Medieval Bodies Found Underneath St. John’s College in Cambridge

Cambridge skeletonsBetween 2010 and 2012, archaeologists dug beneath the Old Divinity School at the University of Cambridge’s St. John’s College while the building was being refurbished. What they found were bones, bones, bones.

Eric Koch attended the College from 1937–1940.

While the existence and location of the cemetery have been known to historians since at least the mid-twentieth century, the sheer scale and extent of the burial ground was unclear until now.

The bodies, which mostly date from a period spanning the 13th to 15th centuries, are burials from the medieval Hospital of St. John the Evangelist, which stood opposite the graveyard until 1511, and from which St. John’s College takes its name.

The idea of a medieval hospital is funny, because what did doctors really have to do when there was no such thing as science? We’re talking about a “hospital” that closed 176 years before Newton published the theory of gravity. A better name for that hospital would have been “future corpse intake warehouse.”

Source: Slate Magazine, April 4

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5 responses to “Medieval Bodies Found Underneath St. John’s College in Cambridge

  1. a cheery thought on a cloudy morning . . .

  2. If you were poor and friendless in the Middle Ages, you were likely to spend your dying hours in a ditch by the side of the road or in some fetid urban gutter — unless of course you were lucky enough to be taken into a ‘hospital’. The word ‘hospital’ is related to the words ‘hostel’, ‘hospice’ and ‘hospitality’. A hospital was meant to a place where very sick people could find a bed, decent food and perhaps a little kindness. To suppose that those who worked in medieval hospitals expected to cure people is anachronistic. They didn’t. That was God’s (or nature’s) work. Nevertheless, the benefactors who set up St John’s Hospital, Cambridge, and those who spent their lives attending to the dying there deserve our praise.

  3. A very timely post as an Ottawa court begins its inquiry into where the bodies are buried. How appropriate also to speak of a “future corpse intake warehouse” with the doings of the Red Chamber front and centre.

  4. Fred Langan

    I think Slate is wrong. Doctors could do some good. They could mend bones and some of their medicines would have worked. Aspirin is derived from a plant, I can’t remember which one and I leave the googling to our august community.

  5. Elisabeth Ecker

    Did we not just now find the recipe for an antibiotic in an ancient medical book? Considering the death rate from modern prescribed medication, i wonder whether we would not be wise to look to some old medical books for some very good medical advice.