Medieval monks were almost twice as likely to be infected by intestinal parasites as city dwellers, a new analysis of remains found in Cambridge shows.
This is despite the fact that most Augustinian monasteries of the time had latrine blocks and hand-washing facilities, unlike the homes of ordinary workers.
Experts said the difference in parasitic infection could be due to monks fertilizing the plants in the monastery gardens with their own feces or buying fertilizer that contained human or pig excrement.
The study, conducted by University of Cambridge researchers, is the first to compare parasite prevalence among people from the same medieval community who lived different lifestyles and therefore potentially differed in their risk of infection.
The population of medieval Cambridge consisted of residents of monasteries, monasteries and nunneries of various major Christian orders, as well as merchants, traders, artisans, labourers, farmers and early university staff and students.
Cambridge archaeologists examined soil samples taken from around the pools of adult remains from the former All Saints’ Cemetery at the Castle Parish Church and on the site of what was once the city’s Augustinian monastery.
Mucky: Medieval monks were almost twice as likely to contract intestinal parasites as townspeople, a new analysis of remains found in Cambridge (pictured) shows
Experts said the difference in parasite infection could be due to Augustinian monks fertilizing crops in the monastery gardens with their own feces or buying fertilizer that contained human or pig excrement
ONE IN FOUR PERSONS IN MEDIEVAL EUROPE MAY HAVE A PARASITIC SOUNDWORM – STUDY
Parasitic roundworms may have infested the guts of one in four people living in Europe during the Middle Ages, a separate study using hundreds of grave specimens found.
The worms — known to experts as helminths, which include whipworms and tapeworms — feed by stealing nutrients from their hosts, which can lead to weakness and disease.
According to the Oxford University researchers, the study’s findings could help fight worm infections in countries where such infections are still endemic today.
Although no longer endemic to Europe, helminths are now estimated to infect around 1.5 billion people around the world.
The parasitic worms spread between hosts via their eggs, which leave the body with the feces and can contaminate soil and water.
Its effects can range from just mild symptoms to chronic malnutrition and physical impairment – the latter cases being more common in infected children.
In their study, University of Oxford infectious disease expert Adrian Smith and colleagues took samples of human pelvises from 589 graves buried at seven different European sites dating from the years 680 to 1700.
Of these sites, two were in Germany, two in the Czech Republic and the rest in the UK – including Worcester Cathedral, the former Haymarket in York and Stoke Quay in Ipswich.
Most burials in the parish church date from the 12th to 14th centuries, and those buried there were mainly of lower socioeconomic status, mostly agricultural labourers.
The Augustinian monastery at Cambridge was an international study house known as a studium generale, where clergymen from all over Britain and Europe came to read manuscripts.
It was founded in the 1280s and lasted until 1538, before meeting the fate of most English monasteries – closed or destroyed as part of Henry VIII’s break with the Church of Rome.
The researchers tested 19 monks from the monastery grounds and 25 locals from the All Saints’ Cemetery.
They found that 11 of the monks (58 percent) were infected with worms, compared to just eight of the general townspeople (32 percent).
They say these rates are probably the minimum and that the actual number of infections would have been higher, but some traces of worm eggs in the basin sediment would have been destroyed by fungi and insects over time.
The 32 percent prevalence of parasites among city dwellers is consistent with studies of medieval burials in other European countries, suggesting that this is not particularly low – but infection rates at the monastery were remarkably high.
“The monks of medieval Cambridge appear to have been infested with parasites,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Piers Mitchell of the Department of Archeology, Cambridge.
“This is the first time anyone has attempted to find out how common parasites were among people with different lifestyles in the same medieval city.”
Cambridge researcher Tianyi Wang, who performed the microscopy to detect the parasite eggs, said: “Roundworm was the most common infection, but we also found evidence of whipworm infection.
“These are both spread by poor sanitation.”
Common sanitation in medieval towns relied on the cesspit toilet – holes in the floor used for feces and household waste.
However, running water systems were a common feature in monasteries – including for flushing out the latrine – although this has yet to be confirmed at the Cambridge site, which has only been partially excavated.
Not all people buried in Augustinian monasteries were actually clergy since wealthy city folk could pay to be buried there. However, the team was able to determine which graves belonged to monks from the remains of their clothing.
“The brothers were buried with the belts they wore as standard dress of the order and we could see the metal buckles at the excavation,” said co-author Craig Cessford of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit.
Because roundworms and whipworms are spread through poor sanitation, researchers argue that the difference in infection rates between the brethren and the general population must be due to how each group managed its human excrement.
“One possibility is that the monks fertilized their vegetable gardens with human feces, which was not uncommon in the Middle Ages, and this may have led to repeated infection with the worms,” said Dr. mitchell
Medieval records show how Cambridge residents might have understood parasites such as roundworms and whipworms.
John Stockton, a Cambridge physician who died in 1361, left Peterhouse College a manuscript containing a section on De Lumbricis (“on worms”).
Theory: Because roundworms (pictured) and whipworms are spread through poor sanitation, researchers argue that the difference in infection rates between the brethren and the general population must be due to how each group managed its human waste
Medieval records show how Cambridge residents might have understood parasites such as roundworms and whipworms
Cambridge archaeologists examined soil samples taken from around the pools of adult remains from the former All Saints’ Cemetery at the Castle Parish Church and on the site of what was once the city’s Augustinian monastery
It states that intestinal worms are produced by an excess of different types of mucus: “Long round worms form from an excess of salty mucus, short round worms from acidic mucus, while short and broad worms arise from natural or sweet mucus.”
The text prescribes “bitter medicinal plants” such as aloe and wormwood, but recommends camouflaging them with “honey or other sweet things” to aid in the medicine’s effects.
Another text – Tabula Medicine – resonated with leading Cambridge physicians of the 15th century. It suggests remedies such as those recommended by individual Franciscan friars such as Symon Welles, who advocated mixing a powder made from moles into a healing drink.
Overall, according to previous research, those buried in the monasteries of medieval England had lived longer than those in the parish cemeteries, perhaps due to a more nutritious diet, a luxury of wealth.
The new study was published in the International Journal of Paleopathology.
HOW WAS 14TH CENTURY BRITAIN LIKE?
During the 14th century Britain was in the depths of the Middle Ages.
Child mortality was high, up to a third of all children did not survive the age of five due to illness, infirmity and a lack of medical knowledge.
Up to 20 percent of women would die during childbirth or from postpartum infections.
If a person survived a risky childhood and lived in a time without war, the average life expectancy peaked at around 40-45 years.
The House of Plantagenet was the royal house that oversaw the entire century; by Charles III. until Richard II was deposed in 1399.
In the middle of the century, in a four-year period between 1347 and 1351, came one of the worst pandemics of all time – the Black Death.
It killed an estimated 200 million people – between 30 and 60 percent of the entire European population.
The Oriental rat flea was infected with the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which spread the plague through the filthy streets and villages so popular in the era when hygiene and germs were not understood.
In addition to one of the worst cases of disease in human history, which killed millions of people, scores died from lack of food thanks to the Great Famine that spanned 1315-1317.
Poor weather conditions resulted in terrible grain yields and caused food shortages across Europe.
Starvation caused millions of deaths and a rise in crime, cannibalism, and infanticide during this period.
When childbirth, disease, plague, or starvation did not lead to premature death, many people met a more violent end as conflict was the order of the day.
The Hundred Years’ War (which lasted 116 years from 1337 to 1453) was a series of conflicts between the kingdoms of England and France over the “rightful” succession to the French throne.
In 1381, the working class fought back against the wealthy rulers in the “Great Rebellion” or “Peasants’ Revolt,” in which 1,500 rebels died in protest at poor living conditions and rising taxes.