Social Structures and Activities in Medieval England as Discovered by Burial Analysis

Human remains have been able to give archaeologists key clues as to how humans lived in the past. Studies performed around the conditions of human skeletons as well as where and with what these skeletons were buried have provided information used to discern what social structures, nutritional factors, causes of death, activities, and so many more factors of everyday life were like (Renfrew and Bahn 2018, 47, 51-60). A prime example of burial analysis giving context into the health and societal structures of times long past is a recent study performed by the University of Cambridge, England. 

In this study, scientists and archaeologists unearthed the burial grounds of a medieval friary located under the University of Cambridge, analyzing nineteen skeletons (Figure 1) dating mostly from the 13th and 14th centuries. From the late 13th century until the middle of the 16th century, the Augustinian friary was a place of academic study and living for clergymen, much more sanitary than the average Cambridge street crowded with peasants (Davis 2022). 

Figure 1. Archaeologists excavate and examine the skeletons of Cambridge monks, Cambridge, England. Photograph by University of Cambridge Archaeological Unit.

Many of the researchers originally believed that due to their drastically improved sanitation, those living within the friary’s walls would be much less likely to contract parasites, which were a frequently cited problem in medieval medical records and diaries due to (what we now know to be) poor living conditions (Figure 2). Out of the nineteen bodies analyzed, at least eleven had the remains of intestinal worms present, which would have been living in the monks’ systems as they were still living. Meanwhile, out of twenty five peasant bodies analyzed from a nearby cemetery, only eight contained parasites (Handwerk 2022). Thirty percent of medieval Cambridge citizens suffered from parasites (Handwerk 2022), a statistic which did not surprise the researchers. However, the evidence provided by the dig revealed that nearly twice as many monks died with parasites in their systems than peasants in the area (Davis 2022), puzzling scientists and archaeologists as to how this could have occurred. 

Figure 2. Reconstructive drawing of a medieval peasant house, highlighting lack of sanitation. Image by Pat Hughes, retrieved from Current Archaeology 2013.

After much study into the habits of these monks compared to the routines and diets outside of the private friary’s walls, researchers theorized that the monks often handled fertilizer they created from human waste to spread in their gardens, which we now know leads to a much higher risk of spreading parasites. Dr. Piers Mitchell, co-author of the study, summarized their findings by saying “What we learn about the past is that just because you’re wealthier doesn’t mean to say you’re healthier” (Davis 2022). 

This study brings into context how archaeology can reveal an amazing amount of information about the social structures and health habits of people living centuries ago. Through analyzing something as minute as whether these corpses contained parasites while they were living, archeologists and scientists were able to make new discoveries about possible practices within everyday life in different societal groups of medieval Cambridge. Archaeological study of burial sites truly is instrumental in discovering what humans’ lives in our planet’s past were really like.

Further Reading: 

Standards of Living in the Middle Ages – Ian Dawson 

The Daily Life of Medieval Monks – Mark Cartwright 


Current Archaeology. 2013. “Peasant Houses in Midland England: How the Black Death Prompted A Building Boom.” Current Archaeology, May 2. (Retrieved from

Davis, Nicola. 2022. “DIY Fertiliser May Be Behind Monks’ Parasite Torment, Say Archaeologists.” The Guardian, August 19. (Retrieved from 

Handwerk, Brian. 2022. “Why Were Medieval Monks So Susceptible to Intestinal Worms?” Smithsonian Magazine, August 18. (Retrieved from

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. 2018. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, and Practice. Fourth ed. London: Thames & Hudson. pp. 47, 51-60. 

2 thoughts on “Social Structures and Activities in Medieval England as Discovered by Burial Analysis

  1. How are parasites identified in the archaeological record? Are we able to tell which species they were or how they spread, and how does that aid in interpretation of the archaeological findings?

    • Intestinal worms are easily identified within the archaeological record due to the eggs’ durability, and are specifically known as parasites that often spread through contact with human waste. This helped lead to the theorizing about fertilizer causing this spread of parasites, as it was able to put in context how the monks completed a chore they were previously known to have done.

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