Anthropology & Disease


Disease // Rickets

Rickets is among the most frequent childhood diseases in many developing countries. The predominant cause is a vitamin D deficiency (due to lack of sunlight), but lack of adequate calcium in the diet may also lead to rickets.

Although it can occur in adults, the majority of cases occur in children suffering from malnutrition, usually resulting from famine or starvation during the early stages of childhood.

Rickets has historically been a problem in London, especially during the Industrial Revolution. Persistent thick fog and heavy industrial smog permeating the city blocked out significant amounts of sunlight to such an extent that up to 80 percent of children at one time had varying degrees of rickets.

Disease // Gout

Gout is a form of inflammatory arthritis characterised by recurrent attacks of a red, tender, hot, and swollen joint.The painful illness is known as the disease of kings as it afflicted a number of monarchs including Henry VIII.

These days increasing numbers of patients are being admitted to hospital with gout triggered by obesity and heavy drinking.

A treatment for gout in medieval times:

“Take an owl and pluck it clean and open it, clean and salt it. Put it in a new pot and cover it with a stone and put it in an oven and let it stand till it be burnt. And then stamp (pound) it with boar’s grease and anoint the gout therewith.”

Disease // Spina Bifida

Spina bifida is a birth defect where there is incomplete closure of the backbone and membranes around the spinal cord.

There are three main types: spina bifida occulta, meningocele, and myelomeningocele.

The most common location is the lower back, but in rare cases it may be the middle back or neck. Occulta has no or only mild signs including a hairy patch, dimple, dark spot, or swelling on the back at the site of the gap in the spine.

Meningocele typically causes mild problems with a sac of fluid present at the gap in the spine. Myelomeningocele, also known as open spina bifida, is the most severe form. Associated problems include poor ability to walk, problems with bladder or bowel control, hydrocephalus, a tethered spinal cord, and latex allergy.

Disease // Edentulous

People in the Middle Ages considered healthy, white teeth a sign of beauty. So, not surprisingly, we have  evidence that people liked to keep their teeth clean using tooth pastes, powders and treatments.

Contrary to the depiction of medieval peasants with blackened and rotting teeth, the average person in the Middle Ages had teeth which were in very good condition. 

This is mainly due to one factor – the rarity of sugar in the diet.  Most medieval people simply could not afford sugar and those who could used it sparingly – using natural sugars such as those in fruits and honey.  Taken with a diet high in calcium, via dairy foods, vegetables and cereals, the average medieval person ate the way most modern dentists would recommend for good teeth.

endentulous disease

Disease // Calculus

In dentistry, calculus or tartar is a form of hardened dental plaque. It is caused by precipitation of minerals from saliva and gingival crevicular fluid (GCF) in plaque on the teeth.

This process of precipitation kills the bacterial cells within dental plaque, but the rough and hardened surface that is formed provides an ideal surface for further plaque formation.

This leads to calculus buildup, which compromises the health of the gingiva (gums). Calculus can form both along the gumline, where it is referred to as supragingival (“above the gum”), and within the narrow sulcus that exists between the teeth and the gingiva, where it is referred to as subgingival (“below the gum”).

calculous disease

Disease // Broken Femur

Most people in Medieval times never saw a doctor. They were treated by the local wise-woman who was skilled in the use of herbs, or by the priest, or the barber, who pulled out teeth, set broken bones and performed other operations.

Their cures were a mixture of superstition (magic stones and charms were very popular), religion (for example driving out evil spirits from people who were mentally ill) and herbal remedies (some of which are still used today). Monks and nuns also ran hospitals in their monasteries, which took in the sick and dying. 

In some cases, like here with the thighbone (or femur), the bone set badly and the individual would have gone through life with a limp. 

DigiArt Project is funded by the European Commision under grant number 665066

© 2019 Liverpool John Moores University