Leprosy was an iconic disease in medieval Europe during what has been defined the ‘golden age of bacteria’. From the eleventh century onwards, several leprosy hospitals were founded as a mitigating response to the risk of infection, and medieval treatises and chronicles suggest that leprosy, and other diseases related or often confused with that condition, were treated with medicinal plants and other ingredients of mineral and animal origin. However, very little is known about the methods used to diagnose and treat this disease within leprosaria, and, to date, medical treatments of leprosy have very rarely been put in their physical context.
Through the analysis of dental calculus (tartar), my project: ‘Medical treatments in medieval leprosaria: Exploring healing remedies through dental calculus analysis’ (MEDICAL), will explore medical care offered to people who experienced leprosy and lived in leprosaria in Northern Europe from 1100 to 1550. The research will focus on two leprosaria’s cemeteries: St. Leonard at Peterborough in England, and Saint-Thomas d’Aizier in France. To date, medical treatments for leprosy have never been analysed directly through archaeological human remains (in this case dental calculus) and skeletal remains recovered from selected historic cemeteries offer an unparalleled opportunity to investigate medical treatments beyond what is written in historical documents.
Although archaeologists have long recorded tartar on teeth, it is only in the last decades that its importance has been widely recognised by the scientific community as evidence that can inform the past. This deposit on the teeth, which continued to form throughout the life of an individual, represents a unique archaeological record. It provides evidence for health and hygiene, dietary and non-dietary habits, and the lifestyle of past populations. Within the calculus we can detect traces of food and environmental micro debris including starch grains, phytoliths, pollen, and fungal spores, as well as plant fibres and animal micro-remains such as bast fibres and fish scales. Critically for this study, the analysis of these microfossils also permits the identification of plant species, which may be directly linked to medicinal uses rather than to food consumption.
Under the supervision of Dr. Emanuela Cristiani (Sapienza University) and Professor Charlotte Roberts (Durham University), I will create a reference collection of modern specimens of plants mentioned in historical texts in association with leprosy. I will then interpret bone changes associated with leprosy in medieval osteological collections, and analyse the dental calculus employing cutting edge techniques (i.e. optical microscopy, inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry). This novel methodological approach promises to shed new light on the history of medieval medicine, particularly the treatment of leprosy, but also on dental calculus research.
Thanks to a stimulating a link between different European institutions, MEDICAL aims to provide a platform for future research on medical care in the Middle Ages. The project is still in its early phases, but findings and resources will be made available on the MEDICAL website. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you are interested on this topic or you might want to suggest some ideas!
Dr. Elena Fiorin is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow based in the Department of Oral and Maxillo Facial Sciences, Sapienza University (Italy). She is currently working on the MEDICAL project (Medical treatments in medieval leprosaria. Exploring healing remedies through dental calculus analysis) which aims to investigate diet and medical care given to the people that lived in leprosaria in Northern Europe during the late medieval period (1100-1550).