Unusual Life, Unusual Death and the Fate of the Corpse: A Case Study from Dynastic Europe

Unusual Life, Unusual Death and the Fate of the Corpse: A Case Study from Dynastic Europe

By Estella Weiss-Krejci

Deviant Burial in the Archaeological Record, edited by Eileen M. Murphy (Oxbow: Oxford, 2008)

Death portrait of Emperor Maximilian I in 1519

Introduction: This article explores how deviant behaviour in life, deviant circumstances of death, and young age at death affected mortuary treatment among historically documented individuals from Medieval and Post-Medieval European dynasties. The study is based on an investigation of 868 individuals who are members of the Habsburg and Babenberg Dynasties or affiliated with these two houses. From this sample a group of 221 individuals as well as an additional 36 individuals, whose lives or deaths may be considered deviant, were selected for a closer investigation. The results show that ‘social deviants’ as well as people who died during warfare and in battle, victims of murder and disease, as well as young children have been afforded differential mortuary treatment. On the other hand, individuals who died during childbirth or from accidents were usually treated according to the norm.

Introduction: Several years ago I conducted an analysis of elite burials in Medieval and Post-Medieval Europe. I especially investigated historic sources concerning the mortuary treatment of 868 individuals belonging to two Austrian dynasties: the Babenbergs and the Habsburgs. The purpose of the study was to gain a better understanding of the reasons for variability in mortuary treatment and to develop more appropriate methods of burial analysis. During my research I came across a variety of individuals whose mortuary treatment not only differed from those afforded to other people but were directly caused by circumstances relating to their lives or death. Being accorded differential treatment these individuals and their burials can be classified as ‘deviant’, in the sense that they diverge from the burial norm.

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