Raising the Medieval Dead (Not a Zombie Thing)

Right.  I am awfully apologetic if you have been pining for research related posts in the last few weeks.  If you haven’t been pining for research related posts in the last few weeks then surely the only explanation is that you must be new here – so welcome!  However, for those of you that missed it – we have terribly exciting news (which is what kept us busy for the last little while).  We’ve been given the go ahead for our live event at Manchester Science Festival 2013!  You can read more about the 21st Century Coffee House (and apply to take part) here.

But now that we are back to our regular programming, I am very excited to bring you the most recent Penny University featured interview.

Coffee house, charnel house, I can see how you could get the two mixed up!

Coffee house, charnel house, I can see how you could get the two mixed up!

Jennifer Crangle is a second year PhD student at the University of Sheffield in the Department of Archaeology.  She is investigating the post-depositional disturbances that occurred during the English medieval period.

AA: So, tell me a little bit about your research:

JC: Post-depositional practises were extensive throughout the medieval period (c.1066 – 1550), but are also evident in the periods both before and after. For the medieval period such activities include the creation of ossuaries/charnel chapels, and relics, the disturbance and emptying of existing graves and tombs, insertions of complete or disarticulated individuals into existing graves and tombs, box and bag reburials of disarticulated individuals, charnel pits and intercutting graves.  It has been thought that skeletal imagery and familiarity with disturbance of the dead became commonplace only after the Black Death in 1348.  The evidence so far, however, is demonstrating that reverence of human bones and their role within medieval religion was developing as early as the 7th century and continued to do so throughout the subsequent medieval period.  My research aims to bring to light this important and little understood medieval funerary rite.

AA: Okay, so let me get this straight.  You’re researching what people did with the dead during the Medieval period… after they were already buried?  I’ve heard of ossuaries before, but I thought they were created because of a lack of space.  From what you’re saying, it sounds like this might not be the case.

JC: Research to this point in England regarding ossuary creation has only focussed on the functional motivations involved, such as a requirement to empty a graveyard of existing skeletons in order to continue burying the dead in that location.  Interpretations of these site types – plus other categories of post-burial disturbance – tend to be purely functional.  This is what you and other people would have heard about before.  However, the liturgical or spiritual motivations and justifications for disinterring the skeletal dead are either minimalized or denied altogether by excavators, medievalists and osteoarchaeologists.  The frequency with which these activities occurred is also not recognised.  It is believed that the creation of ossuaries never really happened to any great extent in England and so the practise cannot be comparable to that of the rest of Europe.  The reality, in fact, proves the opposite; I have found evidence of the existence of over 60 medieval English ossuary sites. Furthermore, these sites clearly served roles in penance, confession, pilgrimage and functioned as chantry chapels did (these were private chapels in churches, built by wealthy families, where they paid a priest to say prayers for their souls).

AA:  Wow!  You mentioned a lot of different types of ‘post-depositional’ practices at the start of this interview, which suggests this was happening a lot.  Can you tell me a bit more about the types of practices?  Box and bag burials sound especially unusual!

JC: People tend to be surprised that post-depositional practices took place at all, let alone to the extent that they did.  People are also surprised that they were intrinsically liturgical!  As I mentioned, post-burial disturbance has been taking place throughout England from before the advent of Christianity in about the 7th century, right the way through the medieval period and into the post-medieval period (c.1550 onwards).  There are so many types of disturbance I won’t be able to go through them all here.  One of the earliest types of disturbance dating to the 8th century was the re-opening of an existing grave in order to insert a new burial.  The skeleton of the existing person was removed, the new person inserted, with the bones of the previous occupant/s placed or sometimes arranged around the new body.  In some places this happened up to 10 times in a single grave.  This also provides evidence about Anglo-Saxon Christian burial in general, for example, it proves that they knew where graves were located, who was in them, and how long they had been buried. 

From about the 7th century we also have the ‘box reburials’ I talked about – of single disarticulated individuals.  Bag reburials seem to be a totally different category or phenomenon – haven’t fully researched them and figured them out yet!  The box reburials represent the ‘translations’ of people deemed saintly due to the number of miracles attributed to this deceased person, which took place at their grave.  This justified the person to be disinterred in a specific ceremony; their bones were washed and placed in a box, which was itself placed into their original stone tomb or coffin which was also disinterred and brought inside a church.  The person was then revered as a saint with their tomb and translated remains becoming a shrine and relics.

AA: It seems our forebears were much more familiar with the dead than we are today – and maybe a lot more familiar than we thought they were!  Were you surprised that there was so much post-depositional activity happening in this period?

JC: Yes, a little!  I had previously researched ossuaries so knew a lot about them before I started my current research. And most archaeologists are familiar with charnel pits (deliberately dug pits in the ground to hold displaced bones within a graveyard) and intercutting graves!  I was surprised at the number and variety of post-depositional practices but even more so at the prevalence with which they are identifiable in the archaeological record.  Post-burial involvement with the dead was definitely ‘the norm’ as opposed to a rare occurrence.

AA: You said you’ve found over 60 ossuaries in England (so far).  Where (and what) exactly are they and why do you think they were lost or forgotten?

JC: An ‘ossuary’ is the most common term used to describe a place where human bones are stored, or to describe the collection of bones themselves.  ‘Charnel chapel’ is actually the official and original term for these places, as detailed in the foundation charters I’ve located, but colloquially within a few years of their construction, they were referred to as ossuaries, carnarium, bone stores, and charnel houses, amongst other names.  They are medieval ecclesiastic buildings, located within the confines of the cemetery of ecclesiastical complexes (including abbeys, cathedrals, hospitals, monasteries and parish churches).  They were constructed in England from the early 13th century to the Reformation in the mid-16th century but the height of construction occurred in the 1300’s.  They were built intentionally for the storage or curation of deliberately disinterred and disarticulated human skeletal elements and were intrinsically connected to prayer, penance and confession; this appears to have been the ‘real’ reason for their construction.  There are two forms of charnel chapel: free-standing, two-storeyed buildings and those built below churches. Both structural types primarily consist of a semi-subterranean vault or chamber, this was always where the bones were arranged/kept.  Free-standing examples had a chapel built directly on top of these partially underground chambers and in the majority of cases those charnel chapels built below churches were located under existing chapels within the church.

As they were intrinsically connected to pre-Reformation Catholic religion and theology, when the Reformation and its aftermath took place from the early 16th century, they were destroyed, emptied or re-used for secular purposes.  This is why their location, purpose or very existence is not known about, because the reverence of bones and the role of ossuaries/charnel chapels in society and faith was ceased, according to the new prevailing religion.  Due to this deliberate eradication of the physical structures and the inherent religious ideology, their original role and usage has been forgotten or misunderstood.

AA: Wow.  It sounds like your research has already discovered some things that may change how we think about this period of history – especially in England.  I can’t wait to hear more!  Will you come back once you’ve sussed out those bag reburials and other unusual practices to tell us more about them?

JC: Absolutely, I’d love to!  The medieval period in England is an extensively researched area of archaeology, yet there is clearly a large aspect of it that has basically gone unnoticed.  I guess that’s a reflection on the success of the Reformers at the Reformation.  The obligatory religious changes they imposed were so forceful that they have influenced our current understanding of England’s pre-Reformation medieval past.  The opinions we as archaeologists and the general public have regarding medieval religious ideology have essentially been shaped by Reformers acting nearly 500 years ago.  It’s only by questioning the established ‘facts’ and what we think we know, that the reality of medieval funerary practises can be recognised and understood.  It’s daunting, but I think it’s important, both to the discipline and to the medieval dead, that the reality of their post-depositional reverential practises are researched and recognised.

AA:  It’s been great having you here at Penny University.  Thanks so much for taking the time to tell us about your research.

JC: Thanks for listening/reading!

Jennifer Crangle is a PhD Candidate at the University of Sheffield.  Her PhD project is focussed on the post-depositional disturbances that occurred during the English medieval period.  If you’re interested in learning more about Jennifer and her research, you can actually visit a medieval ossuary, as described above.  Jennifer is organising /co-ordinating an open day at Rothwell Holy Trinity Church, Northamptonshire on 10th August.  It’s free to attend and includes crypt and ossuary tours by Jennifer, osteological sessions for children and adults, plus evening lectures on the subject of medieval post-depostional practises.  Further details can be obtained by emailing Jennifer directly; updates will also be posted on this Facebook group and the University of Sheffield Department of Archaeology website.

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One thought on “Raising the Medieval Dead (Not a Zombie Thing)

  1. Pingback: Rothwell Open Day | Deathsplanation

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