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Skeletons hold the key to Ypres' medieval population
The town of Ypres was a major cloth producer in the middle ages, but we know very little about the people who put it on the map. Studying around 500 skeletons recently unearthed from a medieval cemetery could help us learn more.
“In the 12th and 13th centuries Ypres was an economic powerhouse, one of the most important cloth producing centres in Europe,” says Bart Lambert, professor of late medieval history at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). “You see references to cloth from Ypres being sold in historical records from southern Europe, from England and even as far away as Russia.”
Ypres was not alone. Cities in the Low Countries developed earlier and became bigger than those elsewhere in Europe, with the possible exception of Italy. But despite their historical importance, there are fundamental questions about these cities that we find hard to answer.
Who were the people living in them? Where did they come from, if not from the immediate locality? How many men and how many women were there? How well did the people live, and how did they die?
“If you think of a city as a group of people living and working together, rather than a collection of streets and buildings, or a set of institutions, do we really know what an urban centre is in this period?” Lambert asks.
The problem is that the documentary record for the medieval Low Countries is both fragmentary and difficult to interpret. And when it comes to Ypres, there is an additional difficulty. “The city archives went up in flames in the First World War, and hardly anything is left.”
Sint-Niklaas church and cemetery (detail 19th-century copy of 16th-century map by Jan Thevelin ©Yper Museum
One way out of this impasse is to look at the physical evidence of the medieval population, assuming it left something behind to study. Once again, Ypres seemed short on possibilities, until a routine excavation began in the summer of 2018, on a piece of land scheduled for redevelopment.
“People knew that the parish cemetery of Sint-Niklaas used to be there, but no-one expected to find that much,” Lambert recalls. He was not involved in the dig, but followed its progress closely in the press.
“First they found 50 skeletons, which was already spectacular. Then it became 200, then 400, then 800, and finally more than 1,200. Even in a European context, that’s enormous.”
Reading the bones
The cemetery was in use from the 13th to the early 17th century, but the layers of earth in which the bones were found suggest that most of the bodies date from the earliest period. “That’s very good for us,” says Lambert, “because that is when the city experienced its strongest growth.”
It may even be possible to narrow this date down even further. “Around 250 to 300 of the bodies were buried in oak coffins, which can be dated quite precisely by studying the rings in the wood.”
Lambert and his colleagues at VUB have now put together a trans-disciplinary research project to examine some 500 of the best-preserved skeletons, and so build up a picture of the late medieval century population.
The project brings together experts in history, archaeology, geochemistry and anatomy. Also involved are Yper Museum, CO7 heritage group and the Flanders Heritage Agency, which is looking after the skeletons in its Vilvoorde depot.
The hands-on work will be carried out by two PhD students – Veronica Jackson and Rachèl Spros – who will look at the state of the bones and their chemical composition, respectively.
Examining a skeleton closely can tell you the person’s gender and something about their health. “Quite a lot of diseases leave visible traces on the human skeleton, such as tuberculosis, which can affect the spine,” Lambert explains.
It may also be possible to pinpoint trades. “If you use a loom for most of your life, and you sit constantly in the same position, then that leaves traces on the body.”
Chemical analysis, meanwhile, can say something about the person’s habitual diet by looking at the ratio of certain elements present, and variants of the elements called isotopes. “In the course of a human life, the body draws its nutrients from food, which contains chemical elements in a proportion that differs for each foodstuff. Over time, this isotope ratio can also be found in the skeleton.”
Knowing the diet is interesting in itself, but can also give clues to socio-economic status: Different groups are known to have eaten different kinds of food during this period.
Isotope signatures are also specific to geographical regions, and so may show if someone was a migrant to Ypres. “For example, barley from northern France may have a different isotope ratio from barley in southern Spain, and that difference in diet is recorded in the human skeleton.”
The size of the cemetery means that the researchers will be looking at a significant proportion of the city’s 13th-century population. But the location is also significant, since the neighbourhoods in medieval Ypres had a rather strict division between different groups in the population.
“Many of the economic elites lived in the central parishes, around what is now the Cloth Hall and the Cathedral, while many of the cloth workers and the lower entrepreneurs lived in the more peripheral parishes, like Sint-Niklaas. So we think we will really see a lot of that cloth-working population.”
The project will run until the end of 2024, by which time the researchers hope to know much more about these people. “At least for one parish, in one city, we will be able to say what the typical pathologies would have been, what people would have eaten, where they would have come from,” Lambert says.
Then the challenge is to say to what extent that applies to other parts of the city of Ypres, to later periods, and to other places in Flanders. “But I do think it will provide us with an insight we really don’t have at the moment.”
Excavation photos: Sint-Niklaas cemetery, 2018 ©Monument Vandekerckhove