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OPINION - Crypt by Alice Roberts review: An addictive picture of medieval Britain from a cutting-edge perspective

 (Simon and Schuster)
(Simon and Schuster)

The past was not a good place to die in Britain. Frightening diseases that are essentially vanquished in modern times were rife, deadly, and untreatable. Think syphilis, leprosy and the Black Death. Then there was the endemic violence. Readers of Alice Roberts’s Crypt, the third in her trilogy of books on life in Britain told through bones (after Ancestors and Buried), have the treat of meeting these monsters again. This time they’re not under our beds — they’re under our feet.

Crypt focuses on the “Middle Ages and beyond” (so roughly 1000-1500 AD) and chapters tell the stories of particular skeletons, anchored in the history of the time. The horrors start immediately, with a mass grave of violently massacred Danes. Soon we’re beneath the grounds of a medieval hospital in Winchester. Roberts, an academic anatomist and TV presenter, brings us up close with victims of leprosy whose faces were wrecked by the condition. “Where the maxillae, the bones that form the upper jaw should have been… there was a huge, gaping, figure-of-eight shaped hole.”

In York, we meet a syphilitic anchorite, whose bones bear signs of the awful illness. “She may well have suffered extreme pain, seizures, physical disability and serious psychiatric illness,” Roberts writes.

Roberts is a brilliant guide to the cutting-edge fusion of archaeology and genetics

It’s gripping stuff — because it shares something in common with the addictive, gruesome true crime genre. The victims here are stabbed, or seen off by putrescent buboes, or drowned in the Solent. Yet where true crime shades into ugly prurience, Roberts tries to humanise the victims, the people whose bones she is describing.

Crypt works best on disease and violence. It is weakest when there are either no bones to analyse (a chapter on Thomas Becket, England’s greatest saint, falls rather flat) or when we tumble into technical minutiae. A long digression on how archery works on a muscular and skeletal level, featuring academic studies (“their results suggested little activation of the anterior deltoid, in either arm, throughout the draw”) drags.

Yet I found it hard to put down, despite the odd humdrum section. Roberts is a brilliant guide to the cutting-edge fusion of archaeology and genetics that is doing something special: revealing new facts about a past most people consider dead and buried.

Crypt by Alice Roberts (Simon & Schuster UK, £22) is out now

Robbie Smith is comment and literary editor