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  • Dale Munn

What is the Evidence for Violence against Women in the Early Medieval Period?

Community Cemeteries

Reports from 157 community, execution and individual burial sites were examined in this current study. The sites contained data on 2644 women and 3151 males. 562 males and 159 females showed some evidence of possible sharp or blunt force trauma that may indicate deliberate injury.

Five females from early medieval community cemeteries showed evidence of peri-mortem sharp force trauma to the skull. At Eccles, Kent (Manchester and Elmhirst, 1982) one female and six males had evidence of weapon injuries buried in two separate locations and over two phases. There was no evidence to suggest that any of the burials were connected. The female skeleton K26 aged 25-35 had peri-mortem SFT to the left parietal and was buried supine in a well- constructed grave (Manchester and Elmhirst, 1980).

At the eight to tenth century Addingham cemetery in West Yorkshire fragments of a left parietal bone belonging to a female showed evidence of peri-mortem SFT (Adams, 1990). At the fifth to eighth century at St Anne’s Road Eastbourne a female had a peri-mortem cut to the occipital bone (Doherty et al. 2016).

At the fifth to sixth century Empingham II cemetery in Rutland one female showed a peri-mortem cut to the occipital bone (Timby, 2016). At the fifth to seventh century cemetery at West Heslerton, Yorkshire a female aged 30-35 had four cuts to the left parietal bone and one to the left temporal bone (Haughton and Powlesland, 1999). At Bidford on Avon a female skull showed evidence of a healed SFT force trauma which the authors attribute to trephining (Humphreys et al, 1924 p110).

Five individuals showed evidence of post-cranial SFT. At Sedgeford, Norfolk a seventh to ninth century cemetery contained 11 males and one female with evidence of SFT,(Anderson, 1996). Skeleton S0023, a female aged 17-25 had a cut on the anterior side of cervical vertebrae three and four which may be indicative of garrotting and two SFT injuries to the left side of the face. Skeleton SOO23 was buried in close proximity to a male with extensive SFT and both burials appear to be contemporaneous suggesting they died in the same incident. All the injuries were peri-mortem and were across several phases and locations suggesting more than one incident. The burials were supine and in well organised graves (Biddulph, 1999).

At the sixth to seventh century cemetery at Sewerby, Yorkshire (Hirst, 1985) one female showed a peri-mortem cut to the left femur. At the fifth to sixth century cemetery at Burn Ground, Hampnett, Gloucestershire a female aged 17-25 had a cut to her left patella (Lunberg, 2015). Finally. At the seventh to eighth century cemetery at Woodlands, Yorkshire a female had evidence of SFT to one of her cervical vertebrae.

Sixteen individuals from 13 sites showed evidence of blunt force trauma to the skull from the community cemeteries across the early medieval period at Beckford A (Evison and Hill 1996), Burn Ground Hampnett,(Lundberg, 2015) Caister on Sea,(Darling and Gurney 1993) CastleDyke, Barton Upon Humber (Boyston et al. 1998), Eriswell (Hutchinson, 1996), Great Houghton, Northants (Chapman, 1996) Ipswich, Saint Augustine’s (Brown et al. 2020), Norwich, Castle Mall (Anderson, 1991) and Thetford, Norfolk (Penn and Andrews, 1999) and Blackgate cemetery, Newcastle l (Swales, 2012)

A further eighteen individuals from 11 sites had healed rib fractures and 38 individuals from 19 sites had healed fractures of the radius or ulna. Two individuals from two sites had facial fractures).

Hawkes and Wells, (1975 p118) claim that the skeleton of an adolescent girl found at Worthy Park , Kingsworthy, Hampshire cemetery was the victim of a brutal rape. The potential victim was prone with wrists and heels close together suggesting possible binding, presumably at the time of burial. There were no grave goods but the grave had been carefully prepared. The authors claim that the existence of a lesion at the distal end of the left femur and a 60mm exostosis just below the lesser trochanter where two muscles attach to the femur from the pelvis was the result of a traumatic tendon tear possibly caused by violently forcing the thighs apart, typical of injuries incurred during a brutal rape. The prone position and possible binding suggest that the girl was regarded as an outcast from society by those who buried her. The authors’ claim that this is 90% likely to be a rape victim has been challenged by Reynolds, (1988, p716) who argues that pre-conceived ideas about Anglo-Saxon society and attitudes to women have led to unlikely explanations for injuries that may have been caused by accidents. Reynolds, (1988, p716) draws on analysis from Manchester, (1983) who confirms that the skeletal evidence should not lead to conclusions that this was a rape victim and could have injuries consistent with an accident although he does not exclude the possibility of rape. In the same cemetery a second female may also have been bound and was lying in a prone position. Hawkes and Wells, (1975) also argue that this second female had been buried alive due to the elevated position of the legs, the clenched position of one hand and the bent position of the arms and the use of a quern stone to weigh the body down. Reynolds,(1988 p716) argues that although the quern stone suggests an unusual burial, it would be difficult to ignore other explanations for the unusual positioning of the long bones such as the impact of rigor mortis and a collapsed coffin in the burial beneath.

Where a murder victim has been discovered by relatives, friends or other community members then they were likely be buried in a community cemetery. However, where the victim was concealed by the perpetrator then hasty attempts would have been made to conceal the burial such as the sixth or seventh century female buried 7.5m deep in a Roman well at Poulton Down in Mildenhall (Meyrick 1949, p221). It is unclear whether the victim had evidence on the skeleton of a violent death as there is no surviving osteological report.


Cole et al. (2020) discussed the first osteological evidence for facial mutilation from Anglo-Saxon England, which suggested the removal of the nose, upper lip and possible scalping, of a female aged 18 from Oakridge, Basingstoke. Cuts had been administered by sharp edged weapons and showed no sign of healing suggesting that the individual died at the time of the mutilation or soon after. Cole et al, (2020) claim that the injuries reflect punishments for female thieves, slaves and adulteresses identified in Cnut’s 11th century second code which called for: “ the putting out of eyes, the removal of the nose, ears, upper lip and scalp for a greater crime than theft,” (II Cnut 30.5 Baker, 2004 p186). The skeleton was radiocarbon dated to the seventh to tenth centuries and sex was confirmed using DNA. The cranium only of this female was found. It was close to an ancient boundary and not buried in a community cemetery. There was no evidence of the remainder of the skeleton. The burial of criminals and outcasts away from community cemeteries was a feature of the Christian period from the seventh century onwards (Reynolds, 2009).

A sixth-century female from Loveden Hill (Lincs) had had both feet amputated (Meaney 1964, p158–9). Whether this was a surgical procedure, or a punishment is unclear. There is no information on the method of burial that might support a punishment or whether the individual lived after the procedure. At the fifth to seventh cemetery at West Heslerton, Yorkshire (Haughton and Powlesland, 1999), a female had had her left foot removed and possibly her legs had been tied together. May, (1996) suggests that mutilations in the early medieval period could also be interpreted as surgical amputations depending on the type of cuts administered and the presence or not of serrated edges which would indicate a surgical saw rather than straight cuts administered by a sword.

Judicial Violence and Execution Cemeteries

Reynolds, (1997) identifies separate cemeteries for victims of execution from the seventh century onwards with the majority in use by the seventh and eight centuries with some, for example, Staines (Middlesex) continuing to the 12th century and South Acre, (Norfolk) from the eighth to 11th centuries. By the ninth to 12 centuries execution cemeteries are widespread and usually related to administrative boundaries, (Reynolds, 2009).

Males are clearly predominant in execution site reports with 377 skeletons identified as males and 71 as females in this current study. Females are recorded as buried in sixteen cemeteries out of a total 32 possible execution cemeteries in this current study (Appendix 1).

Eight decapitations are recorded as female and there are four examples of mutilation with two cases of left arm removed at Dunstable Beds burial 59 and Gally Hill Bedfordshire burial 7. At Five Knolls. Dunstable, Bedfordshire burial 22 had broken wrists and six women possibly had hands tied . Nine female prone burials are known: four from South Acre, two from Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, and one each from Galley Hill Castle Hill, Oxfordshire, and Eashing, Surrey. (Reynolds 2009 p171).

There is no osteological evidence from the community or execution cemeteries in this current study of multiple fractures that may indicate death by stoning or being thrown from as cliff. Similarly, no females show evidence of being burnt. A more accurate record of females needs to be established through reassessment of the sex of surviving skeletons . This is particularly important in sites excavated when sexing techniques were probably not well developed using the morphology of the pelvis and skull.

Ayre and Wroe-Brown, (2015) report on two adult females found buried on the foreshore at Bull Wharf, City of London. The burials were dated eighth to ninth century. Both were lying supine with their heads to the west. One female aged 28-40 had evidence of peri-mortem sharp force trauma to the left side of the skull. She was not buried but laid out on the foreshore and later covered by foreshore material. The presence of stakes nearby led to initial thoughts that she had been tied down but there was no evidence of bindings which it is thought would have survived in the conditions.

The second individual was middle aged and buried in a prepared grave on a bed of reeds with moss on her face and laid between sheets of bark in the style of a coffin. The authors suggest that both females were outcasts denied a burial in consecrated ground possibly at nearby St Paul’s. The victim with the cranial wound could have been executed or both may have been laid to rest where they washed up from the Thames. Either scenario suggests the possibility of a violent death for at least one of the females either by murder or execution. The open nature of the burial site suggests murder was unlikely unless the bodies had been washed up. Hayman and Reynolds (2005, p248) also suggest the possibility of judicial drowning. By the mid-tenth century a free woman guilty of theft could be killed by drowning according to laws issued by Athelstan (Athelstan IV, 6 Attenborough, 1922, p151). Witches too could be executed by drowning as mentioned in a charter of AD 963–75 (Hill 1976).

At the Middle Saxon estate centre at Higham Ferrers the body of woman 30-40 years old was found in an enclosure ditch. The skeleton was in a prone foetal position, possibly bound and contained within a sack due to the tight arrangement of the bones. Head, arms, scapulae and the fourth lumbar vertebra were all missing and canine puncture marks were found on a lumber vertebra. Although there was no evidence on the skeleton of a violent death it was thought that the body had been exposed for a long period leading to disarticulation and scavenger damage. The place of burial in a ditch also suggested that the individual was an outcast from society. The radiocarbon dating identified the remains as seventh to ninth century. This was a possible execution victim who could have been left hanging before burial and damaged by animal scavengers. The identification of the site as an estate centre suggests that it may also have had a judicial role and possibly had its own gallows (Hardy, Blair et al. 2007).


Sharp and blunt force trauma is hard to spot where cortical bone has degraded, and most reports do not give true prevalence based on surviving bones. Examples of exceptions to this where numbers and types of surviving bones are recorded are St. Augustine’s, Ipswich (Brown et al. 2020) and Blackgate, Newcastle (Swales 2012). A series of case studies of community cemeteries is required where skeletal preservation and completeness are at a level that enables an accurate assessment of blunt and sharp force trauma to the critical parts of the skeleton such as the skull and facial bones, ribs, radius and ulna and evidence of sharp force trauma to any parts of the post cranial skeleton. Case studies should represent a cross section of rural and urban sites across the early medieval period. True prevalence of violent trauma can then be used in comparison with crude prevalence rates.

Many of the examples of violence against females need careful re-evaluation to distinguish accidental blunt force injuries from deliberate wounding particularly for fractures to the skull , ribs, radius and ulna. This will require macroscopic investigation, or a reappraisal of evidence contained in the osteology reports. Techniques suggested by Guyomarc’h et al. (2010), Cybulski, 2013) and Hussain et al. (1994) should be used to determine the possible aetiology of blunt force trauma to the skull. Differentiating between fractures to the ribs possibly caused by blows or falls can also be attempted with a certain amount of accuracy using criteria suggested by Wedel, (2013) and Love et al. (2012). Transverse fractures to the middle or distal third of the ulna has been suggested as evidence of a parry wound by Knüsel and Smith, (2013) but as Redfern, (2015 ) has shown, such fractures are identical in falls and would have to be accompanied by other blunt force injuries to indicate possible deliberate violence.

The female remains discovered in a well at Poulton Down Mildenhall (Meyrick 1949, p221) have no osteological report and would certainly benefit from a reappraisal for evidence of trauma. .

Excavations at sites such as Wor Barrow Dorset (Pitt Rivers 1898), Guildown, Surrey (Lowther, 1931), Five Knolls, Dunstable, Bedfordshire (Dunning and Wheeler, 1931), Roche Court Down, Wiltshire (Stone, 1932), ), Meon Hill, Hants (Liddell, 1933) Abingdon, Oxfordshire (Leeds and Harden, 1936 Stockbridge Down, Hants (Hill 1937 ) were also carried out when osteological analysis using skeletal morphology was in its infancy. Such techniques were probably based on methods such as Hrdliča (1919) who used differences in cranial features between male and female skulls, based on measurements of the vault claiming that sex could be accurately estimated in 90% of cases with the entire skull. Hooton, (1946) used overall size differences in males as well as cranial size, supraorbital margins, the mental eminence, and the frontal sinus to determine sex. A possible example of where these techniques might have been used is anthropologist Sir Arthur Keith who recorded unpublished notes on 48 of the Guildown execution cemetery skeletons between 1948 and 1955. The skeletons are now housed at the Natural History Museum in London and would be an opportunity for an osteological re-evaluation as to sex and age. It was only in 1953 that Hanna and Washburn used the ilium, ischium, pubis measurements and the sciatic notch angle to estimate sex. The application of more modern techniques using the pubic symphyseal surface (Brooks and Suchey 1990), and sexually dimorphic traits in the skull and pelvis (Buikstra and Ubelaker 1994; White and Folkens 2005) might give a revised estimate of females present in these assemblages.

By far the largest number of females are from the South Acre cemetery (McKinley, 1996), which identifies thirty‐six examples The large number of females compared to 34 males is highly unusual compared to other execution cemeteries where males easily predominate. Twelve further females were identified at Five Knolls, Dunstable where only 17 out of 94 individuals could be sexed. Both of these sites require careful reassessment together with surviving skeletons from the 455 victims from execution cemeteries that remain unsexed.


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