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Medieval Cemeteries: The Search for Hidden History

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Contributing writer, cemetery historian

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When you think of Medieval times, do you think of a theme restaurant or scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Unless you’re already interested in cemeteries, they probably wouldn't come to mind.

Jump ahead to these sections:

What would these old cemeteries look like? Would they resemble today’s? Do they still exist or were they lost to time? If we find them, what can we learn from them?

The Medieval Period took place during the 5th through 15th century. The chance of finding complete burial grounds from these years is pretty low. The closer to the present, the more likely we are to find large cemeteries somewhat intact. They may not be as large as mid-19th century Victorian cemeteries, but they may be larger than you expect. 

Whether they are full cemeteries or mere traces of them, Medieval cemeteries still have plenty to teach us. 

History of Medieval Cemeteries

Before we “dig” into Medieval cemeteries, some context. Prior to the Medieval period was the era of the Roman Empire.

During this time, the masses believed in the existence of many gods, and other religions were persecuted. After the fall of the Roman Empire, believers in a relatively new religion called Christianity were free to worship in the open.  

The fall of the Roman Empire

Before the Medieval times (or Middle Ages), Christians had plenty to fear. The Romans were polytheistic with their many gods. Because they believed in a singular God, Christian lives were in danger. But in 313 C.E., the “Roman emperor Constantine the Great ended all persecution and declared toleration for Christianity.” It would eventually become the Empire’s official state religion. 

Before this time, you wouldn’t have seen a Christian cross on a gravestone. But ever since, Christian religious symbols in cemeteries were not uncommon.  

Medieval cemetery quick facts

The Museum of London said that “the establishment of Christianity … was the defining factor” of burial locations and cemeteries during this period.

Here are some other facts about the cemeteries of that time:

  • Burials were “not complex.” 
  • Individuals were buried in shrouds (often the poor) or coffins of wood or stone and occasionally lead.
  • Regarding the churches, wealthier people could be buried inside (intramurally), and the poor were buried outside (extramurally).
  • Mass graves were used during times of epidemics like the Black Death or during wars and battles.
  • Burial spaces were used for multiple interments due to limited space.
  • Charnel houses are “bone houses.” When a grave needed to be reused, the previous occupant’s bones needed to be removed. But they needed to go somewhere, so they were taken to a charnel house.  

Where You Can Find Medieval Cemeteries

While some Medieval cemeteries do exist, they’re rare compared to the ones we see every day—even those hundreds of years old. 

In fact, many disappeared over time and went underground. You may be able to see part of some upon visiting sites. In other cases, you’ll have to search online to see excavations of them done years ago.

Here are some examples of excavated cemeteries:

  • Bermondsey Abbey (London, England): Bermondsey Square is located on the site where Bermondsey Abbey and its cemetery once stood. Records show a monastery was on the site back in the 8th century, so there would have been burials at that time. Bermondsey Abbey was built in 1390. The remains of 201 individuals were uncovered in 1984 and 1988.
  • East Smithfield Black Death Cemetery (London, England): This was the first established Black Death cemetery in London (1348-1350). It was excavated in 1986–1988, and 300 individuals’ remains were found. It’s now located below the Royal Mint Courtyard.
  • Guildhall Yard (London, England): During an excavation from 1992 to 1997, 68 Medieval graves were found in Guildhall Yard East. They were buried in St. Lawrence Jewry’s churchyard, dating back to the late 11th century. It is now Guildhall Yard.
  • St. Mary Graces (London, England): Two cemeteries were located on the grounds, the Churchyard and Abbey Buildings. The bones of 389 total individuals were discovered.  
  • Hospital of St. John the Evangelist (Cambridge, England): During an excavation at the University of Cambridge, archaeologists discovered a huge burial site of approximately 1,500 people. It dates back to the 13th through 15th century. Located under what is now St. John’s College’s Old Divinity School, the cemetery consisted of burials from the Hospital of St. John the Evangelist (c.1195–1511).
  • St. Nicholas Shambles (London, England): The parish cemetery of St. Nicholas Shambles was excavated from 1975–1977, and 234 skeletons were found. They dated back to the 11th and 12th centuries. BT Centre and the BT Group headquarters are now located on grounds.
  • Thornton Abbey (Lincolnshire, England): A mass grave was found under a grassy field next to a 14th-century monastery hospital at Thornton Abbey, located in eastern England. Archaeologists uncovered the skeletons of 48 men, women, and children who were victims of the Black Death. 

Examples of Medieval cemeteries still in existence: 

  • Heiliger Sand/Holy Sand (Worms, Germany): A large Jewish cemetery dating back to the 11th century. Notable Jewish leaders can be found here, such as Rabbis Meir of Rothenburg and Nathan ben Issak. This cemetery survived both World Wars and was an active cemetery into the 20th century. The last burial occurred in 1940.
  • Old Jewish Cemetery (Prague, Czech Republic): This cemetery was established near the end of the Middle Ages. It’s the oldest Jewish cemetery with its oldest grave dating back to 1439. 12,000 graves contain approximately 100,000 individuals.    

Features and Symbolism in Medieval Cemeteries

Symbolism has played an important role in cemeteries for centuries. In medieval funerals and graves, symbols are used to convey information or messages. In cemeteries, they can tell a lot about a person or the beliefs of the time period. 

Some gravestones have symbols that are personalized for the individual who died. Others convey that it was a highly religious time and what that religion represented. When Christianity became widespread, crosses and other Christian symbols were used often on gravestones.

Animals

Animals can be found on an individual’s tomb as part of three-dimensional effigy carvings. Sometimes they are portrayed at or under the feet of the person. Other times they are found under the person’s head, like a pillow. They can also be found on monumental brass (engraved memorials are usually made of sheet brass). Here are a few common symbols and their associations:

  • Dogs
    • Often for women
    • Fidelity
    • Hunting dogs symbolized status or earthly grandeur
  • Dove
    • Symbol of Christ
    • Associated with the Gospels
  • Lambs
    • Symbol of Christ
    • Sacrifice
  • Lions 
    • Often for knights
    • Heraldic symbols
    • Represented Christ
  • Stags
    • Trials of life
  • Tigers
    • Cunning, fierce

Barrow

A barrow was a type of burial used through the late 6th to 17th century. Also known as a tumulus, a barrow is a mounded grave with earth or stones piled on top of it.

They can be easily seen from afar and are often associated with people of wealth or importance. 

Crosses

Crosses are a common symbol of Christianity. They have been found on grave markers since the Medieval period.

In the late 13th and 14th centuries, elaborate cross patterns were used on gravemarkers and the stone slabs used to cover graves.

Geometric patterns

Simple geometric patterns were common symbols from graves through the 11th and 12th centuries. In the late 12th and 13th centuries, four circles and segments became popular.

Mythical creatures

Mythical creatures like griffins are sometimes found depicted on medieval graves. Griffins were thought to be guardians of the dead. Serpents and basilisks were sometimes depicted on graves as a symbol of the devil.

An Abbot in Peterborough Abbey is depicted with his feet on a serpent (representing his power over the devil) on his effigy tomb from the 13th century.

Shears

Shears were a very common symbol found on the graves of working and ruling class people alike.

They might have symbolized a wool merchant, a craftsperson, or in some instances, they may have been a metaphor for cutting the thread of life. In other instances, they were considered a female symbol.

Swords

Swords are found on 13th and 14th-century grave markers. They’re considered a masculine symbol and could denote a squire or knight.

Cadavers above ground

The strangest thing you may see on a Medieval grave is a cadaver. Called “cadaver stones,” these fascinating carved slabs could be found during plague times (14th and 15th centuries). They were only on wealthy people’s graves, of course, as they were intricately carved and placed over their tombs.

In later centuries, such as the 17th and 18th, it was not uncommon to see skeletons, skulls, and even depictions of the Grim Reaper on gravestones. But the cadaver stones were much more morbid and far more detailed, though they had a primitive look to them. Cadaver stones did indeed depict cadavers, not skeletons. 

The carvings represented rotting flesh as well as exposed bones. To take it a step further—or maybe a step too far—the carver also included worms and other creepy crawlies.

Amanda Norman researches gravestones and symbolism and shares the information on her blog Headstone Symbols and Meanings. She said that cadaver stones “show what happens to our bodies once buried … [and a] number of creatures like newts, frogs, maggots, etc., can be seen feasting on the rotting flesh.” Why? It’s supposed to recognize that, no matter what your station in life, death equalizes us all. 

A cadaver stone can be found in Stamullen, Ireland, inside the ruins of St. Christopher’s Chapel. Another is located in Drogheda, Ireland, and features two cadavers on one stone. You can find it at St. Peter’s Churchyard near the back.         

Keep Digging for Hidden History 

While Medieval cemeteries may not be like modern graveyards, their locations can be found. Each one has a fascinating history that’s worth digging into.

And keep in mind, for every Medieval burial ground we know of, there are many more yet to be discovered.  


Sources

  1. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Roman Empire. www.ancient.eu/Roman_Empire/ 
  2. Ancient Civilizations. The Fall of the Roman Empire. www.ushistory.org/civ/6f.asp 
  3. Museum of London. Medieval cemeteries. www.museumoflondon.org.uk/collections/other-collection-databases-and-libraries/centre-human-bioarchaeology/osteological-database/medieval-cemeteries
  4. The Govan Stones. www.thegovanstones.org.uk 
  5. Archaeodeath: The Archaeology and Heritage of Death & Memory. Howard Williams. “Symbols on medieval memorials – Bolton le Sands.” howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/2017/09/29/symbols-on-medieval-memorials-bolton-le-sands/ 
  6. Norman, Amanda. Headstone Symbols and Meanings. “Cadaver Stones” March 3, 2019. headstonesymbols.co.uk/cadaver-stones/ 
  7. Medievalists.net. “Black Death Mass Grave Discovered in England” February 2020. www.medievalists.net/2020/02/black-death-mass-grave-discovered/
  8. Medievalists.net. “Over 1,000 People Discovered at Medieval Cemetery Underneath the University of Cambridge” March 2015. www.medievalists.net/2015/03/medieval-cemetery-discovered-underneath-the-university-of-cambridge/
  9. Dianne’s Medieval Writing. diannesmedievalwriting.blogspot.com