The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

Medieval monastic mortality: hazard analysis of mortality differences between monastic and non-monastic cemeteries in England


Anthropology, University of South Carolina

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Scholarship on life in medieval European monasteries has revealed a variety of health and dietary patterns that potentially affected mortality in these communities. These findings include temporal improvements in diet, such that the quality of monastic diets approached that of elites, and, contradictorily, evidence that standards of living within monasteries did not differ greatly from those of peasants. Further, some researchers have hypothesized that there were elevated risks of morbidity among monastery inhabitants resulting from their duties ministering to the sick and thus potentially heightened risk of exposure to infectious diseases. Missing from the literature is an explicit examination of the risks of mortality within medieval monastic settings and how those risks differed from those within contemporaneous lay populations. This study examines differences in mortality between monastic cemeteries (n = 528) and non-monastic cemeteries (n= 204) from London, all of which date to between AD 1050 – 1540. Given the relatively small number of children and females present in the monastic cemeteries, analysis is restricted to adult males. Age-at-death data from all cemeteries are pooled to estimate the Gompertz-Makeham hazard of mortality, and “monastic” (i.e. buried in a monastic cemetery) is modeled as a covariate affecting this baseline hazard. The estimated effect of the monastic covariate is negative, suggesting that individuals in the monastic communities faced reduced risks of dying compared to their peers in the lay communities. These results might indicate better diets within the monastic setting or recruitment of monks from wealthier and thus potentially healthier subpopulations.

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