A burial practice among elite medieval Europeans was to be interred on their beds, a rite which archaeologists call “a bed burial.” An English researcher has now completed an analysis of 72 bed burials across Europe, determining when exactly this luxury way to go arrived in England, and why.
According to a new study published in the journal Medieval Archaeology , “bed burials” became popular in England in the 7th century AD. This century correlates with the rapid spread of Christianity in Britain. Furthermore, the new study found that all of England’s bed burials held female remains.
Early medieval partially turned bed made from beech found in Trossinger Grave 58 in Wurtemberg. ( Archaeological Museum of Baden-Württemberg )
Non-Christian Husband Hunters
Dr. Emma Brownlee is a research fellow in archaeology at Girton College, within the University of Cambridge in England, and she was the new study’s only researcher and author. In 2011 in Trumpington, an eastern English village, archaeologists uncovered a 7th century bed burial containing a young woman lying on a wooden bed with iron brackets surrounded by ritualistic grave goods. Archaeologists discovered a knife, a gold cross, garnets, and a collection of glass beads buried with the anonymous Christian woman.
The Trumpington bed burial contained this ornate gold cross embedded with garnets. (Ethan Doyle White/ CC BY-SA 4.0 )
According to the new study the earliest known bed burial in Eastern Europe dates back to the 5th century AD. It was during the late 6th and 7th centuries that bed burials became more common for women in England, said Brownlee. The scientist concluded that bed burials in England “occurred at a time when women were moving around more as Christian wives looking for non-Christian husbands.”
Finger Rings as Tools of Conversion
Brownlee was able to deduce all of this data from studying the corpse’s isotopes. She discovered that three of the bed burials in England contained women with European origins. This suggests the bed burial rite was imported by women and that it was “likely linked to conversion efforts in the seventh century,” said the researcher.
Brownlee told Live Science that in the 7th century Pope Gregory I pushed to convert non-Christian European places to the Catholic faith. Furthermore, women transferred this specific burial as they migrated as Christian missionaries, causing the practice to take on “these associations of femininity and Christianity in England,” Brownlee said in a statement.
More than 70 bed burials were studied as part of the research, including beds found in Trossingen and Cologne Cathedral. (Historic England/Medieval Archaeology/ CC BY 4.0 )
They Weren’t Marrying Paupers, Were They?
During the medieval period, a major tool of conversion was arranged marriages between Christian women and “rich” non-Christian men, said Brownlee. She added that the English elite were largely non-Christian in the 7th century. This meant there was a specific policy of European Christian families trying to marry their daughters into the aforementioned English elite.
On the outside it appeared that good Christian women were concerned with paganism and set about converting non-Christian men and their families to the new Christian ways. However, these marriages also secured a lot of land, titles, and dowry for the Catholic church and increased their power base across Europe.
Bed Burials: Preparing for the Longest Road
During a bed burial the body was laid in the grave and after the funeral was completed the grave would have been backfilled, with an earthen mound raised over it. Essentially, a bed burial symbolically brings together death and eternal sleep, because sleep was seen as a metaphor for death.
Brownlee thinks the bed burial rite was “related to a person’s status, as well as a poetic metaphor regarding death.” At a time when most people slept on a crude straw mattress the cost of a wooden and metal bed frame, for disposable use, would have also been an extravagant show of disposable income.
Top Image: Replica of the “Saxon Princess” bed burial at Kirkleatham Museum . Source: Prioryman/ CC BY-SA 3.0
By Ashley Cowie