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The Make-Up of the City

ABOUT the project

Between 1000 and 1800, the Low Countries were among the most densely urbanised regions of Europe. City-dwellers came to represent an ever-growing portion of the population and were the prime drivers of social, economic and cultural (ex)change. Despite this significance and an impressive tradition of urban historical research, our knowledge of the actual composition of these urban societies remains highly fragmentary. Due to the absence or biased nature of written records, often the most basic questions concerning the make-up of medieval cities are overlooked. This problem can be overcome by adopting a transdisciplinary investigative approach.


In this project, two PhD researchers trained in osteoarchaeology and isotopic analysis respectively will analyse a collection of 1,200 skeletons from medieval Ieper (Ypres), assisted by the Vrije Universiteit Brussel’s leading researchers in urban history, archaeology, chemistry and anatomy. Isotopic and elemental analyses of human remains will be used to reveal the diets and geographic origins of city-dwellers, while an osteological investigation will provide essential information about their age, sex, health, activities and living conditions. Our findings, which will be made available in a series of publications in peer-reviewed journals, hold the potential to completely transform current understandings of Ieper, once a textile boomtown and medieval giant.

If one asked [an elderly woman] what her life has meant to her, she would say that she remembered the streets lit for the battle of Balaclava, or had heard the guns fire in Hyde Park for the birth of King Edward VII. And if one asked her […], but what were you doing on the 5th of April 1868, or the 2nd of November 1875, she would look vague and say that she could remember nothing. For all the dinners are cooked; the plates and cups washed; the children sent to school and gone out into the world. Nothing remains of it all. All has vanished. No biography or history has a word to say about it. And the novels, without meaning to, inevitably lie.

All these infinitely obscure lives remain to be recorded, I said […] and went on in thought through the streets of London feeling […] the pressure of dumbness, the accumulation of unrecorded life

                                                                                                                     -Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own 1929

The Accumulation of Unrecorded Life