The Face Of A Man Who Died 700 Years Ago Is Revealing How The Poor Lived In Medieval England

As a collective civilization, we’ve made some strides in how we care for the poor and frail but, even in the 21st century, the indigent are often relegated to both anonymous lives and anonymous deaths. So when scientists were able to re-create the life of a man who lived 700 years ago from his remains, it offered a tremendous insight, not just into his life, but into the lives of the countless impoverished citizens of medieval England. 

This face—and the man—are known by the clinical and cold moniker Context 958, one of several hundred buried corpses exhumed from graves behind the Old Divinity School of St. John’s College in Cambridge, England, around 2010. The subject was presumed to have been a ward of the hospital or church, likely poor and/or ill, at the time of his death in the 13th century.

Here’s the subject’s body as it was found, buried facedown, which was rare during this time: 

Subjects such as Context 958 were likely forgotten by the world as they lived, so documentation of their struggle and lifestyle is lacking. But with Context 958’s reconstruction, archaeologists and anthropologists from both Cambridge and Scotland’s University of Dundee have more insight into the daily life of this large, but unstudied historical population. 

Using Context 958’s bones, the scientists haven’t just recreated his appearance, they have ascertained information about his diet, career, and even violent activity during the subject’s life. 

So this: 

Becomes this: 

Which in turn becomes this fleshed-out visage: 

Judging by the bone structure, wear on the bones, and posture of the man, the researchers estimated Context 958 was about 40 years old when he died, having worked as a laborer with intermittent access to nutritious food. Judging by the two disruptions in the growth of his tooth enamel, it’s thought that he survived two widespread famines during his difficult life. 

The biological evidence in Context 958’s remains allowed the scientists the opportunity to further postulate on his social and familial life, with Professor John Robb of Cambridge University stating:

There was also an indication of blunt-force trauma on the back of Context 958’s skull that had healed prior to his death. 

The study of the subject’s remains is the first in a bigger, well-funded study known as “After the plague: health and history in medieval Cambridge,” which serves to share with the world the lives of the marginalized lower class throughout this era. Says Dr. Robb: 

The lives of the wealthy and privileged are relatively well-documented throughout history, so a glimpse at the lives of the unstudied masses can offer new insight unavailable prior to the exhumation, reconstruction, and analysis of bodies. 

As was done with Context 958, future subjects will be studied and ultimately given biographies to get a broader look at the lives of the poor in medieval England. 

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