The forgotten children of medieval London

Teenagers today may think they have it tough but adolescents in medieval London had a much harder life.

In the early 1500s young migrant workers flocked into the capital in their thousands, often seeking apprenticeships. However, records show that many did not live to become adults. There was a dramatic rise in the mortality rates of 10 to 14-year-olds at this time, but their history has been largely ignored.

Dr Mary Lewis, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Reading, has just been awarded £230,000 Leverhulme funding to investigate the, until now, forgotten group of adolescents.

Two thousand skeletons of young people from the early 16th Century have been discovered in two cemeteries – St Mary’s Spittel in London and Barton-on Humber in Lincolnshire. For the first time researchers will be able to look at the adolescents’ health in detail and discover what kinds of diseases and fractures they suffered.

“Despite the growing evidence that young apprentices and menial workers represent a clear and disadvantaged group in the past, their lives have been neglected in archaeology,” said Dr Lewis. “Those buried in London’s medieval cemeteries appeared to have a lot of fractures and respiratory infections, suggesting occupational hazards.

“This project focuses on the children that worked and died in late medieval London and compares their health to local adolescents from a market town in an attempt to define the experience of the medieval apprentice. Teenagers moving from rural areas into London where there were lots of migrants would have been exposed to different diseases for the first time.”

During the three-year project, Dr Lewis will use samples to gauge the age at which children began employment and their quality of life, look at strontium and lead levels to identify young migrants in London in correlation with their age, sex and status, and develop osteological methods to record the onset of puberty in males and females.

Click here to listen to Mary Lewis discussing her research into adolescents in the medieval period

Source: University of Reading

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