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Damaged cranium of one of the warrior monks

Slain Woman Warrior Amongst a Large Burial of Medieval Knights in Guadalajara

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A phenomenal research project has studied the remains of 25 individuals buried between the 12th and 15th centuries in the castle at Zorita de los Canes, Guadalajara, Spain. By examining the remains from the castle's cemetery, the team was able to deduce the diet, lifestyle, and causes of death of the warrior monks, who were members of the Order of Calatrava. Amongst these individuals, 23 died in battle, and most interestingly, one of the remains was that of a woman. Another individual’s remains out of battle were that of an infant. 

Knights of the Medieval Order: A Scientific Enquiry 

Situated on a bend of the Tagus River in Guadalajara east of Madrid, the remains of the castle of Zorita de los Canes still stand on the hill where emir Mohammed I of Cordova built it in 852. The fortress, initially constructed to defend the emirate from Christian attacks, changed hands twice before being definitively conquered by the knights of the Order of the Temple in 1124. 

Fifty years later, Alfonso VIII of Castile ceded the fortress to the newly founded Order of Calatrava, a Cistercian military and religious order tasked with defending the border, then marked by the Tagus River, from Almohad incursions. 

The remains were exhumed from the cemetery of the castle of Zorita de los Canes

The remains were exhumed from the cemetery of the castle of Zorita de los Canes, in Guadalajara, Spain. ( Carme Rissech/ Universitat Rovira i Virgili) 

Led by the Universitat Rovira i Virgili (URV) and the Max Planck Institute, the findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports, revealed that the knights of the order followed a diet typical of medieval high society, with significant intake of animal protein and marine fish, despite the area being far from the coast. 

The research, which included collaborators from the University of Barcelona and the archaeologists who led the excavations, is part of the MONBONES project. This multidisciplinary project uses zooarchaeology, anthropology, documentary research, and molecular analysis to provide a new historical perspective on the life, diet, health, economy, and society in monasteries from the 14th to the 19th centuries.                                                                                                                                         

When Carme Rissech, from URV's Department of Basic Medical Sciences, was informed that she would be analyzing the remains of Calatrava knights, she could hardly believe it. Her team analyzed the carbon-14 and nitrogen-15 isotopes in the bones of the 25 individuals. 

The team also examined animal remains found around the castle, which provided additional insights into the habits of the castle's inhabitants from the 12th to the 15th centuries. In the laboratory, Rissech assessed the age, sex, morphology, and health of the individuals to understand their lifestyle and causes of death. 

A section of the cemetery at Zorita de los Canes from where the remains were sourced.

A section of the cemetery at Zorita de los Canes from where the remains were sourced. Carme Rissech/ Universitat Rovira i Virgili) 

A Medieval Elite Warrior Class 

“Most of the individuals display a significant number of penetrating stab wounds and blunt force injuries, suggestive of violent episodes,” write the researchers. “We observed many lesions on the upper part of the skull, the cheeks and the inner part of the pelvis, which is consistent with the hypothesis that we are dealing with warriors," added study author Carme Rissech in a statement. 

Among the 25 skeletons, 23 had marks indicative of violent deaths, mainly penetrating puncture wounds and blunt force injuries, located on the body's most vulnerable and unprotected areas. Although these characteristics can sometimes make it difficult to determine sex, in this case, there was little doubt. Who was this woman? Was she part of the order? Did she hold the same status as the other knights? 

One hypothesis suggests that the woman was a servant who was called upon to fight and defend the castle. However, Rissech is skeptical of this theory, as her bones do not exhibit the wear and tear typically seen in medieval servants. In contrast, the woman's skeleton displays characteristics typical of well-trained warrior monks. Rissech writes, "Her work as a servant would have left specific physical activity markers on her bones, which we did not find." 

The woman's injuries suggested that she participated in and died in battle, as there was no evidence of bone regrowth. "She may have died similarly to the male knights, likely wearing armor or chain mail," says Rissech. 

However, her dietary indicators differed from some of the individuals analyzed. "We observed a lower level of protein consumption in this woman, possibly indicating lower status in the social group," says Rissech. According to the researcher, we should picture her as a forty-year-old warrior, just under five feet tall, neither stocky nor slender, and skillful with a sword. 

Top image: Damaged cranium of one of the warrior monks found at Zorita de los Cane. Source: Carme Rissech/ Universitat Rovira i Virgili 

References 

Milligan, M. 2024. Female burial found among 23 warrior monks of the Order of Calatrava in Guadalajara. Available at: https://www.heritagedaily.com/2024/06/female-burial-found-among-23-warrior-monks-of-the-order-of-calatrava-in-guadalajara/152160 

Pérez-Ramallo, P., Rissech, C., Lloveras, L.,  et al. 2024. Unravelling social status in the first medieval military order of the Iberian Peninsula using isotope analysis. Scientific Reports, 14. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-024-61792-y 

Taub, B. 2024. Woman Warrior Monk Discovered Among Remains Of Medieval Spanish Knights . Available at: https://www.iflscience.com/woman-warrior-monk-discovered-among-remains-of-medieval-spanish-knights-74512 

 
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Sahir

I am a graduate of History from the University of Delhi, and a graduate of Law, from Jindal University, Sonepat. During my study of history, I developed a great interest in post-colonial studies, with a focus on Latin America. I... Read More

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