Bed Burials and Mobility in the Early Middle Ages

3 minute read

When the Trumpington bed burial was first excavated in 2011, the thing that immediately caught attention was the delicate gold and garnet cross, found placed on the chest of a teenage girl. The quality of this object tells us that she was of high status, and most likely an early Christian. But it was not the only thing she was buried with; surrounding the body of the teenager were a series of rusted iron fittings. Although unimpressive at first glance, they are equally important at telling us more about who this woman was during her lifetime, and how she was treated in death. They are in fact the remains of a bed. 

Two rusty iron fittings. The one on the left is rectangular, and the one on the right is an eyelet. Below both are black and white, squared rulers for measure, and the accession number of both objects. Associated with bed burials.

Figures 1 and 2. An iron double cleat (left) and eyelet (right), part of the iron fittings of an ash bed. Trumpington Meadows, Cambridgeshire, Britain. Anglo Saxon 7th century. Excavated by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit and donated by Grosvenor Britain and Ireland. MAA 2017.65.1 and 2017.67.10

Burying someone in a bed is a relatively rare, short-lived ritual in England – only 17 other examples have been found, including the recently excavated, spectacular Harpole treasure. Almost all of these graves belong to women, and they all date to the seventh century, the period in which England was gradually converting to Christianity. The cross buried with the Trumpington girl is not the only signal of Christian belief found with these bed burials, and several others have crosses, or cross imagery included in them. In a period in which most people would have slept on simple mattresses rather than wooden bed frames, burying one in a grave is a statement of status. But it is also a statement of care, stemming from a desire to make the deceased comfortable as they rested in the grave. 

Bed burials are not unique to England. They are found more broadly across the early medieval world, as far east as Slovakia and as far north as Scandinavia; outside Europe there are even some examples in Coptic Egypt. Yet these bed burials are quite different to the ones found in England. While all that remains of the English examples are the iron fittings that would have held the bed frame together, there are sites in southern Germany where the entire bed is beautifully preserved. In continental Europe, men and children were buried in beds, as well as women. Bed burials there were also used over a much longer period of time, with the earliest examples coming from the early fifth century, and the latest in the tenth century. Nor do continental bed burials have particular associations with Christianity; there is just one that contains a cross.  

Why then, is there such a difference in how beds were used in England and elsewhere in Europe? The answer may lie in new scientific analysis, carried out by Sam Leggett (University of Edinburgh) and Alice Rose (University of Durham). During childhood, different isotopic signatures become encoded in teeth depending on the geology and climate of an area. By analysing these different chemical signatures, we can identify whether someone grew up in the same area that they were buried in. We have analysed the teeth of the Trumpington teenager, as well as two other women from bed burials in another Cambridgeshire cemetery, Edix Hill. This revealed that none of those three women had grown up in the areas in which they were buried. In fact, they had not grown up in the British Isles at all. It is impossible to be certain of someone’s origins. But comparing the distribution of bed burials with the areas suggested by the isotope analysis highlights southern Germany as a likely place of origin for the Trumpington girl. 

This mobility gives us a clue as to why English bed burials appear so different to the continental ones. It may be that they were only given to women in the seventh century in England because the concept was specifically imported by women who migrated in that time period. Christianity was an important factor in enabling women’s mobility in the seventh century. We have numerous accounts of Christian women marrying into non-Christian families as part of the conversion process, the most famous being Queen Bertha, who was specifically charged with converting her husband, King Æthelberht of Kent. Monastic houses too, provided a network crossing both the Frankish and the English world which women could move within. This process of migration therefore allowed bed burials to take on associations of femininity and Christianity in England that it did not originally have elsewhere. While we cannot know the exact reasons why the Trumpington girl moved from south Germany to England, the world she lived in was one in which Christianity formed connections between diverse areas. 

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