Dark Side of Medieval Convent Life Revealed

Burials recovered at the site of a Medieval convent reveal a nun's life wasn't so idyllic.

British archaeologists excavating a church site in Oxford have brought to light the darker side of medieval convent life, revealing skeletons of nuns who died in disgrace after being accused of immoral behavior.

Discovered ahead of the construction of a new hotel, the burial ground stretches around what used to be Littlemore Priory, a nunnery founded in 1110 and dissolved in 1525.

Archaeologists led by Paul Murray, of John Moore Heritage Services, found 92 skeletons of women, men and children.

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"Burials within the church are likely to represent wealthy or eminent individuals, nuns and prioresses," Murray said in a statement.

"Those buried outside most likely represent the laity and a general desire to be buried as close to the religious heart of the church as possible," he added.

Females made up the majority of the burials, at 35, with males accounting for 28; it was impossible to determine the gender of the remaining 29.

Among the burials, the archaeologists unearthed a female aged 45 or more who was likely one of the 20 women who held the position of prioress throughout the history of the priory.

She was interred at the exact center of the crossing in a well constructed stone coffin, with a head niche.

Some skeletons showed signs of debilitating ailments, such as two children who suffered from developmental dysplasia of the hip.

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"This would have a resulted in reduced length of the leg and therefore a severe limp and perhaps needing the use of a crutch," Murray said.

A single burial possibly had leprosy, while another skeleton showed signs of a blunt force trauma to the skull, likely the cause of death.

Other unusual burials included a stillborn baby in a well-made casket, and a woman buried in a face down position.

"This was perhaps a penitential act to atone for her sins," Murray said.

The woman may have been one of the sinner nuns Cardinal Wolsey accused of immoral behavior when he closed down the nunnery.

Indeed, the last prioress, Katherine Wells (1507 and 1518) was deposed of the position as punishment for a number of misdeeds, such as giving birth to an illegitimate child fathered by a priest from Kent, and stealing things belonging to the monastery - pots, pens and candlesticks, etc. - to provide a dowry for her daughter.

According to accounts taken after bishop Atwater's visitation in 1517 an 1518, another nun had an illegitimate child by a married man of Oxford.

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Life at the nunnery could be severe, records show, with the prioress often putting the nuns into the stocks and beating them "with fists and feet."

When in 1518, the bishop visited the nunnery again, the prioress complained that one of the nuns "played and romped" with boys in the cloister and refused to be corrected.

The story goes that when the nun was put in the stocks she was rescued by three other nuns who broke down the door, burnt the stocks and broke a window to escape to friends where they remained for two or three weeks.

Wells appears to have regained her position later in 1518 as no other prioresses are recorded after this date. It is likely she remained at the priory for a further seven years until its dissolution in 1525.

According to Murray, the bishop reports are certainly tainted to at least some degree and were used to justify Cardinal Wolsey's desire to dissolve the nunnery and use its revenues to fund Cardinal's College, now Christ Church, traditionally considered one of Oxford's most aristocratic colleges.

"The complaints made about the nuns when they ‘played and romped' with boys in the cloister and their refusal to be corrected, perhaps reveals something about the nuns caring nature and an element of free spirit," he added.

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Evidence for the caring, nursing element of the priory is also provided by the remains of the children with debilitating illnesses and the leprosy sufferer.

"They were not just nuns, but business women, educators, care givers and mothers. They coped as best they could with the trials of daily life, although one could imagine they found time to enjoy it too," Murray said.

Turned into a farmhouse after the nunnery's dissolution, the priory might be incorporated into the new hotel as a restaurant.

Researchers at Reading University are now undertaking isotope analysis to learn more about the origin and diet of the people buried in the church.

The skeletal remains will eventually be reburied on consecrated ground.

The skeleton of a sinner woman buried in face down. Her lower legs had been truncated by a later burial of an infant.

Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of hundreds of medieval scholars, all fallen upon hard times, on the site what is now a Cambridge College.

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Containing more than 1,000 people, the large graveyard was discovered three years ago beneath the Old Divinity School at St John's College during refurbishment of the Victorian building. Details of the finding have only now been made public.

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The archaeologists uncovered 400 perfectly preserved human skeletons, along with the disarticulated and fragmentary remains of up to 1,000 more individuals. "It's one of the largest medieval hospital osteoarcheological assemblages from the British Isles," dig director Craig Cessford, from the university’s department of archaeology and anthropology, said.

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Mostly dating from the 13th to 15th centuries, the remains lay in burials belonging to the Hospital of St John the Evangelist. The building, from which St John's College takes its name, stood opposite the graveyard until 1511 and was established to care for "poor scholars and other wretched persons." Pregnant women, lepers, the wounded, cripples and the insane were all specifically excluded from its care.

People were laid to rest without coffins, and even without shrouds, confirming the cemetery was mainly for the poor. Jewellery and personal items, including a crucifix, were only present in a handful of burials. "Items were found in graves that might represent grave-goods, but their positions were ambiguous and it is equally possible that they represent residual material from earlier activity at the site," Cessford said.

Some of the skeletons also did not fit their graves. Here is shown a skeleton found in a grave which was too large for the body. "This suggests that some, but not all of the graves may have been dug in advance of being needed," Cessford wrote in the Archaeological Journal. "One possibility is that this occurred prior to the winter, when ground conditions would have potentially made digging graves considerably more difficult," he added.

Anthropological examinations of the remains that could be identified revealed there was a roughly equal gender balance, with the majority of individuals having died between around 25 and 45 years old. The archaeologists also noted the complete absence of infants, normally expected in a medieval hospital. No evidence of the Black Death was found among the remains. Most of the skeletons did not show signs of serious illnesses and conditions that would have required medical attention.

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