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Uncovering the people who lived in medieval Ypres

A multidisciplinary team of researchers from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel has begun work examining skeletons from the cemetery of the medieval parish of Saint Nicolas in Ypres to investigate who populated the city, what they ate and what their health was like. The cemetery was excavated in 2018 and more than 1,200 graves were uncovered.

Their project – The Make-Up of the City: A Transdisciplinary Study of Urban Society in the Pre-Modern Low Countries – aims to scrutinize a selection of the site’s best-preserved skeletons. The team includes experts in archaeology, environmental and Geo-Chemistry and anatomical research

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“Scientific analysis of the skeletal material from the Saint Nicholas parish in Ypres can remedy this,” says Bart Lambert, VUB professor of late medieval history. “Knowing that World War I in Ypres wiped out almost everything above the ground in Ypres, the impact on the cemetery underground turns out to be surprisingly limited.”

The cemetery was used from the 13th to the 17th century and several of the skeletons date from when the cemetery was first in use. “That’s a very important and interesting fact for us,” adds Lambert. “The 13th century is precisely the period in which Ypres, as a city, experienced its greatest development.”

Sint-Niklaaskerk en -kerkhof, detail 19e-eeuwse kopie van 16e-eeuwse kaart van Jan Thevelin, © Yper Museum.

In the Middle Ages, the Low Countries, along with parts of Italy, were among the most urbanised areas in Europe. Urban centres in these regions developed earlier and were generally larger than elsewhere. Moreover, medieval Ypres was an industrial giant, a producer of cloth that was exported to all parts of Europe. Historical sources provide a lot of information about these cities but usually tell us little about what their urban population looked like and how they lived. In Ypres, most of those sources were also destroyed during World War I.

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The research will focus on about 500 skeletons from the earliest burial period, which are relatively well preserved. The team will find out what the people of Ypres ate and where they came from. In the course of a human life, the body draws its nutrients from food, which contains chemical elements in a proportion that differs for each region. Over time, this isotope ratio can also be found in the skeleton. By analysing the ratio of strontium, nitrogen, oxygen and carbon isotopes, scientists can see not only what was on the menu in13th and 14th-century Ypres, but also where its inhabitants came from. To get an overview of the general state of health of the people of Ypres, the skeletons are also being examined for diseases: many of these pathologies leave lasting traces on human bone tissue.

“By combining these different approaches, we will obtain invaluable information about the medieval urban population,” says Lambert. “For example, we can establish the link between social factors, such as a person’s socio-economic background, and his or her state of health, something that is also very relevant nowadays.”

Click here to visit The Make-Up of the City website

Top Image: A grave at Sint-Niklaaskerkhof being uncovered in 2018, © Monument Vandekerckhove.

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