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Black Death victims were buried with ‘considerable care,’ researchers find

In the mid-14th century Europe was devastated by a major pandemic – the Black Death – which killed so rapidly that it left no visible traces on the skeleton.  Archaeologists have previously been unable to identify individuals who died of plague unless they were buried in mass graves, but it has long been suspected that most victims received individual burials. This has been impossible to confirm until now.

By studying DNA from the teeth of individuals who died at this time, researchers from the After the Plague project, based at the University of Cambridge, have identified the presence of Yersinia Pestis, the pathogen that causes plague. These include people who received normal individual burials at a parish cemetery and friary in Cambridge and in the nearby village of Clopton.

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“These individual burials show that even during plague outbreaks individual people were being buried with considerable care and attention,” explains Craig Cessford of the University of Cambridge. “This is shown particularly at the friary where at least three such individuals were buried within the chapter house. Cambridge Archaeological Unit conducted excavations on this site on behalf of the University in 2017.”

“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’.”

Individuals buried in the chapter house of the Augustinian friary, Cambridge, who died of plague. Photo courtesy Cambridge Archaeological Unit

The study also shows that some plague victims in Cambridge did, indeed, receive mass burials. Yersinia Pestis was identified in several parishioners from St Bene’t’s, who were buried together in a large trench in the churchyard excavated by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit on behalf of Corpus Christi College.

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This part of the churchyard was soon afterwards transferred to Corpus Christi College, which was founded by the St Bene’t’s parish guild to commemorate the dead including the victims of the Black Death. For centuries, the members of the College would walk over the mass burial every day on the way to the parish church.

“Our work demonstrates that it is now possible to identify individuals who died from plague and received individual burials,” Cessford concludes. “This greatly improves our understanding of the plague and shows that even in incredibly traumatic times during past pandemics people tried very hard to bury the deceased with as much care as possible.”

The article, “Beyond Plague Pits: Using Genetics to Identify Responses to Plague in Medieval Cambridgeshire,” by Craig Cessford, Christiana L. Scheibm, Meriam Guellil, Marcel Keller, Craig Alexander, Sarah A. Inskip and John E. Robb, is published in the European Journal of Archaeology. Click here to read it.

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Top Image: Reconstruction of plague victim from All Saints, Cambridge. Image by Mark Gridley / University of Cambridge

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