New Historian

The Dark Side of Being Wealthy in the Middle Ages

The Glorification of St. Louis

<![CDATA[During the Middle Ages, the wealthy were able to live in relative luxury in comparison to the lower classes. However, a new research study has found that even while wealthier individuals during this period had plenty of advantages, in one important aspect they were worse off than those living in poverty: susceptibility to lead poisoning. The striking colored glaze used in plates and cups that only the wealthy could afford was a status symbol during the Middle Ages. However, the glazing used relied on lead as a main ingredient – and this lead routinely found its way into the body, where the toxic metal could wreak havoc on the nervous system after prolonged exposure. The new information was uncovered by a cadre of researchers that have examined the skeletal remains left behind in German and Danish cemeteries dating to the Middle Ages. The University of Southern Denmark’s Kaare Lund Rasmussen, an associate professor with the university’s physics and chemistry department, and one of the authors of the new study, said that wealthy individuals or those living in urban environments were highly likely to end up ingesting lead, with the tragic result of reduced intelligence in children. Rasmussen and his colleagues analyzed more than 200 skeletons from a total of six cemeteries across Denmark and northern Germany. The scientist said in a press release from the university that the remains of those who had lived their lives in rural environments showed nearly no evidence of lead in their bones, while those who had lived their lives in urban environments were found to have high levels of the toxic metal. The presence of lead came down soundly across socioeconomic lines. City-dwellers during the Middle Ages tended to be much wealthier than their urban counterparts, which meant that while the wealthy could afford to eat and drink from cups and plates that were glazed with lead oxide, less financially successful rural Danes and Germans could only afford unglazed pottery – a fact that kept lead poisoning largely at bay from the more impoverished populations of the region. Lead was in more than just cups and plates in towns and cities, however. Between stained glass windows, roof tiles and coins, the toxic metal was practically ubiquitous. With drinking water routinely collected off of roofs, this too could have been a significant source of lead in the diet of an urban individual living in the Middle Ages. Additional discoveries made by the research team included the amount of mercury both urban and rural individuals from the time period had been exposed to. Another toxic metal, mercury had several uses in the Middle Ages, such as a medicinal treatment for syphilis and leprosy as well as a preparation for creating the color cinnabar. Mercury exposure followed the same pattern as lead exposure, with the researchers finding it much higher in cities than in the countryside. For more information:]]>

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