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The lost  village of Wharram Percy
Tuesday 14 December 2004 11.00-11.30am 

Aubrey Manning visits Wharram Percy for 'Unearthing Mysteries' to try to discover why the entire village came to be abandoned.

Wharram Percy church
A ruined church in a picturesque valley in the Yorkshire Wolds is all that remains of the once prosperous village of Wharram Percy.

Think of the Middle Ages and we tend to conjure up visions of Kings and Dukes in full armour, of rich land owners and abbots in their manors and cathedrals. Until comparatively recently, very little was known about the everyday existence of the common people in their villages. The village of Wharram Percy was just a name on a map - and only a good map at that. To find it took a trek across the Yorkshire Wolds, away from metalled roads. Once there, only a ruined church and a few bumps in the fields revealed what must once have been a thriving village.

Now, after 40 years of excavation, the site is famous among archaeologists as a window into medieval peasant life. And it's not only the abandoned houses that have yielded secrets. The bones recovered from the church yard are still being analysed and are painting a new picture of life - and death - in the Middle Ages.

Aubrey Manning visits Wharram Percy for 'Unearthing Mysteries' to try to discover why the entire village came to be abandoned. Could it have been raiders from Scotland? There's evidence of a raid and burning in a village nearby. Could it have been the Black Death? In the mid 14th Century that plague accounted for the death of perhaps a quarter or even a third of the population of England. But life at Wharram Percy seems to have continued. 
Alastair Oswald, Simon Mays and Aubrey Manning
Alastair Oswald and Simon Mays of English Heritage at the window of Wharram Percy church, showing Aubrey Manning a femur of one of the medieval inhabitants.

It's possible to get an idea of the people's health and diet from their bones and even to tell that more people were left handed then than today. It seems that babies were breast-fed and were almost as healthy as those of today. But once fully weaned, signs of malnutrition and disease begin to show in the children.

By the late 15th Century, nutrition and prosperity were changing. Houses were being abandoned. Part of the church was demolished to make it smaller. And bones show that the inhabitants did not reach full growth until they were nearly 30 years old. The explanation could be - sheep. Greedy land owners were turning more and more land over to rearing sheep for the profitable wool trade. That provided less employment and little chance for growing crops on the side.

In the end, there were just 4 homes left, and records show how Baron Hilton, the landlord, evicted even them. The final inhabitant - perhaps just a vagrant - died when the last ruined house collapsed on him as he slept. It was a sad end for a once-prosperous village, but is proving a gift for archaeologists investigating medieval village life. 

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