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Medieval cemeteries

Find out information about medieval burial sites held by the Centre for Human Bioarchaeology.

Medieval period summary (c.1066 to 1547)

The medieval period in Britain covers a broad period of history, and is at times divided into an early and late period. In terms of the burial practice followed in the medieval period, it was the establishment of Christianity in the seventh and eighth centuries that was a defining factor (Welch 1992, 132).

The medieval period encompassed a time from the Norman Conquest until the Reformation. It was a period that at times had profound consequences on the people and population. The population increased; there was development of urban centres and the introduction of diseases, including leprosy and the Black Death, that had major impacts upon the population and society (Roberts and Cox 2003 and Gilchrist and Sloane 2005).

The medieval period overall was not a period of complex burial practices and the majority of individuals, whether lay or monastic, were buried following a standard Christian burial of inhumation. Those interred were either placed in a shroud or a coffin and were generally placed supine and extended in an east-west alignment (Roberts and Cox 2003, 222).

Christian burials in most instances are found not to contain grave goods. However, variations do occur and this is an area still debated, with suggestions linked to social hierarchy and trading links (Arnold 1982, 213).

The status of an individual meant they could be buried intramurally as opposed to an extramural burial in the parish church ground. Funereal furnishings of the nobility also varied, with some being buried in coffins made not only of wood but stone and lead, and with additions within the coffin itself such as stone pillows or charcoal (Roberts and Cox 2003, 222).

Exceptions to these standard single inhumations did occur, with the most apparent in catastrophe sites, identified from mass graves of battle sites and epidemics such as the Black Death. Here large pits or trenches were used for burial.

The continued practice of inhumation, the long-term use of burials grounds and reuse of burial spaces resulted in numerous burials being truncated, and in some instances the virtual removal and loss of earlier medieval burials. One method of dealing with such continual use and the need for making way for new burials was the formation of charnel deposits often found in church crypts (Roberts and Cox 2003, 222).

Download osteological data from medieval cemeteries.

Cemeteries dated to the medieval period: