DISCOVERED: Skeleton of syphilitic York nun who spent life shut in single room
The woman’s skeleton was found lying tightly curled, as though in pain, in the foundations of a long-vanished medieval York church.
Archaeologists say when she died more than 500 years ago she was suffering from septic arthritis and advanced venereal syphilis and would have had ‘severe, visible symptoms of infection affecting her entire body, and later ... mental health decline’.
Yet far from being an outcast, the evidence suggests this woman was highly respected – and may have been seen by the York people of her day as a ‘living prophet’.
Archaeologists from the University of Sheffield and Oxford Archaeology who have been examining the bones – part of a collection at the University of Sheffield - think they even know who she was.
They believe she was Lady Isabel German, an ‘anchoress’ - or religious hermit - who spent her life shut away in a single room at All Saints Church in Fishergate in the 15th century.
The skeleton was just one of hundreds - dating from the Roman period to the civil war - discovered at the site of the York Barbican during an excavation from 2007-2008 following demolition of the Barbican swimming pool.
But now radiocarbon dating and isotopic analysis have revealed that skeleton SK3870 – believed to be Lady German – is special.
It was not found in the church cemetery alongside the others, but buried within the apse of the church foundations.
Only clergy or the very rich were buried inside churches at this time, the archaeologists say, so skeleton SK3870 is a ‘prime candidate’ to be All Saints’ anchoress, Lady German.
As an anchoress, hers would have been a life of seclusion. Living inside a single room in the church without direct human contact, she would have devoted herself to prayer and survived on charity.
But Dr Lauren McIntyre, an Osteoarchaeologist at Oxford Archaeology who analysed the skeleton, said the fact it was found in the church apse suggests this was a woman of high status.
Lady German lived at a time when there was a 'strong association between ...disfiguring illnesses and sin, with that type of suffering seen as a punishment from God', Dr McIntyre said. "(But) such severe disease could also have been viewed positively, being sent by God to grant martyr-like status to someone special.”
Becoming an anchoress in the 15th century, when women were normally expected to get married and become the property of their husband, could also give them an alternative, important status, Dr McIntyre said.
So it is possible that Lady German may have chose to 'devote herself to a life of solitude as a way to remain autonomous and in control of her own destiny'.
"This chosen lifestyle would also have made her a highly significant figure within the local community, and she would have been viewed almost like a living prophet,” Dr McIntyre said.
The story of Lady Isabel German will be told in Digging for Britain on BBC Two at 8pm this Sunday (February 12).