After winning the Hundred Years’ War, the French kings undertook an expansionist policy that annexed numerous fiefdoms and neighboring states to the crown. One of the objectives of King Charles VIII of France was the Duchy of Brittany, a territory that, although nominally his vassal, was actually independent and an ally of the English. The death of Duke Francis II without male children gave him the opportunity he was waiting for to invade the Breton peninsula, so he bought the succession rights from one of his possible heiresses and set out to conquer the dukedom.
Faced with all the power of France, the Bretons gathered around their new Duchess Anne, who married Maximilian of Habsburg and allied herself with England and Ferdinand the Catholic in exchange for mercenaries with whom to defend Britain. Despite the disproportion of forces, the duchess resisted the invaders for four years, until she was finally surrounded in the city of Rennes with her last followers in mid-1491. The siege of the town lasted for five months, from July to November, until the surrender of the Bretons. As part of the peace treaty, Ana married Carlos after separating from Maximilian (with whom she had not consummated the marriage), so the duchy became part of the kingdom of France.
520 years later some medieval skeletons were found in the Jacobin Convent in Rennes during its conversion into a congress centre. The bodies were found by the Institut National de Recherches Archéologiques Préventives (INRAP), which excavated the site between 2011 and 2013 before the remodeling work took place.
Archaeologists identified 137 individuals from the Medieval and Modern ages, including an exceptionally preserved 17th-century lady. Outside the convent walls the excavators found a pair of mass graves (numbered 322 and 337) containing 4 and 28 bodies respectively. Their bones showed unhealed cuts, so it was concluded that they were soldiers buried after some combat in the area. In addition, the presence of healed wounds made it possible to recognize among the dead some older veteran soldiers buried alongside the recruits.
KILLED IN BATTLE
Now a multidisciplinary team has carried out the chemical and genetic study of these 32 remains, which has just been published in the journal PLOS One. The researchers have dated the bodies between 1450 and 1600 using carbon 14, and are inclined to link them to siege of 1491. On the one hand that was the only battle fought in Rennes during the period, and on the other the dead of the wars that affected Brittany in the following years tend to show gunshot wounds, absent in the case at hand. At the same time, the disorderly piling up of the bodies on four levels in the large grave indicates the hasty burial of the soldiers, which could only have occurred as a result of a battle fought on the spot.
An unusual find in this warlike context were personal objects such as a rosary of pearls and shoes (which were normally looted), which shows the respect that the French showed towards the dead. In fact, the convent was neutral territory throughout the siege and Ana signed her surrender there, which is why it would be the sacred ground chosen by Carlos to bury the casualties of both sides. The numerical disproportion between one grave and the other is due to the fact that the soldiers of the French army were buried in the largest one, while the other was destined for a group of Bretons who did not live in the city and therefore did not have a plot of land assigned for them. his grave in the municipal cemetery.
Another interesting aspect of the study is the identification of four horsemen from the wounds they received on their legs, made from below to dismount them, while their arms and back show cuts inflicted once they fell to the ground and were finished off. The authors have also determined that the wounds were made with swords and halberds, since their sharpness and weight correspond to the data provided by the observation of the notches with an epifluorescence macroscope. Being deep and long cuts, other weapons such as knives, daggers and arrowheads have been discarded.
A FAMILY BURIAL
The tomb of the Bretons has turned out to be the resting place of three relatives who curiously share the same DNA as the 17th century noblewoman found within the convent, Louise de Quengo. Of these, two were born in Rennes as evidenced by the high concentration of sulfur in their roots, while the other spent his childhood somewhere inland, probably the villages of Coulommiers or Melun in the southeast of Paris. The latter was also a seasoned soldier, as his body shows numerous healed wounds from previous battles.
Their diet has revealed that two of them did not live in Brittany, as the sulfur in their teeth and bones increased dramatically in the last years of their lives, so they would be relatives who would have returned home to contribute to the fight for independence. . In addition, one of them was noble but poor, since he ate less meat than the rest as evidenced by his low carbon levels.
Although strontium has been used in the reconstruction of migrations since 1994, INRAP’s work adds oxygen and sulfur to chemical analyses, which allows data to be compared and the origin and movement of individuals to be established with greater certainty. Although localization using these three isotopes is still a new science, their incorporation into future research will provide us with hitherto unknown information about the lives of our ancestors.