Professor Alice Roberts explores "explores life, death and disease in the Middle Ages and beyond"

After a sell-out run in 2022, Professor Alice Roberts is returning to theatres across the UK to launch her new book Crypt. The final instalment of her acclaimed trilogy, it explores life, death, and disease in the Middle Ages and beyond.
Alice Roberts (pic by Craig Hastings)Alice Roberts (pic by Craig Hastings)
Alice Roberts (pic by Craig Hastings)

On Monday, March 4 she visits Guildford’s GLive and on Wednesday, March 6 she will be at Portsmouth’s Guildhall. For details, and to book, visit:

In the book Alice looks at the archaeological evidence for terrible brutality directed at an ethnic minority in medieval England. She explores the impact of incurable epidemics sweeping through Europe and looks at how modern science is unlocking secrets from the watery grave of the Mary Rose shipwreck. She also reveals how archaeogenetic research is uncovering cryptic clues and shedding new light on diseases such as leprosy, syphilis and the plague.

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“It is not purely historical. We are using the same techniques that we are using to track diseases now. We are using the same techniques to sequence DNA but just from very, very old bones. Rather than a swab to the mouth, you take DNA from the bones and what that gives you is an extraordinary insight into families through time. You can learn about the big migrations. You can see a new group has arrived in the country. You can see new people coming in.”

But the point is that the approach democratises our knowledge: “We have already got quite a lot of history from the mediaeval era. There are quite a lot of documents even though they are pretty sketchy, but they're about kings and queens. We know about the nobility but about the ordinary people there is very little until now. Before you were getting the biographies of the elite strata but archaeology is a very democratising discipline. You can see everyone. You're looking at the bones and you are reconstructing lives. There is a word for it – osteobiography.”

And what emerges is a life which was “pretty miserable”: “There was a lot of violence and there was a lot of ethnic violence. There is a mass grave in Oxford where there is quite terrible evidence of horrendous violence. There was really nasty hate crime.”

And if that didn't get you, then the infectious diseases probably would: “And that's one of the biggest differences between medicine now and then. We have taken for granted, apart from the last couple of years, that we have antibiotics and vaccines. They have been completely transformative but in the middle ages people facing the plague had absolutely nothing. They had some ideas about stopping its spread but basically there was nothing they could do.”

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It's a very skewed figure Alice stresses, but she would say that life expectancy back then was around 30, which isn't to say that people didn't live a lot longer but the point is that massive infant mortality brought down the average. And even into the early 20th century mortality in childhood was a huge issue: “If you were a mum in the early 20th century half of your children might not get to grow into adulthood.”

In 2023 Alice presented Ancient Egypt by Train and Fortress Britain; The Lost Scrolls of Vesuvius; Curse of the Ancients and Royal Autopsy.