New research on people buried in London during the Black Death suggests that the city’s population was more diverse than currently believed, including the presence of people with African heritage.
The research was carried out by Rebecca Redfern from the Museum of London and Joseph T. Hefner of Michigan State University, and was published in Bioarchaeology of Marginalized People. They examined the remains of 41 individuals from East Smithfield cemetery (site code MIN86), which was used as an emergency burial ground when the plague swept through London in the years 1348 to 1350. Their in-depth research included examining the DNA remains, craniofacial morphology and the various injuries and stresses that can be found on the skeletal remains.
Their findings reveal that while most of the population would be classified as European, close to thirty percent were found to have some heritage outside of Europe – sometimes cases of dual heritage. Several were individuals with African ancestry or dual heritage. They report:
The majority of the population (70.7%) classified closest to the samples of White Europeans (17 males and 12 females). Two adult females (4.9%) had craniofacial morphologies most similar to the Asian sample (skeletons 7381 and 11108), one male (2.4%) classified between the Asian and White European samples (skeleton 11625), and two males (4.9%) (skeletons 11115 and 11914) classified as being dual heritage, White European and Asian. Four females and three males (17.1%) had craniofacial morphologies with conflicting results (dual heritage: African/White European/ Asian) (skeletons 12790, 9540, 11244, 5902) or were morphologically similar to the samples with Black African ancestry (skeletons 5741, 5291, 5281).
The researchers believe that the classifications of Asian heritage are most likely false positives, caused by a lack of data, but that evidence for some of the cases involving people of African heritage are quite strong. Many of the African peoples in Europe during this period would have been slaves or at least the descendants of slaves.The authors note that previous research suggests that between they years 1100 and 1400 an average of 5500 people per year were being transported from Africa to Europe through the trans-Saharan slave trade network. Others would have arrived in Europe in various capacities – ambassadors, pilgrims, musicians, soldiers and craftsmen.
Other research has found that medieval London was very diverse. Documentary sources revealed the presence of at least 17,376 individuals of foreign origin were in London between the years 1336 and 1584, as far away as Iceland and India. There are also scattered accounts of people in London and other parts of England who were described as Moors, Saracens and Ethiopians.
Meanwhile, this particularly burial site found that at least several of the people originally lived outside of London:
Two other people are proposed to have migrated from the west: a female (skeleton 7163) and a male (skeleton 11944) with White-European ancestry are proposed to have migrated from Devon, Cornwall, the Welsh coast, and the extreme western fringe of the Western Isles of Scotland. A male (skeleton 5285) and a female (skeleton 6467) with White European ancestry are suggested to have spent their childhoods in an area which includes eastern Scotland, York and its immediate environs, and to the south of York.
The study also found that the health among all 41 individuals was roughly the same, with many having long standing injuries and disabilities, perhaps the results of heavy manual labour. For example, they note one case:
The 36-45 year-old male, skeleton 9540, with Black African/Asian ancestry, in addition to possibly having brucellosis, also has osteoarthritis to his left ankle joint and spine, Schmorl’s nodes in his lumbar vertebrae, and a healed Colles’ fracture to his right radius with secondary osteoarthritic changes to the right wrist joint, and a healed fracture to one rib.
The article ‘“Officially absent but actually present”: Bioarchaeological evidence for population diversity in London during the Black Death, AD 1348–50,’ by Rebecca Redfern and Joseph T. Hefner can be found in Bioarchaeology of Marginalized People, edited by Madeleine L. Mant, Memorial University and Alyson Jaagumägi Holland. It is available through Elsevier or you can buy the book from Amazon.com.
Top Image: 16th century map of London by Braun & Hogenberg