severed them from their bodies. As well as creating a nightmarish working environment, both the knowledge of the location of the earlier pits and the only partial decomposition of the bodies within them suggest that the two episodes of pit-digging were only separated by a matter of years.
Radiocarbon analysis backed this up, indicating that the pits may have been cut within about a decade of each other. Yet it also dealt a fatal blow to any notion that these were 1348 plague pits. Consistently returning dates around the mid 13th century for both sets of burials, this placed them almost a century too early for the Black Death. It was this hard chronological information that allowed Don Walker and Amy Gray Jones of the University of Chester to make a connection between the later group of mass burials and the widespread fatalities seemingly brought on by climatic fluctuation in the wake of the 1258 eruption. The earlier pits would fit reports of a famine in 1252. The difference in severity appears to have been marked: while the first mass graves typically contain between 8 and 20 bodies, the second group were larger and held 20 to 40, implying that up to twice as many corpses needed disposing of at any given moment. Between them, the two pit groups contained 2,323 people from the studied sample, accounting for over half the analysed bodies buried in the cemetery during this period. Study of the skeletons provides a potent snapshot of life in the capital on the eve of the 1258 eruption.
Sex and the city
One of the archaeological advantages of mass burials is that the urgency of the situation leaves no time to sort the deceased into different groups. Rather than segregating bodies by class, gender or faith, they all go straight into the pit. This should create a burial group that is a truer reflection of the living population. Comparing the bodies in the pits to those interred under normal circumstances in individual grave-shafts reveals a larger number of children and adolescents – a feature that dovetails with known famine burials elsewhere – as well as near parity of the sexes. While the gender of those buried during everyday use of the cemetery was skewed towards males, there was a ratio of almost 1:1 in the pits.
Comparison of male and female skeletons reveals that life in mid-13th-century London could be harsh regardless of gender. Yet while signs of stress brought on by repeated incidences of famine (such as below-average height and striations on teeth) afflicted both sexes, some fractures show a strong gender bias. Men were most likely to break their bones, with their skeletons preserving far more evidence of injuries. These take many forms, but fractured vertebrae caused by falls or perhaps from carrying heavy loads are a reasonably representative example. Women, however, were far more likely to sustain broken forearms, and in particular a distinctive fracture to the ulna. Experts remain divided about the explanation for this, but the injury is a textbook example of a ‘parry-fracture’, caused when individuals raise their arms to defend themselves during an attack. Conceivably these breakages were an occupational hazard in an industry that favoured females, but they might alternatively paint a bleak picture of a world rife with domestic abuse. Either way, such gender-specific injuries reflect real differences in day-to-day life.
Although men were more likely to receive injuries than women, they also appear to have had access to better healthcare. Male fractures tend to show a greater degree of successful healing, suggesting that once an injury occurred females were in a far more vulnerable situation. We know that women had a hard time establishing themselves in business, and were not heavily involved in guilds. The consequence of this may have been that while men received a greater degree of support as they convalesced, women had to fend for themselves. Money pressures could easily force them to return to work before their injuries healed, compounding the original problem.
One disease that afflicted male and female alike was tuberculosis. Caused by a bacteria that can target the lungs or stomach, if left untreated tuberculosis typically kills over 50% of sufferers. Around 100 of the Spitalfields skeletons preserved traces of the disease, making up 2% of the overall study group. As only between 5% and 7% of those infected with the illness receive permanent skeletal scarring from it, this means that as many as 30% of the population may have been sufferers. This is a far higher incidence than occurred in, say, Roman Londinium, and it reflects a key element of the contemporary narrative of the capital. Tuberculosis is most commonly transmitted by coughing, and so is particularly devastating in overcrowded and polluted urban areas. We know that the population of London increased rapidly during the 12th and 13th centuries, as migrants from rural communities were drawn to the city by the jobs on offer. Tragically, this influx of newcomers seeking their fortune, or at least a better way of life, contributed to overcrowding and the acute health risks that accompany it.
Despite its seemingly devastating impact on London life, the aftermath of the 1258 eruption is likely to have increased the number of migrants heading for the capital. The famine would have been just as crippling for those living in the countryside. There would have been far less work available for rural labourers, and food shortages are likely to have been severe. For those in need of work or food, heading for the city would have been a tempting option. From what we know of migrants at the time, many of these newcomers would have been young females, often aged between 13 and 20. The lucky ones would find employment as servants in houses. While they had little control over their lives, at least they secured a roof over their head and access to food.
Some of the risks facing young migrants may be visible in the Spitalfields skeletons, since there is an unusually high number of injuries among adolescents buried in the cemetery. As this is exactly the age-group most likely to be migrants, could it be that these injuries reflect the uncertainties of life as an outsider? If so, they are poignant testimony to the dangers inherent in arriving in the city without the necessary social contacts to secure and keep a job. If the famine triggered by the 1258 eruption did produce a surge in the number of migrants, then those for whom the gamble of moving to London did not pay off were further victims of the volcano.
Syphilis: import or export?
The Spitalfields skeletons are contributing to an ongoing dispute among osteologists about whether syphilis has its origins in the New World and was carried back by promiscuous 15th-century sailors, or had been present in Europe all along. A number of skeletons in the cemetery (the skull of one is shown to the right) suffered from the condition prior to Columbus’s 1492 voyage, adding to a steadily growing corpus of pre-Columbian examples from Britain (see also CA 245 and CA 263). As such, the Spitalfields syphilis cases are important to conceptions of the spread and evolution of the disease.
B Connell, A Gray Jones, R Redfern, and D Walker, A Bioarchaeological Study of Medieval Burials on the Site of St Mary Spital: excavations at Spitalfields Market, London E1, 1991-2007. MOLA Monograph 60.
Don Walker is a human osteologist working at Museum of London Archaeology.
ALL IMAGES: Museum of London Archaeology/Andy Chopping/Maggie Cox, unless otherwise stated.