Victoria Mueller

The end of the world? Famine, plague and climate change in 14th century London

Supervisors (internal): Janet Montgomery and Julia Lee-Thorp
Supervisor (external): Bill White 1944-2010. (Museum of London)
Funding: AHRC Collaborative Award (with the Museum of London)

The end of the world? This is the question medieval scholars and peasants alike must have posed themselves during the first half of the 14th century. Extreme anomalous weather coupled with intermittent warfare and other by-factors caused famine so severe that contemporary chroniclers reported cases of cannibalism. The resulting sharp increase in mortality rates and social breakdown lead many to believe the apocalypse was at hand. The individuals excavated from the Royal Mint site at East Smithfield, Tower Hamlets in London survived this, arguably one of the worst periods in English history, only to succumb to the “Black Death”, ravaging Europe in AD 1348/9. The cemetery was established in the latter of these years, with 634 individuals buried first in single graves and then as death tolls rose in mass burial trenches (Hawkins 1990).

The site represents a unique opportunity since all individuals, of different ages and sexes, died during a shortly defined period of time, providing a temporal resolution extremely rare at archaeological sites, particularly those of the medieval period where burials may often span hundreds of years. Thus, the Royal Mint cemetery offers the chance to reconstruct individual “life histories” with high-resolution incremental stable isotope analysis of teeth and bone and investigate how episodic or sustained periods of dietary stress and significant climatic shifts are reflected in the isotopic profiles. In addition to this, records from individuals of different ages will be combined to form a temporal sequence of diet and environmental conditions spanning the first half of the 14th century. This data will be compared to other records of short-tem climate change such as dendroclimatology and historical documentation.


Last Updated:06 July 2012