Is this St. Cuthbert?

Somehow I envisioned better teeth.   Actually Dr Shelby Plummer, who examined the remains from Durham Cathedral in 1899, believed that the incisors (front teeth) were lost after death. He doesn’t elaborate on why he thinks that and the loose teeth were apparently lost.

As I work on my presentation for Kalamazoo on Plague in Bede’s Life of Cuthbert, I thought I would look at the only paper Shelby Plummer published on Cuthbert’s remains to evaluate claims that Cuthbert may have had tuberculosis instead of plague. So I had to go to the Wellcome Trust library directly to obtain a copy of the paper and I’m now working through it . There are a number of interesting statements here on both his findings and conclusions.

Plummer summarizes the occasions that Cuthbert’s coffin had been previously opened. Skipping over the time before it arrived at Durham Cathedral, it was opened most significantly for Prior Turgot and Bishop Flambard four times in August 1104 and again for the Commissioners of Henry VIII in 1537.  Importantly in 1104 and 1537 the inspectors all agreed that Cuthbert was incorrupt.

Feretory of St Cuthbert, Durham Cathedral

King Henry’s commissioners allowed the remains to be preserved. Now comes the glitch, between 1537 and 1542 the remains were insecure in the cathedral vestry while the current Feretory (crypt for relics) was being built and prepared. This feretory converts Cuthbert’s elaborate shrine into an underground vault. Plummer reports that the Benedictines claimed that at some point (perhaps during the reign of Queen Mary) they switched the remains for the dressed-up skeleton found in the 19th century. The legend claims that the real remains of St Cuthbert were hidden somewhere in the western end of the Cathedral. The remains were examined once more before Plummer and two clergy examined them in 1899, and that was by Raine in 1827. Raine (1828, p. 227) was clear that he believed the whole claim of incorruptibility was a fraud but he didn’t question if they were St Cuthbert. Raine did not find any signs of decay or that the carved wooden coffin had ever been wet (from a decaying body). Raine believed that the eye sockets were filled with material to make the fraud more believable under a face cloth. The layers of robes he found made him believe that each new time the relics were put in new robes it was over existing robes making the body look more fleshed out than it actually was.  Only radiocarbon dates can settle whether the skeleton is really a seventh century man or not. If the skeleton was switched  it is unlikely that they actually found a replacement skeleton of the correct date.

Plummer noted that he and the Cathedral clergy reopened the coffin for two reasons: to recover missing parts of the carved wooden coffin that Raine did not retrieve in 1827 and to replace Raine’s coffin because it had decayed so badly that the bones needed a more decent reburial. Their purpose was not specifically to reexamine the remains and in no way challenge the validity of the relics: “No mere curiosity was allowed to influence the reverent and careful handling of the sacred relics. No attempt is made is settle any question of identity, but only to point out what bones are present, and what, if any peculiarities they presented” (Plummer, p. 233).

Plummer and two clergy did examine the skeleton stating  “no claim is made for examination to be that of experts” (p. 233).

“The bones were uniformly of a deep brownish tint, being quite different in appearance, texture, and formation from those of the other relics found in the vault, left, by their similarities as well as by their position in the grave, no doubt that they belonged to the same skeleton. They were obviously of great antiquity. … man of considerable muscularity, as was strongly evidenced by the strongly marked muscular ridges….the sutures of the skull were completely ossified. The partially worn, though otherwise perfect, condition of the teeth, the condition of the lower jaw, and partial ossification of the larnyx, and comparative thinness and lightness of the scapulae, warrant assigning the age of the owner as of about fifty-five years of age. Calculating the length of the humerus and the skeleton when laid out, the stature during life would be about five feet eight or nine inches.” (p. 233)

I’d have to consult a forensic anthropologist to see if Plummer’s age range sounds about right. Complete ossification of the skull sutures and partial ossification of the larnyx are the best indicators. Plummer reported that the “partially ossified thyroid cartilage remains in a very perfect state”.  He also later mentions fusion of the fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae. Plummer also saw no indication that the wisdom teeth ever erupted.

There were some signs of disease. As already mentioned, some arthritis in the neck causing vertebral fusion but the spinal cord was not compressed. Plummer notes (p. 234) that the sternum and clavicle showed the most pathology: erosion and necrosis with many perforations on about two inches of the  sternum but there was also signs of new bone growth,  and a round perforation with rough edges of about a half-inch diameter  near the right sterno-clavicular joint. No pathology noted on the ribs or the (male) pelvis. Bones of the arms and legs are all present except the left tibia is missing. One leg was said to be broken by Henry’s Commissioners in c. 1537, and this  maybe the missing tibia since the remaining one is intact. This would suggest some significant handling of the remains before they were examined by Raine in 1824. Plummer did not apparently carefully examine the hands or feet other than to remark that most of the bones were present. The right tibia was softened on the lateral border and a cavity was present in the head, although Plummer (p. 235) reported “there was no evidence to indicate that this was not a post-mortem change.” There were no pathological traces on the skull. Plummer remarks that the skull would have had great “character” in life, with a  nose projecting at a sharp angle, anteriorly protruding teeth (buck teeth) and a prominent jaw.  He does note that Raine’s drawing of the skull is more of a caricature than an accurate drawing.

Plummer’s interprets Cuthbert’s medical history from Bede’s Life. He correctly notes that all of the specific symptoms that Bede records are on the legs or feet: a swollen, acrid knee as a child, a bubo on the thigh, a callous on the ankle, and an ulcer on his foot when he was near death. Plummer notes that these are all of swollen joints (though Bede actually says thigh for the bubo) and he credits them to “tubercular mischief”. None of these joint conditions have left a trace on the bones. Plummer adamantly asserted that the softening and cavity in the tibia was not from the swollen knee as a child. According to Bede, after Cuthbert recovered from the bubo he set out traveling among the villages of Bernicia on foot so his leg must have been healed. The swelling of the ankles and ulcer on the foot could have been caused by multiple disorders. Plummer also correctly notes that Life does not describe any symptoms that could correspond to the sternum lesions part of which might have ulcerated the skin.

So what to make of all this? First, a physical anthropologist needs to examine the remains to correctly date them and examine the sternum lesions in particular.  Second, even if he had tuberculosis at the time of his death, the bubo occurred 23 years earlier.  I don’t think that the cause of his death in 687 precludes him being a plague survivor in 664. I don’t think scrofula (lymphatic tuberculosis) could be easily mistaken for a plague bubo. Scrofula swellings are usually painless and not disabling.  It would be an awfully strong coincidence for a slow-growing swelling from tuberculosis to have reached the point of disabling him at the exact time that the pestilence hits the rest of his monastery and for it to resolve within  weeks, presumably about the same time scale as other survivors at Melrose.

I’d love to hear what others think on Plummer’s findings and how they should be interpreted. Comments and suggestions are welcome from everyone (as always)!


Shelby Plummer “St Cuthbert: notes of the examination of his remains, March 1899” The Northumberland and Durham Medical Journal, July 1899, p. 231-245.

James Raine. St Cuthbert: with an account of the state in which his remains were found upon the opening of the tomb in Durham Cathedral, in the year MDCCCXXVII. Durham, 1828. [available from Google books]

7 thoughts on “Is this St. Cuthbert?

  1. I’ve not read either of these papers, but I have read the paper about the burial in C. F. Battiscombe (ed.), The Relics of St Cuthbert (Durham 1956), where reviewing Plummer’s notes the author (whose name I didn’t write down, sorry!) points out that at least the treasures with the body are of the right sort of date and suggests that the body may have been so tightly wrapped as to delay decay by a sort of mummification manqué. He also points out that there’s nothing about the body we have that contradicts what we know of Cuthbert’s physical stature and life story, which isn’t much of an argument, but with all this together Occam’s Razor does start to make it seem as if it would just be easier to assume it is Cuthbert’s body.

    1. It may be Cuthbert but I can’t really assume if I’m looking at a report of the remains. There are several points at which the body could have been switched or replaced including before it reached Durham.

      There are other reasons for reexamining the remains too. Today we could reconstruct the face, and the whole body for that matter. You could look into the face of Cuthbert eye to eye dressed in replicas of his tomb robes. How many named Anglo-Saxons could you say that about?

  2. I’ve talked this over with a friend of mine, who is a well-known forensic pathologist.

    Classic example of a syphilitic aortic aneurysm.
    Possibly the cause of death, if you ask me. The classic effect on bone
    is sternal erosion which mainly affects the manubrium (the main body
    of the sternum) and the right clavicle. Without treatment, the
    aneurysm will eventually rupture causing the instant death of the

    Further ref: RJ Weisser and RJ Marshall, Syphilitic aneurysms with
    bone erosion and rupture, West Virginia Medical Journal, 1976, 72,
    1-4; NK Bodhey, AK Gupta, KS Neelakandhan and M Unnikrishnan, Early
    sternal erosion and luetic aneurysm of thoracic aorta: report of 6
    cases and analysis of cause-effect relationship, European Journal of
    Cardio-thoracic Surgery, 2005, 28, 499-501.

    I don’t know when syphilis first came to Europe, though I vaguely recall seeing something about 14th C evidence last year. Sadly, I can’t track that report down.

  3. There’s a history of syphilis “Syphilis 2001 – a palaeopathological reappraisal” by C. MEYER, C. JUNG, T. KOHL, A. POENICKE, A. POPPE, K. W. ALT with a map of world-wide distribution of the precolumbian sites mentioned in the text that yielded skeletal remains with treponemal infection. But it’s a pay journal:

    I hope that helps.

  4. A syphilic aortic aneurysm is an interesting possibility. I can remember reports of syphilis from Roman Britain or post-Roman Britain. I have a report of an Anglo-Saxon warrior burial with extensive syphilis-like lesions. I may eventually blog on that paper. There seems to be a lot of controversy over pre-Columbian syphilis lesions. I think there is a belief that similar species can cause lesions that look like syphilis. I need to do some more reading on this though.

    I think there are probably several infections that can cause this type of necrosis. This is why a physical anthropologist or forensic pathologist need to look directly at it. I imagine they could make an assessment pretty easily. It is good to be reminded that tuberculosis is not the only possibility.

    1. In the paper referenced above, there’s discussion of various treponemal infections. (Some thoughts, for example, about the confusion of leprosy for syphilis, and the evolution of syphilis.) I’d be happy to send you the PDF.

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