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Why were medieval monks so susceptible to intestinal worms? | Sciences

Archaeologists excavate the remains of friars buried in the former Augustinian friary in the center of Cambridge.
Cambridge Archaeological Unit

The Augustinian friars of medieval Britain were committed to a life of poverty, but their convents offered a fairly high standard of community life. The monks lived in buildings with sophisticated stone and glass work, studied in libraries, and dined on produce from the abundant gardens. When nature called, they enjoyed special latrines and handwashing facilities, with running water systems that were rare even among the wealthiest households of the time. But new research on human remains from a convent buried beneath Cambridge University shows that the monks suffered greatly from a gastrointestinal condition: worms.

The scientists unearthed centuries-old parasite eggs, buried with monk skeletons in the convent’s private cemetery, and to put their find into context, they compared their abundance with parasites found among commoners of the same era in a nearby Cambridge graveyard. The Friars were affected by intestinal worms at almost twice the rate of the general population of Cambridge, despite the fact that many of the city’s inhabitants lived with no better sanitary facilities than a hole in the ground.

“We expected, if there was going to be a difference, that the monks would have fewer intestinal parasites than are spread by poor sanitation,” says Piers Mitchell, an osteoarchaeologist at the University of Cambridge. “Because they had sinks to wash their hands and nice bathrooms, whereas it would be the poor peasant who may not have a bathroom, or even fresh water to wash their hands, who would have more parasites.”

A study co-authored by Mitchell, posted today in the International Journal of Paleopathology, is the first to compare the abundance of parasites between individuals living different lifestyles in the same medieval community. Such work may help unravel what factors have historically promoted parasite afflictions and what factors helped humans keep them at bay. The study suggests that while sanitation will always be key, other factors may also play a role.

Founded in the 1280s, the Augustinian Friary in Cambridge was a leading home for reading and manuscript study, hosting clergymen from all over Britain and Europe for some 250 years. In 1538 it was closed, like many English monasteries, when Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church. Gone are the tombs of deceased friars, shared with the intestinal plagues that accompanied them in life.

Mitchell and his colleagues sampled soil from the grave that, during decomposition, fell into the body cavity where the intestines once resided. This soil was mixed with remains of the abdominal cavity and its contents, including the eggs of worms that lived in the intestines while the corpse was alive. Using digital light microscopy, the team sifted through the soil to detect and classify ancient parasite eggs that are still found with each skeleton after many centuries.

“The eggs of most intestinal worms are pretty tough, otherwise you would digest them and they could never reproduce and infect other people,” says Mitchell, who was part of another team that recently found parasites in the 4,500-year-old world. . poop left by the builders of Stonehenge. “The hard wall that prevents you from digesting them also makes it difficult for fungi and bacteria in the soil to break them down. Many of them can survive in the soil for hundreds or thousands of years under the right conditions.”

While examining the remains of 19 monks buried on the convent grounds, most from the 13th and 14th centuries, the team found that at least 11 (58 percent) were infected by worms. When they similarly tested the remains of 25 adults from the Todos los Santos cemetery next to the Castillo parish church, only eight of those inhabitants (32 percent) had parasites.

The team was not surprised that around 30 percent of the citizens of medieval Cambridge suffered from parasites; those numbers align with results found in other studies of the period around Europe. But the high rate of infection among monks, nearly double this average, raised eyebrows.

Why such a high prevalence of roundworm and whipworm infections? Scientists speculate that the monks may have contracted the parasites by putting the faeces to work as fertilizer, either by emptying their own latrines to manure crops, or by bringing in external fertilizers contaminated by parasites in human or pig excrement. These practical practices were definitely used in medieval and Roman times, just as they are today in parts of the world where other fertilizer options are scarce.

“It’s a practice that works, but the problem is that you have to make sure you break the cycle of infection,” says Mitchell. The parasites, which in the case of roundworms can grow to nearly a foot in length, shed their eggs in human feces. When humans ingest food or water contaminated by these feces, they become infected and harbor a new generation of parasites. To prevent infection, farmers can compost human waste so it reaches temperatures high enough to kill pathogens and create safe fertilizers, but that can be tricky business.

Many of those affected by the worms would have suffered from gastrointestinal discomfort but never knew that parasites were the reason. In other cases, the obvious presence of visible worms in the stool would have made the problem grimly clear. But medieval medical experts, while aware of worms, were unaware that they could be transmitted from person to person, and especially by poor sanitation.

The learned inhabitants of medieval Cambridge wrote about how parasitic worms were an unsightly part of life and, in the process, displayed a lack of understanding of the problem. 17th century physician John Stockton wrote a manuscript in which he suggested that different intestinal worms were created by imbalances in the four humors of the body; blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. “Long round worms form from excess salty phlegm, short round worms from sour phlegm, while short wide worms come from natural or sweet phlegm,” he wrote. Stockton’s treatment included bitter medicinal plants such as wormwood, which can kill some parasites, though probably at the cost of persistent diarrhoea. A 15th-century monk named Symon Welles swore by an even less palatable cure, a healing drink made from powdered moles. To some, Welles’s method involving small mammals may have made living with worms not seem like a bad option after all.

Scientists have delved into many ancient latrines to uncover evidence of ancient diets and intestinal parasites. Studying such parasites yields a lot of important information, but comes with some challenges. For example, one expert noted that the small sample sizes used in studies like this one can make it difficult to draw broader conclusions. Another expert warned that what look like parasite eggs can sometimes be mistaken for plant debris or fungus.

But studying such pests can better inform ways to control and eradicate them today. That often means improved sanitation, which usually leads to lower levels of harmful parasite problems.

Medieval Cambridge was home to a number of nunneries and nunneries, as well as the other typical inhabitants of a medieval city, including merchants, craftsmen, laborers, farmers, and even the first students of the university who, centuries later, spearheaded efforts to deepen in his past.

Studies like this one comparing parasitic infection rates between discrete subsets of a single community are rare, because when bodies have been mixed up in a graveyard for centuries, it’s hard for researchers to know exactly who is who. But the monastery’s private cemetery provided a unique opportunity. Burials were mostly restricted to the brothers who lived there, with the exception of a few wealthy outsiders who paid for the privilege of burial in hallowed ground. These could be easily spotted and omitted from the study because they were not wearing the revealing robes and surviving rusty belt buckles, in which the monks of the convent were buried.

These unique historical situations, such as the castle baths that preserved parasites from Crusader feces, offer opportunities to learn in more detail how different humans coped with intestinal plagues that were very common in the past, and to help eradicate their remaining descendants. too uncomfortable with us today.


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