VUB researchers go in search of medieval inhabitants of Ypres

VUB researchers go in search of medieval inhabitants of Ypres

Unique research into skeletons from the 13th century aims to determine health status, origin and lifestyle

A multidisciplinary team of researchers from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel wants to use skeletons from the cemetery of the medieval parish of Saint Nicolas in Ypres to investigate who populated the city, what they ate and what their health was like. The cemetery was excavated in 2018 and more than 1,200 graves were uncovered. For their project, The Make-Up of the City: A Transdisciplinary Study of Urban Society in the Pre-Modern Low Countries, they want to scrutinise a selection of the site’s best-preserved skeletons.

“Scientific analysis of the skeletal material from the Saint Nicholas parish in Ypres can remedy this. Knowing that World War I in Ypres wiped out almost everything above the ground in Ypres, the impact on the cemetery underground turns out to be surprisingly limited,” says the promoter of the project, VUB professor of late medieval history Bart Lambert. The cemetery was used from the 13th to the 17th century and several of the skeletons date from when the cemetery was first in use. “That’s a very important and interesting fact for us,” says Lambert. “The 13th century is precisely the period in which Ypres, as a city, experienced its greatest development.”

In the Middle Ages, the Low Countries, along with parts of Italy, were among the most urbanised areas in Europe. Urban centres in these regions developed earlier and were generally larger than elsewhere. Moreover, medieval Ypres was an industrial giant, a producer of cloth that was exported to all parts of Europe. Historical sources provide a lot of information about these cities but usually tell us little about what their urban population looked like and how they lived. In Ypres, most of those sources were also destroyed during World War I. 

The research will focus on about 500 skeletons from the earliest burial period, which are relatively well preserved. The team will find out what the people of Ypres ate and where they came from. 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 region. Over time, this isotope ratio can also be found in the skeleton. By analysing the ratio of strontium, nitrogen, oxygen and carbon isotopes, scientists can see not only what was on the menu in13th and 14th-century Ypres, but also where its inhabitants came from. To get an overview of the general state of health of the people of Ypres, the skeletons are also being examined for diseases: many of these pathologies leave lasting traces on human bone tissue.

“By combining these different approaches, we will obtain invaluable information about the medieval urban population,” says Lambert. “For example, we can establish the link between social factors, such as a person’s socio-economic background, and his or her state of health, something that is also very relevant nowadays.”

The project is a collaboration between the VUB research groups Historical Research into Urban Transformation Processes (HOST), the Maritime Cultures Research Institute (MARI), Analytical, Environmental & Geo-Chemistry (AMGC) and Anatomical Research and Clinical Studies (ARCS).

Partners are the Yper Museum, heritage cell CO7 and the Agency for Immovable Heritage (Flanders), which keeps the skeletons in its depot in Vilvoorde.



Bart Lambert

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