Leprosy in medieval Denmark: Exploring life histories through a multi-tissue and multi-isotopic approach

Anastasia Brozou*, Benjamin T. Fuller, Vaughan Grimes, Niels Lynnerup, Jesper L. Boldsen, Marie Louise Jørkov, Dorthe Dangvard Pedersen, Jesper Olsen, Marcello A. Mannino

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Objectives: By focusing on two Danish leprosaria (Næstved and Odense; 13th–16th c. CE) and using diet and origin as proxies, we follow a multi-isotopic approach to reconstruct life histories of patients and investigate how leprosy affected both institutionalized individuals and the medieval Danish community as a whole. Materials and Methods: We combine archaeology, historical sources, biological anthropology, isotopic analyses (δ13C, δ15N, δ34S, 87Sr/86Sr) and radiocarbon dating, and further analyze bones with different turnover rates (ribs and long bones). Results: The δ13C, δ15N and δ34S results indicate a C3 terrestrial diet with small contributions of marine protein for leprosy patients and individuals from other medieval Danish sites. A similar diet is seen through time, between males and females, and patients with and without changes on facial bones. The isotopic comparison between ribs and long bones reveals no significant dietary change. The δ34S and 87Sr/86Sr results suggest that patients were local to the regions of the leprosaria. Moreover, the radiocarbon dates show a mere 50% agreement with the arm position dating method used in Denmark. Conclusions: A local origin for the leprosy patients is in line with historical evidence, unlike the small dietary contribution of marine protein. Although only 10% of the analyzed individuals have rib/long bone offsets that undoubtedly show a dietary shift, the data appear to reveal a pattern for 25 individuals (out of 50), with elevated δ13C and/or δ15N values in the ribs compared to the long bones, which points toward a communal type of diet and reveals organizational aspects of the institution.

TidsskriftAmerican Journal of Physical Anthropology
Udgave nummer1
Sider (fra-til)36-53
StatusUdgivet - sep. 2021

Bibliografisk note

Funding Information:
This research was funded by the (awarded to Marcello A. Mannino, project: “Danish & European Diets in Time”; AUFF‐E‐2015‐FLS‐8‐2) and the , National Museum of Denmark (awarded to Anastasia Brozou). Anastasia Brozou also acknowledges funding provided by the Faculty of Arts (Aarhus University) to finance her PhD position. The authors are thankful to Odense Bys Museer, Medicinsk Museion, Museum Vestsjælland and National Museum of Denmark for authorizing and encouraging this work. Anastasia Brozou acknowledges ADBOU (University of Southern Denmark), Institute of Forensic Medicine (University of Copenhagen) and Copenhagen Zoological Museum (Natural History Museum of Denmark) for facilitating access to the skeletal collections. Anastasia Brozou is also thankful to Gundula Müldner and Keith Manchester for insightful discussions on the results of this research and on the clinical and skeletal manifestations of leprosy, respectively, and to Cassady J. Yoder Urista for sharing data on the monk population from Øm Kloster. The authors are indebted to Thomas Colard for cutting and preparing the teeth for Sr analysis. Dr Rebecca Lam (CREAIT, MUN), Zuzana V. Hansen and the technical staff of the Aarhus AMS Centre are thanked for technical support. Kristian Murphy Gregersen is thanked for identifying and sampling the animal bones and Sascha Mauel for preparing Figure 1 . Aarhus University Research Foundation Elisabeth Munksgaard Foundation.


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