Over a decade ago, we brought you the story of York’s ‘lost’ All Saints Church, where, between 2007 and 2008, excavations by On-Site Archeology uncovered not only the remains of the building, but also the burials of more than 650 people (see CA 245). Among these was an unusual tomb within the church’s apse (the curved space behind the high altar), which contained the remains of a woman who had been buried in a highly crouched position. Burial in such a prestigious part of the church would have been reserved for wealthy benefactors and important members of the religious community, and it was suggested that the woman may have been Lady Isabel German, an anchor known to have lived on All Saints in the 18th century. XV. century.
Anchorites (and, if male, anchorites) were religious recluses, usually of high social status, who chose to be locked up in a cell so they could spend the rest of their lives in prayer and contemplation. During the late medieval period, it was particularly popular with pious lay women, for whom it represented an alternative to marriage and becoming the property of her husband. Instead, becoming a ‘living saint’ gave them a degree of autonomy over their life, even if that life was restricted to the confines of their cell, and important status within their community.
Dr Lauren McIntyre of Oxford Archeology has carried out an osteoarchaeological analysis of the skeletons from All Saints (now held by the University of Sheffield, of which she is an alumnus), including that of the possible anchor. Now, a recently published article in Medieval Archeology (see ‘Further Reading’ at the end) establishes new insights into the woman’s life, bringing together Lauren’s osteoarchaeological and historical research, as well as information from radiocarbon dating and isotope analysis.
A biography of bones
Although most of the woman’s skull was missing (apart from the lower jaw) due to her grave having been truncated by a later infant burial, most of her skeleton was well preserved, revealing signs that she had suffered from septic arthritis and probably osteoporosis. during her lifetime. However, some of her remains bear even more distinctive signs of ill health, proving a widespread infection that Lauren suggests could have been venereal syphilis. The most characteristic signs of this disease affect her skull, but Lauren has identified gummy lesions, another diagnostic symptom, on the bones of the woman’s chest and shoulders, both arms, pelvis, legs, and feet.
Gummy lesions form when a bone and surrounding soft tissue are so infected that they need to create a hole for the pus to drain out, but, because of how syphilis works, that bone is simultaneously destroyed and remodeled, creating these lesions. characteristics,’ Lauren said. They would have been highly visible as large open sores on the woman’s body.
It’s possible that this disease, rather than aging, was also responsible for the woman’s arthritis, Lauren added; Septic arthritis can be caused by an infection of the joints, although this is still a “best guess” since it leaves fairly widespread marks on the bones. However, the woman was not old when she died: evaluation of her skeleton suggests she was between 30 and 50 years old, although it is difficult to be more exact since the key parts of her remains that would help establish her age are so affected by the injuries
Analysis of isotopes, chemical signatures preserved within the woman’s bones and teeth, has shed more light on earlier periods of her life. He was not born in the Vale of York, but seems to have grown up in the North West or North East of England, or possibly on the Welsh border, probably in a rural area, as his lead isotopes indicate that his early years were spent in a less polluted place. We can also say that, in her childhood, the All Saints woman ate only terrestrial meat, which could suggest that she lived somewhere far inland. However, this changed in adulthood, when fish figured much more prominently in their meals, something that could reflect a change in location, or perhaps greater piety, as such a diet would be in accordance with the rules of medieval religious fasting.
As for Lady Isabella, we do not know where she came from, nor the date of her birth or death; in fact very little is known except that it was an anchor associated with All Saints Church, and that it was active in at least between 1428 and 1455, as seven testaments from this period mention it by name, in legacies from those who hoped to benefit from their prayers.
Radiocarbon dating of the All Saints woman yielded a fairly wide range (albeit one that overlaps with when Lady Elizabeth was alive), placing the burial at 1443-1632 AD However, it seems likely that she was buried in the lower part of the world. earlier of this rank, as the church is not believed to have survived long after Whitby Abbey (to which it belonged) was suppressed in 1539, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
While we still can’t say for sure that the Todos los Santos woman is Lady Isabel, the location of her burial within such a prestigious part of the church indicates that she was someone special within her community and, if this is the skeleton of the anchor , we now have a host of new details about a woman’s life preserved only in fragments of historical records. Furthermore, if we can attribute the remains to someone known to have lived in the early to mid-15th century, this represents an important addition to our understanding of medieval syphilis. It has long been debated whether the disease was brought to Europe from the “New World” after Columbus’ voyage of 1492, or whether it was already present. However, as archaeological research progresses, the emerging picture is that syphilis was already in Europe before Columbus, with other early examples including skeletons from London’s Spitalfields Cemetery (CA 270).
If Lady Isabel had syphilis, how might this have affected contemporary perceptions of her? As Lauren points out, although the presenter “lived in a period in history where we tend to think of a strong association between visible, disfiguring disease and sin, with that kind of suffering seen as God’s punishment…a Such a serious illness could also have been viewed positively, being sent by God to bestow martyr status on someone special.’
All images: On-Site Archaeology
Lauren McIntyre, Lauren Kancle, Janet Montgomery, Joanna Moore, Darren R Gröcke and Geoff M Nowell (2022) ‘The Host of All Saints? An osteobiography’, Medieval Archeology 66(2): 368-399, https://doi.org/10.1080/00766097.2022.2129682.