The York nun Lady Isabel German spent her life locked in a single room. Pictured: Lady German’s skeleton after being found in the foundations (lower right) of a long-lost church in York, All Saints on Fishergate. Top right: archaeologist Dr. Lauren McIntyre (Image: On-Site Archeology Ltd)
The woman’s skeleton was found, curled tightly, as if in pain, in the foundations of a long-vanished medieval church in York.
Archaeologists say that 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.”
But far from being an outcast, the evidence suggests that this woman was highly respected – and perhaps viewed by the people of York of her time as a ‘living prophet’.
Archaeologists from the University of Sheffield and Oxford Archeology who examined the bones – part of a collection at the University of Sheffield – even think they know who she was.
They believe she was Lady Isabel German, an ‘anchor woman’ – or religious hermit – who spent her life locked away in a single room at All Saints Church in Fishergate in the 15th century.
The skeleton of Lady Isabel German (Image: On-Site Archeology Ltd)
The skeleton was just one of hundreds – dating from Roman times to the Civil War – discovered at the site of the York Barbican during a 2007-2008 excavation following the demolition of the Barbican pool.
But now radiocarbon dating and isotope analysis have revealed that skeleton SK3870 – believed to be Lady German – is special.
It was not found next to the others in the cemetery, but buried in the apse of the church foundations.
Only the clergy or the very wealthy were buried in churches at the time, the archaeologists say, so skeleton SK3870 is a “prime candidate” to become All Saints’ anchorwoman, Lady German.
As a hermit, she would have led a life of seclusion. If she had lived in a single room in the church without direct human contact, she would have devoted herself to prayer and lived on charity.
But Dr Lauren McIntyre, an osteoarchaeologist at Oxford Archeology who analyzed the skeleton, said the fact that it was found in the apse of the church suggests this was a woman of high status.
Doctor Lauren McIntyre (Image: Included)
Lady German lived at a time when there was a ‘strong association between … disfiguring diseases and sin, with that kind of suffering seen as a punishment from God,’ Dr McIntyre said. “(But) such a serious illness could also have been viewed positively, sent by God to bestow martyr status on someone special.”
Becoming a hermit in the 15th century, when women were normally expected to marry and become their husband’s property, could also give them an alternative, important status, Dr McIntyre said.
So it is possible that Lady German chose to ‘dedicate herself to a life of solitude as a way of remaining autonomous and in control of her own destiny’.
“This chosen lifestyle would also have made her a very important figure within the local community, and she would have been considered almost a living prophet,” said Dr McIntyre.