The Project

Medical treatments in medieval leprosaria. Exploring healing remedies through dental calculus analysis

MEDICAL is a project funded by Marie Sklodowska Curie Actions (MSCA) 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 AD).

Leprosy was an “iconic” disease in medieval Europe and from the 11th century, when several leprosy hospitals were founded as a mitigating response to the risk of infection. 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 how this disease was treated within leprosaria.

Through the analysis of dental calculus, the MEDICAL project will explore medical care offered to people who experienced leprosy and lived in leprosaria in Northern Europe during the medieval period. The research will focus on two leprosarium cemetery sites: St. Leonard at Peterborough (England) and Saint-Thomas d’Aizier (France).

Sampling and recording dental calculus at the Department of Archaeology, Durham University
A close-up of a miniature showing a medieval apothecary’s shop (British Library, image of Public Domain)

To date, medical treatments for leprosy have never been analysed directly through dental calculus. Therefore, 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historic cemeteries offer an unparalleled opportunity to investigate medical treatments beyond what is written in historical documents.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 represents a unique archaeological record, which continues to form throughout the life of an individual. It provides evidence for health and hygiene, dietary and non-dietary habits, and the lifestyle of past populations. Within the calculus traces of food and environmental microdebris including starch grains, phytoliths, pollen, and fungal spores, as well as plant fibres and animal micro-remains may also be incorporated.

The main objectives of MEDICAL project (PI Elena Fiorin, supervisors Emanuela Cristiani and Charlotte Roberts) are:

1. To advance methodologies for the interpretation of ancient medicine through the study of dental calculus;

2. To interpret bone changes associated with leprosy in medieval osteological collections;

3. To identify the ingredients employed in medicinal remedies;

4. To create a comparative European overview of the medicalcare offered to people affected by leprosy.

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.

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