In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, one memorable scene shows a man with a cart going from door to door to collect those who had died of the Black Death (with one ‘corpse’ being quite vociferous about the fact that he wasn’t dead yet!). This depiction plays on a popular perception that fear of the disease in the 14th century was so pervasive that victims were not afforded traditional burials and were instead piled high into mass graves. For a while now, though, archaeologists have known that this was not always the case, as the number of mass graves found from this period is relatively small and not in keeping with the number of people who died during the multiple waves of pandemic – fatalities are estimated at somewhere between 40 and 60 per cent of the population during the Black Death. Now a new study from researchers at the University of Cambridge has analysed individual graves dating from the 14th to 17th centuries, seeking to establish whether plague victims can be found among individual burials in well-established cemeteries.
Although victims of the Black Death cannot be identified through osteological analysis, as the disease kills those it infects far too quickly to affect the bone, it has previously been shown that aDNA of the bacteria that causes it, Yersinia pestis, can be extracted from the skeleton, and particularly from the teeth. This is because most infected individuals develop septicaemia, where the bacteria infiltrate their bloodstream and enter the blood vessels of the tooth pulp. Previously, Y. pestis has been isolated from skeletons from cemeteries that were known to have been established specifically to accommodate the growing number of dead, but it has not routinely been used to identify victims from ordinary cemeteries that were already in use at the time of the Plague.
This new project from Cambridge, called ‘After the Plague’, examined 191 individuals from five burial grounds in and around Cambridge that are known to have interred people during the time that the Black Death and later outbreaks were devastating the population. They also examined four skeletons from a mass burial pit in the St Bene’t’s parish cemetery, which is thought to have been for plague victims, as well as two individuals from the Midsummer Common pesthouse, which accommodated victims of the later waves of the plague.
Of the 197 samples screened for Y. pestis aDNA, they identified ten individuals who were likely to have been infected by the bacteria, as well as a further three who were probably positive but did not have enough data to confirm the bacteria’s presence fully. All of the cemeteries, with the exception of the Hospital of St John and the Midsummer Common pesthouse, had individuals who tested positive for the pathogen, confirming that many people who died of the Plague were given traditional burials, indistinguishable from those who had died of less contagious causes. Nine of the cases (both confirmed and probable) were found in parish cemeteries, while four were identified in the cemetery and chapter house of Cambridge’s Augustinian friary.
Commenting on their results, Craig Cessford, one of the researchers on the project, said: ‘These individual burials show that, even during Plague outbreaks, individual people were being buried with considerable care and attention. This is shown particularly at the friary, where at least three such individuals were buried within the chapter house. The individual at the parish of All Saints by the Castle in Cambridge was also carefully buried; this contrasts with the apocalyptic language used to describe the abandonment of this church in 1365, when it was reported that the church was partly ruinous and the “bones of dead bodies are exposed to beasts”.’
The full results of the study were recently published in the European Journal of Archaeology.