Medieval hit-and-run? Skeleton of friar with two broken legs resembles modern day car accident victim

CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — It’s fair to assume living in the middle ages was no walk in the park for most people. A new discovery in the United Kingdom is leading archeologists to believe that the common people weren’t even exempt from modern day dangers — like traffic accidents. Researchers from the University of Cambridge say the skeleton of a medieval friar looks eerily similar to those of victims in hit-and-run accidents today.

Archeologists suspect the person was likely struck by a cart, which killed him. The unlucky friar was discovered as the team examined skeletal trauma from 314 bodies buried in Cambridge between the 10th and 14th century.

Researchers say the remains come from a wide-ranging social spectrum from that era, including a parish graveyard for ordinary working people, a charitable hospital that buried the sick and destitute, and an Augustinian friary which buried wealthy donors alongside clergy. Their findings reveal the extent of hardship suffered by all classes at this time. Researchers believe one female skeleton even has the marks of domestic violence etched in her bones for all time.

Skeletal remains of friar unearthed
X-rays of butterfly fractures to both femora of an adult male buried in the Augustinian friary.

Medieval life led to many broken bones

The team catalogued the nature of every break and fracture to build a picture of the physical distress people suffered by accident, occupational injury, or violence during their daily lives. Results from x-ray analysis revealed 44 percent of working class people had bone fractures. That’s significantly higher than the 32 percent of bodies in the friary and 27 percent buried by the hospital.

Fractures appear to be more common in male remains (40%), compared to just 26 percent of female remains across all burials.

“By comparing the skeletal trauma of remains buried in various locations within a town like Cambridge, we can gauge the hazards of daily life experienced by different spheres of medieval society,” says lead study author Dr. Jenna Dittmar in a university release.

“We can see that ordinary working folk had a higher risk of injury compared to the friars and their benefactors or the more sheltered hospital inmates. These were people who spent their days working long hours doing heavy manual labor. In town, people worked in trades and crafts such as stonemasonry and blacksmithing, or as general laborers. Outside town, many spent dawn to dusk doing bone-crushing work in the fields or tending livestock.”

The University of Cambridge was just starting to develop during the middle ages, with the first stirrings of academia occurring around 1209. Cambridge was mostly a provincial town of artisans, merchants, and farmhands in that time. The population ranged from 2,500 to 4,000 people during the mid-13th century.

How did the friar meet his untimely demise?

While the working poor shouldered the burden of physical labor compared to better-off people and those in religious institutions, study authors find medieval life was tough on everybody.

Skeletal remains of friar found
The remains of numerous individuals unearthed on the former site of the Hospital of St. John the Evangelist, taken during the 2010 excavation on the site of the Divinity School building, St John’s College, University of Cambridge.

In fact, the most extreme injuries belonged to that friar. Identified by his burial place and belt buckle, the man suffered two broken thigh bones in the accident which likely ended his life.

“The friar had complete fractures halfway up both his femurs,” adds Dr. Dittmar, from the After the Plague project at Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology. “The femur [thigh bone] is the largest bone in the body. Whatever caused both bones to break in this way must have been traumatic, and was possibly the cause of death. Our best guess is a cart accident. Perhaps a horse got spooked and he was struck by the wagon.”

The team also uncovered another friar who had lived with defensive fractures on his arm and signs of blunt force trauma to his skull. Such violence-related skeletal injuries were discovered in around four percent of the population, including women and people from all social groups. One older woman buried in the parish grounds appeared to bear the marks of lifelong domestic abuse.

“She had a lot of fractures, all of them healed well before her death,” Dittmar says. “Several of her ribs had been broken as well as multiple vertebrae, her jaw and her foot. It would be very uncommon for all these injuries to occur as the result of a fall, for example. Today, the vast majority of broken jaws seen in women are caused by intimate partner violence.”

‘Life was tough all over’

Of the three sites, the Hospital of St. John the Evangelist contained the fewest fractures. Established at the end of the 12th century, it housed select needy Cambridge residents, providing food and spiritual care.

Many had skeletal evidence of chronic illnesses such as tuberculosis and would have been unable to work. The site also included corrodians, or people who retired and paid to live at the hospital, much like a modern old-age care home.

In 1511, the hospital was dissolved to create St. John’s College. It was later excavated by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU), during university renovations in 2010. At that time, researchers unearthed the remains of some of the poorest in the town at a church graveyard in the parish of All Saints.

Founded in the 10th century, the parish was in use until 1365 when it merged with a neighboring parish after local populations fell after the “Black Death” bubonic plague pandemic. While the church itself has never been found, the graveyard was first excavated in the 1970s.

“Those buried in All Saints were among the poorest in town, and clearly more exposed to incidental injury,” Dr. Dittmar explains. “At the time, the graveyard was in the hinterland where urban met rural. Men may have worked in the fields with heavy ploughs pulled by horses or oxen, or lugged stone blocks and wooden beams in the town.”

“Many of the women in All Saints probably undertook hard physical labors such as tending livestock and helping with harvest alongside their domestic duties. We can see this inequality recorded on the bones of medieval Cambridge residents. However, severe trauma was prevalent across the social spectrum. Life was toughest at the bottom, but life was tough all over,” the researcher concludes.

The research appears in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

SWNS writer Laura Sharman contributed to this report.