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BBC declares "Black women most likely to die in medieval plague" after unnamed "academics at the Museum of London" collect doubtful statistics on 145 medieval skeletons in an uncited unavailable study

BBC declares "Black women most likely to die in medieval plague" after unnamed "academics at the Museum of London" collect doubtful statistics on 145 medieval skeletons in an uncited unavailable study
Photo by TopSphere Media / Unsplash

The internet is presently having a laugh at the BBC for their declaration that “Black women” were “mostly likely to die” in the 14th-century plague.

Black women of African descent were more likely to die of the medieval plague in London, academics at the Museum of London have found.

The study is the first archaeological exploration showing how race may have influenced a person's risk of death during what was known as the Great Pestilence or Great Mortality.

The research is based on 145 individuals from three cemeteries.

Data on bone and dental changes of the 145 individuals from East Smithfield emergency plague cemetery, St Mary Graces and St Mary Spital formed the basis of the study.

This primary data was then examined by applying a forensic anthropological toolkit to estimate whether the bones were likely to have come from someone with African heritage.

It found there were significantly higher proportions of people of colour and those of Black African descent in plague burials compared to non-plague burials.

The report said: “There is a significantly higher proportion of people of estimated African affiliation in the plague burials compared to the nonplague burials (18.4% vs. 8.3%).

“For the female-only sample, individuals of estimated African population affinity have a significantly higher estimated hazard of dying of plague compared to those with estimated white European affinity. There are no significant associations for any of the other comparisons.” …

The research concluded that higher death rates amongst people of colour and those of black African descent was a result of the “devastating effects” of “premodern structural racism” in the medieval world.

The study is nowhere to be found online, and of course, the BBC does not name its authors, give its title, or link to anything at all. They do, however, quote a Michigan State anthropologist named Joseph Hefner on “diversity in medieval England,” and a Museum of London archaeologist named Rebecca Redfern, who says that “As with the recent Covid-19 pandemic, social and economic environment played a significant role in people’s health,” which is “most likely why we find more people of color and those of black African descent in plague burials.”

The Redfern half of Redfnerf holding an ancient skull for the Museum of London website.

Whatever this study is, I think it’s highly likely that Redfern and Hefner – here, we will call them Redfnerf – had something to do with it. The duo is responsible for a previous study on skeletons in the East Smithfield cemetery that tried and failed to establish racial disparities in much the same way. This effort appeared in 2019 under the title “‘Officially absent but actually present’: bioarchaeological evidence for population diversity in London during the Black Death, AD 1348–50,” and it’s worth a read for all that it reveals about Redfnerf’s transparent biases and the terrible infirmity of their methods.

Redfnerf starts out by explaining that “for the past 15 years,” they and their colleagues “have been anecdotally observing the presence of people with Black ancestry and dual heritage in the Medieval cemetery populations of from London” as a means of redressing past injustices. These injustices arose from “not formally recording their presence” and thus “contribut[ing] to their ‘official absence,’” which is bad because it “served to marginalize” these people, who are no longer conscious or alive, “from mainstream knowledge and academic discourse.” To restore some semblance of racial justice to dead fourteenth-century minorities, they selected a non-random sample of 41 skeletons from the East Smithfield cemetery, where plague dead were buried between AD 1348 and 1350.

They elect to analyze their findings according to “the concept of marginalization.” This concept is also “a paradigm which proposes that for many people and societies, they are unable to improve their conditions because of social, political, economic, physical, and environmental barriers.” Whatever Redfnerf find, in other words, they promise to use all the powers of their mediocre syntax to force it into a prewritten narrative of slavery and oppression, because that is only thing people in anthropology want to read these days.

To determine the ancestry of their skeletons, they take various skull measurements and compare these to modern human datasets. As moderns manifest substantial physiological differences from their medieval forbears, this is an unreliable approach, but Redfnerf does it anyway so that the Hefner half of Redfnerf can promote his Macromorphoscopic Databank, which has been in the works for many years, but, like many boutique academic projects, still has yet to go online. Their doubtful criteria identify only 29 of their skeletons as European. A further six have skulls that add up, very implausibly, to be full or mixed-race Asians. After presenting many pages and tables full of statistics on these exotic medieval Asian Londoners, they finally admit that the identification is a “false positive,” because white Europeans in London had shorter and broader heads than modern ones and therefore register as Asian when you crunch their head numbers. Also too, they have mitochondrial DNA from a female skeleton that their methods identify as an Asian-African, and this DNA indicates … white maternal ancestry. Redfnerf is of course undeterred by this unpromising result, which they immediately deploy to rhapsodise about the “diverse heritage” of their minoritized skeletons.

Because Redfnerf believed that “the majority of people with Black African ancestry in Europe” were enslaved in the Middle Ages, they had hoped their black skeletons would demonstrate a greater incidence of disease than their white ones. Alas, they can find no such racial patterns anywhere. They nevertheless write optimistically that “the possibility that some” of their minority skeletons “could have been enslaved cannot be ruled out.” They also decide that “the lack of evidence for multiple indicators of stress” in their black skeletons may itself indicate marginalization and discrimination: “Was their health compromised by their social status to such an extent that they were unable to create a bony response? Did their status as newcomers to London further increase their mortality risk during the Black Death epidemic?” We might call this the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose method of identifying past injustice: If their black skeletons show signs of disease, that is because they were enslaved and marginalized! If they do not show signs of disease, that is also because they were also enslaved and marginalized!

Deprived by their own data of the chance to deplore medieval marginalization, Redfnerf opted for an “osteobiographic approach” to their oppressed skeletons. They first relate the osteobiography of skeleton number 11108, a 36–45 year-old female whom their statistical methods classify as Asian but who they decide must be African. She had arthritis, a bad shoulder, and like most people in the Middle Ages, bad teeth. Number 9540, who is supposed to be a mixed-race African Asian, likewise had arthritis and some healed fractures. In both cases, these conditions “may have occurred because of their marginal status as a social outsider, a factor driven by socioeconomic inequalities based on their ancestry.” The signs of injury and disease in the privileged European skeletons, indistinguishable from those in the oppressed minority skeletons, naturally occurred for other reasons but mysteriously at the same rate.

Two years after publishing this nonsense, Redfnerf wrote a popular article summarising their results for the Museum of London website. The piece is entitled Bioarchaeological evidence for Black women in 14th century London, and it is almost 1000 words long. Because they did not discover much of anything about black women in medieval London, only 320 of these words actually describe their findings. They reluctantly announce that their black skeletons “were placed in the graves with care and respect” and decide that “what exactly this might have meant requires further research.”

The new and unavailable study hailed by the BBC suggests that Museum of London minoritologists have switched methods in their unceasing quest for evidence of medieval racism. Having failed to find increased disease in the allegedly black skeletons of the East Smithfield plague cemetery, they’ve opted to compare the rates of black skeletons in plague and non-plague cemeteries. Their shifting tactics are reminiscent of the statistical sin known as p-hacking, whereby scientists search many variables for statistical correlations until they find one that warrants publication or fits a prior narrative.

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