Rarely, the wealthiest and most aristocratic people in medieval mainland Europe were buried on their beds, in what is known as a “bed burial,” as if they were about to go to sleep. It wasn’t obvious how this custom got to England, though. According to recent study, women’s bed burials started to become more popular in the seventh century A.D. as Christianity spread throughout the region.
A study of 72 bed burials across Europe, from Slovakia to England, revealed that exclusively female remains were interred in the bed burials in England. According to a recent study that was published online on June 13 in the journal Medieval Archeology, the author came to the conclusion that the funeral practice in Europe took place during a period when women were travelling about more as Christian wives married non-Christian husbands (opens in new tab).
Emma Brownlee, the study’s sole author and a research fellow in archaeology at Girton College and a fellow at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, both of which are within the University of Cambridge in England, said that bed burials were something that was specifically imported by women who were moving around at that very specific point in time [across Europe]. Men participated in the conversion effort to a lesser extent than women, who brought these funeral practices to England with them when they traveled as missionaries, giving rise to the links between femininity and Christianity there.
This investigation examined more than 70 bed burials, including beds discovered in Trossingen and the Cologne Cathedral. (Photo courtesy of Historic England)
Brownlee uses the fall of the Western Roman Empire(opens in new tab) in A.D. 476 as a point of reference. This event caused Christianity to first wane and then flourish once more throughout Europe.
Related: A 2,100-year-old woman’s burial on a bronze “mermaid bed” was discovered in Greece
According to Brownlee, “At this point, Christianity [had] disappeared as a religion.” “But in the seventh century, the church on the continent begins to seek for outreach to and conversion of non-Christian locales. Pope Gregory I promotes the notion of missionaries and conversion. The church promoted unions between Christian women and non-Christian men as one of its less overt attempts to convert people.”
Added she, “As a result, there is a special policy wherein Christian families attempt to wed their daughters into the non-Christian English elite. According to the theory, spouses had a converting effect on their families, giving women an extremely important role to perform during those marriages.”
Brownlee specifically referred to one bed burial as a case study: the Trumpington Bed Burial(opens in new tab), which archaeologists discovered in 2011 in the village of Trumpington in eastern England. It is a seventh-century burial, just like the others in the study, and it contains the bones of a young lady who was interred in a wooden bed supported by iron frames. A knife, glass beads, and an elaborate gold cross set with garnets were among the remarkable grave items found in the burial. The symbol indicates that the woman was probably Christian even if nothing is known about her identity.
One of the burial items discovered at the Trumpington Bed Burial site was a gold cross.
Grave items were present at the Trumpington Bed Burial, including this elaborate gold cross set with garnets. (Photo credit: CC BY-SA 4.0; Ethan Doyle White)
In her paper, it is stated that the earliest known bed burial took place in Eastern Europe in the fifth century A.D., and that during the sixth and seventh centuries, the practice spread throughout mainland Europe as a ritual for men, women, and children, including the burial of a 6-year-old boy beneath the Cologne Cathedral in Germany. In the seventh century in England, women were buried less often at first, according to Brownlee.
The study discovered that the ladies buried in three of the English bed burials didn’t grow up in Britain after analyzing isotopes, or elements with different quantities of neutrons in their nuclei. This chemical evidence “suggests that it was introduced by a specific group of women, possibly tied to conversion attempts in the seventh century,” Brownlee said in a statement, combined with the fact that only women were given bed burials in England (opens in new tab). As a result, bed burial in England had feminine and Christian qualities that it did not have elsewhere.
She told Live Science that few individuals would have owned bed frames in those days. “This hardwood bed frame required a lot of effort to build, making it expensive for most people to purchase. The majority of people would have just slept on straw mattresses, so having your own bed frame was quite an accomplishment.”
According to Brownlee, “there could also be ideas of slumber going along with it.” “So it’s telling us a little bit about how people were connecting to death, and they regarded it as if they were going to sleep instead of some definitive conclusion,” said the author.
The Museum of Archeology and Anthropology(opens in new tab) at the University of Cambridge in England is now hosting a display of the Trumpington Bed Burial’s bones.