It was a time when battles, plagues and ghastly accidents caused much misery, but now research suggests that the inhabitants of medieval Britain were no strangers to another tribulation: cancer.
According to Cancer Research UK about 50% of people in the UK born after 1960 will receive a cancer diagnosis during their lifetime. However, such diseases were thought to be relatively rare in medieval times.
Now experts say that an analysis of human bones dating from the 6th to 16th centuries reveals that cancer was 10 times more common than previously thought.
“It really highlights that cancer was not a really rare disease in the past that most people think it is,” said Dr. Piers Mitchell of the University of Cambridge, a co-author of the study.
Writing in Cancer magazine, Mitchell and his colleagues report how they carried out inspections, X-rays and CT scans on the remains of 96 men, 46 women and one individual of unknown gender, excavated from six cemeteries in and around Cambridge.
“We had remains of poor people living within the city, we had the rich living within the city, we had an Augustinian convent within the city and we had a hospital, so we had a real mix of the different types of subpopulations that they are found in medieval times. life, ”Mitchell said, noting that the remains also included people with agricultural backgrounds.
While the remains spanned several centuries, Mitchell said the conditions, life expectancy and cancer risks faced by people would have been similar, meaning the bones could be taken together for analysis.
The team focused on the sites of the spine, pelvis and femurs, Mitchell said that were the most likely to show signs of cancer if it had spread to the bones. The results revealed that five people were considered to have cancer, and one of them showed signs of a type of blood cancer. All were middle-aged or older.
Once the team took into account the proportion of cancers that spread to the bone, as well as the sensitivity of CT scans to detect signs of such spread, they estimated that between 9% and 14% of the medieval population had such a disease when they died.
That, the team said, was much higher than the estimate of less than 1% suggested by previous archaeological studies, based on visible cancerous lesions on the bone surface.
While the new research had limitations, including its small sample size, Mitchell said the numbers could be underestimated: Not all types of bones were analyzed, while bones affected by cancer may be less likely to survive the passing of cancer. weather. In addition, the team excluded bones that showed damage that could have been caused by cancer, but that may have arisen from other causes, such as burrowing insects or bacterial infections.
The team said the three to four times higher prevalence of cancer in modern times could be due to a variety of factors including increased life expectancy, tobacco use, increased industrial pollutants and increased population densities and travel that could help DNA-damaging viruses spread.
While there is a growing range of cancer treatments today, Mitchell said that people who had the disease in medieval Britain would have had few options – pain relievers were likely only available to those who could afford them, whereas Poultices or cauterization may have been used.
“There was very little [doctors] it would have had to have been really useful, ”he said.