You can tell a lot about a people by the way they treat their dead. Did they see themselves as a body, or a soul, for example? Were women subjugated, seen as fairly equal with men, or badass warriors? Did they see death as The End of an individual – or just their resting place?
In medieval Europe, they took that last one pretty literally: in hundreds of graves across the continent, bodies were buried not in coffins, but in beds.
“One interpretation of the bed burial rite is that it was intended to suggest sleep as opposed to death, as well as showing a concern for the comfort of the deceased,” explains Dr Emma Brownlee in a recent paper published in the journal Medieval Archaeology. Bodies were even posed as if asleep, “lying on one side, with one or both hands raised to the face,” with what appears to have once been bedlinen.
It’s a relatively rare choice of burial, but one that pops up consistently across the centuries – the earliest known example comes from late fourth- or early fifth-century Slovakia, and the latest, mostly concentrated in Scandinavia, are around 500 years younger.
Most, though, lie somewhere in the middle, both geographically and chronologically – they largely date from the sixth and seventh century, and are “distributed relatively evenly across areas of Europe where furnished burial was most common,” the paper notes; there seems to be a lot in Germany, in particular, but that’s most likely “a product of exceptional preservation conditions.”
But it’s the bed burials in England that has long puzzled archaeologists. In continental Europe, bed burials are for everyone: men, women, adults, and children. In England, it’s almost unique to adult women. On the continent, it’s a practice spanning hundreds of years; in England, it burns out within a single century. Clearly, something was different about the bed burials in this northwestern archipelago – but what?
According to Brownlee, an archeological researcher and Fellow of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge University, the answer may have been staring us in the face all along: they’re women. Christian women, to be precise.
“Bed burials were something that was specifically imported by women who were moving around at that very specific point in time [across Europe],” Brownlee told Live Science. “As part of this conversion movement, men were moving, but not at the same extent as women, who were bringing these burial rites with them as they migrated [as missionaries], causing it to take on these associations of femininity and Christianity in England.”
It was part of a concerted effort to convert Europe to Christianity, she explained – or, more accurately, to re-convert it. The Roman Empire had embraced the religion as far back as the early 300s CE, by which point Christianity had already spread as far as modern-day France, but in the late fifth century – just before these bed burials start to flourish – the Western Empire fell.
And with the decline of Rome, so too went Christianity. “At this point, Christianity [had vanished] as a religion,” Brownlee told Live Science. “But in the seventh century, there's this push by the church on the continent to start reaching out and converting places that aren't Christian… One of the slightly less obvious ways that the church tried to convert people was by encouraging marriages between Christian women and non-Christian men.”
Bed burials in continental Europe weren’t necessarily a Christian practice, explains Brownlee – in fact, only the later bed burials contain any explicitly Christian grave goods or symbolism – but in England, the Christians were the ones doing it. Not because of their religion, but because of their homeland: “women’s bed burials in England represent migrants… buried according to a rite which was common in their place of origin,” Brownlee explains in the paper.
“It is a clear case of women being buried in a manner relating to their origins, even if in locally constructed beds.”