The medieval monastic cemetery in Britain

Requiem publicationThis four year project was carried out by Professor Roberta Gilchrist and Barney Sloane (now English Heritage) as a research collaboration between the University of Reading and the Museum of London. It was funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and published with a grant from English Heritage. The research has been published in a major monograph: Requiem: the Medieval Monastic Cemetery in Britain (Museum of London Archaeology Service Monograph, 2005. ISBN 1-901992-59-4). Recently the project has been chosen as an example of good practice to mark an  AHRC/EH Concordat

Requiem was winner of the British Archaeological Award for the Best Scholarly Publication of 2004-6 and can be purchased through Oxbow Books. The book is complemented by a fully accessible, web-mounted database archived with the Archaeology Data Service.

Through comprehensive study of excavated monastic cemeteries, this project has challenged previous assumptions surrounding medieval burial. Some 8000 graves have been analyzed from 70 cemeteries in >England and Scotland>, focusing principally on medieval religious houses (c. 1000 CE to c. 1600), with comparative evidence drawn from cathedrals, parish churches and Jewish cemeteries.

Some themes arising from the project are introduced in an article in British Archaeology, Sept/Oct 2005, 'Requiem for a Lost Age'

This study offers an innovative reassessment based on a multi-disciplinary framework: medieval visual and written sources are used to identify the distinct temporal and spatial contexts of medieval death. This approach emphasizes the sequential nature of medieval death from the preparation of the body, through to the construction of the grave, and the performance of commemorative rites after the burial. Archaeological evidence is analyzed to consider spatial, regional and chronological trends, from the level of landscape down to the treatment of individual bodies.

Rings excavated from graves at St Mary Spital

By highlighting the sequence of events connected with burial, this project places new emphasis on the significance of social identity, the agency of mourners, and the role of the family and community in medieval burial rituals. This close empirical study prompts greater attention to the recording and analysis of coffin and grave fills, and stimulates consideration of burial as a form of popular religious practice. For the first time, it has been possible to explore medieval burial as a means of private and communal belief that was expressed both diversely and intimately.

To further develop this research, the authors are planning to develop a European network of researchers to produce a comparative volume on later medieval burial practices across Europe.

 

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