Human Remains from Medieval Denmark Show City Life Was Bad to the Bone

by Chris Saunders

decorative image: crowd, city life
[Living in crowded cities can cause severe health complications. Photo by Luca Vavassori on Unsplash]

Studies of skeletal remains from the Black Friars Cemetery in Medieval Denmark shows a decrease in health in the population as poorer individuals move into the city.

KEYWORDS: Urbanism, Bioarchaeology, Medieval, Denmark, Malnutrition

Although urban lifestyles in Medieval Denmark provided the benefits of safety and employment, Dr. Amy Scott and her research team discovered that the hidden dangers of malnutrition outweighed those benefits.

Scott observed indicators of stress caused by switching to an urban lifestyle on the skeletal remains in the Black Friars Cemetery. Located in Odense, Denmark on the island of Fyn, the Black Friars Cemetery was used from roughly 1300 to 1600. This time frame covers most of the Medieval and post-Medieval period in Europe, where the cemetery amassed over 660 to 710 individuals buried.

Large data sets are rare in archaeology, therefore the Black Friars Cemetery is unique in its utility in comparing a variety of lifestyles. “This large assemblage represents a sizable portion of this once living population,” Scott said. “Having large datasets better supports our ability to make accurate assessments of these unique human groups.”

One of the major lifestyle changes Scott observed was a large migration from rural environments into the city. Individuals buried in Black Friars during the Medieval period were very wealthy and could afford healthier lifestyles. War and decreased crop yields in rural areas forced people to find alternative ways of life in the city. People buried after the Medieval period were usually from a much poorer class, who moved into the city to find work.

The transition to city life caused many more health problems for immigrants. Health stresses, especially malnourishment, leave distinct traces on the skeleton after an individual dies. This is specifically true for anemia, or body deficiencies in iron. If severe enough, anemia creates large, painful pores on the back of the skull and in the eye sockets. These pores remain visible after death.

image of anemia in top of eye socket.
[Anemia can appear in the top of the eye socket, causing painful lesions. (Z. Schierová).]

Skeletal lesions allow archaeologists to understand the lives of past individuals by examining their diets, nutrition, and extreme cases of disease.

Scott examined the remains of 203 individuals buried in the cemetery. By observing the pores in the skull, she was able to note how many individuals had anemia and how severe it was. The relative time of death and socioeconomic status of individuals in the cemetery, whether Medieval or Post-Medieval, was identified by looking at the location of the body in relation to the church. Older, wealthier individuals were buried closer to the church in the more desirable lots. The data Scott collected shows an increase in the prevalence of anemia on bones as Denmark transitioned into a more u­rbanized country.

Scott hopes her research will help to identify similar stresses in the archaeological record across the globe. “Indicators of stress pop up everywhere,” she said, “these indicators aren’t particularly unique, sensational, or draw much attention, but there is a commonality about them that connects so many of these skeletal populations regardless of geographic or temporal distance.” People continue to flock toward cities today and bioarchaeological studies of past populations like the Black Friars Cemetery can help us learn about the stresses urban environments cause and to adapt to changing lifestyles.


Scheirová Z. 2016. Cribra orbitalia. Photograph.

Scott A, & Hoppa RD. 2018. The subtleties of stress: A comparative analysis of skeletal lesions between the Medieval and post-Medieval Black Friars cemetery population (13th to 17th centuries). International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 28(6), 695-702.