Medieval English “bed burials” were unusual even for the time. Now We Know Why

A rustic carved wooden Medival grave bed

The burial bed at Trossingen, found in Germany. Image credit: © Archäologisches Landesmuseum Baden-Württemberg, Brownlee et al., Medieval Antiquity, 2022

You can tell a lot about a people by the way they treat their dead. Did they see themselves as a body, or a soul, for example? Were women subjugated, seen as fairly equal to men, or tough warriors? Did they see death as the end of an individual – or just his resting place?

In medieval Europe, they took the latter literally: in hundreds of graves across the continent, bodies were buried not in coffins but in beds.

“One interpretation of the bed burial rite is that it was intended to suggest sleep as opposed to death, as well as showing a concern for the comfort of the deceased,” explains Emma Brownlee in a recent article published in the journal Medieval Archeology. The bodies were laid out as if asleep, “lying on their sides, with one or both hands raised to the face”, with what appears to have been bedding.

It is a relatively rare choice of burial, but one that appears consistently over the centuries – the oldest known example comes from late 4th or early 5th century Slovakia, and the most recent, mainly concentrated in Scandinavia, is around 500. years younger.

Most, however, fall somewhere in between, both geographically and chronologically — they date largely to the 6th and 7th centuries and are “relatively evenly distributed across areas of Europe where furnished burial was most common,” the paper notes. ; there seems to be a lot in Germany in particular, but this is probably “a product of exceptional preservation conditions”.

    Typology of buried beds.  (a) Trossingen.  (b) Cologne Cathedral.  (c) Poprad-Matejovce.  (d) Oberflacht 23. (e) Swallowcliffe Down.  (f) Osberg.
“Bed burial” is not just a colorful metaphor. Beds found in (a) Trossingen. (b) Cologne Cathedral. (c) Poprad-Matejovce. (d) Oberflacht 23. (e) Swallowcliffe Down. (f) Osberg. Photography: (a) by M Schreiner © Archäologisches Landesmuseum Baden-Württemberg. Drawings: (b, e, g) by G Speake. (c) by N Lau. (d) by F von Durrich and W Menzel. (b,e,g) © Historic England. Brownlee et al., Medieval Antiquity 2022 CC BY

But it is burials in England that have long intrigued archaeologists. In continental Europe, bed burials are for everyone: men, women, adults and children. In England, it is almost exclusive to adult women. On the mainland, it’s been a practice for hundreds of years; in England it dies out in a single century. Clearly, something was different about the burials in this northwestern archipelago – but what?

According to Brownlee, an archaeological researcher and fellow at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, the answer may be staring us in the face all the time: they are women. Christian women, to be precise.

“Bed burials were something specifically imported by women who were moving at that very specific time. [across Europe],” Brownlee told Live Science. “As part of this conversion movement, men were moving, but not to the same extent as women, who brought these funeral rites with them as they migrated. [as missionaries]causing her to assume these associations of femininity and Christianity in England.”

The Trumpington Cross, an extremely rare early Christian gold cross found at the burial of a teenage girl in Trumpington, England, in 2011

The Trumpington Cross, an extremely rare early Christian gold cross found at the burial of a teenage girl in Trumpington, England, in 2011. Image credit: Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

It was part of a concerted effort to convert Europe to Christianity, she explained – or, more accurately, to reconvert it. The Roman Empire embraced the religion as early as the 300s CE, at which point Christianity had already spread all the way to modern-day France, but by the end of the 5th century – just before these burials began to flourish – the Western Empire had fallen.

And with the decline of Rome, so did Christianity. “At this time, Christianity [had vanished] like religion,” Brownlee told Live Science. “But in the 7th century, there’s this push by the church on the mainland to start reaching out and converting places that aren’t Christian… One of the slightly less obvious ways the church tried to convert people was by encouraging marriages between Christian women. and non-Christians”.

Bed burials in continental Europe weren’t necessarily a Christian practice, explains Brownlee — in fact, only later burials contain any explicitly Christian goods or symbolism — but in England, Christians were the ones doing it. Not because of their religion, but because of their homeland: “Women’s bed burials in England represent migrants… buried according to a rite that was common in their place of origin,” Brownlee explains in the paper.

“It is a clear case of women being buried in a way that is related to their origins, even in locally constructed beds.”

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