London and its medieval black plague cemetery, a “treasure” in the middle of the city

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A site in the center of the British capital has provided abundant data on the virus that swept through the site in the 14th century. This they discovered.

Pandemics, unfortunately, often bring undesirable emergency solutions. It was the case, with the Covid-19, of the improvised morgue in the Palacio de Hielo in Madrid. In the last months of March and April it went from being a recreational facility to housing more than a thousand coffins awaiting burial or cremation. Also heavily punished, New York contemplated coffins buried en masse as an urgent measure on Hart’s Island, within sight of the mid-Bronx. London, also overwhelmed this fateful 2020, had suffered a similar situation in the final stretch of the Middle Ages.

Nearly seven centuries ago, in the mid-fourteenth century, the Black Death swept through the Old World population. Asia and Africa lost around 40 million human lives. Europe, some 25 million, or one in three inhabitants, between 1346 and 1353. Despite its insularity, Great Britain was not spared this slaughter fulminant.

Active since the previous year on mainland lands, the plague jumped to the south coast of England in the summer of 1348. By November I was already out in London, the most crowded city in the kingdom and in northern Europe. The infections there escalated to massive levels that Christmas. The spring of the following year marked the peak, in April, before the mass infection subsided into the summer. There were intense outbreaks, however, until the spring of 1350. And then others, although they were less virulent.

Perhaps a third of Londoners died during this bacterial massacre. The capital, which around the year 1300 had reached 80,000 residents, came to bury about 25,000. This in the downward estimates. Other studies put fatalities at even half the total population or up to two thirds. The fact is that, during the paroxysm of the tragedy, London woke up every day with about two hundred corpses to bury.

There were so many and so incessant that the church cemeteries could not cope. The available space was insufficient. Hence, the highest competent authorities, the King Edward III and the Bishop of London, will mobilize resources to quickly open two new cemeteries. The first, in East Smithfield.

This area was chosen because it is close to, but at the same time secluded, from the congested center of the late medieval city. Also, like the burial grounds that would follow it at the other end of the urban patch (at West Smithfield, now Charterhouse Square), East Smithfield was still a rural area. Clear, airy, sparsely populated. And, very important to speed up its use, the chosen plot did not belong to anyone.

It was located south of Aldgate, the eastern gate of the metropolitan precinct, as well as east of the Tower of London. The latter incorporated among its dependencies, since the 9th century, the mint. The mint, in Victorian times, operated in a complex near the tower that China bought in 2018 to be its new embassy in the United Kingdom. It has been the neighborhood of East Smithfield with these royal money factories that is sometimes called or added to the cemetery the name Royal Mint.

Inaugurated at the end of 1348 or at the beginning of the following year, people were exclusively buried there for a few months. annihilated by the black plague. This specific use of the cemetery, the abundance of the remains it contains and the fact that it is the first and largest in England caused by the devastating epidemic have made the East Smithfield Royal Mint a valuable source of information archeology on the medieval plague.

It is estimated that some 2,400 victims of the pandemic, none buried after the year 1350. That date marked the integration of the site into a new abbey, Santa María de la Gracia, which was the last foundation and the only urban one of the Cistercian order in Great Britain until its demolition two centuries later, around 1544.

This accumulation of circumstances makes East Smithfield a kind of time capsule on the plague. It is an incomparable object of study for various archeology specialties. Subdisciplines such as paleopathology, bioarchaeology, and funeral archeology They find there a large sample of human remains where they can investigate traces of the pandemic.

These relics themselves, their manner of burial, and the grave goods provide information of the utmost importance. And even more so when, thanks to urban archeology, zooarchaeology, geoarcheology, archaeological dating and other aspects, these data can be crossed with others to obtain a complete and detailed picture, with multiple perspectives, of the bubonic plague.

All of this is useful as a reference for other pandemics, including the ongoing coronavirus. For example, when comparing information from the medieval cemetery and other sources, it has been possible to evaluate the relationship of widespread contagion from the fourteenth century with different age ranges, housing conditions, demographic densities and food qualities. The current resonances are obvious.

East Smithfield began lavishing its crucial data in 1986. It was when business professionals Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) rediscovered and began excavating the cemetery at Royal Mint Court, the property acquired by Beijing. Over two years, these field works have already allowed valuable conclusions to be drawn about the structure of the site and the global number of bodies buried there. They also credited, when finding mass graves overflowing, the degree of urgency and despair with which those corpses were buried.

Two decades later, laboratory studies yielded new results on the bacterial scourge. In 2007 it was confirmed that the deceased had been buried without exception between 1348 and 1350. It was also observed that the plague had not been primed with the population according to age. Although this could not be determined for one in four individuals due to the fragmentary state of their skeletons, it was clear that the plague it equally swept among children and adolescents (almost 28% of bodies) than among young people, adults and the elderly (the remaining 72%).

Even more unexpected was finding a physical link between the “black death” and a historical calamity. anterior. Three decades before the pandemic, the Great famine from 1315 to 1317, which ravaged northern Europe due to a series of poor harvests, marked numerous victims of the plague.

Researchers noted enamel and bone disorders (hypoplasia, osteophytosis, Schmorl’s node) in many East Smithfield corpses. They were those of those Londoners in their thirties or forties during the Yersinia pestis outbreak. In other words, adults who suffered nutritional deficiencies in childhood, during the wheat shortage.

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