The skull of a young girl who suffered from syphilis; she would have been a candidate for treatment with mercury in the Middle Ages.

A Toxic Price to Pay: Wealthy citizens in medieval Europe had poisoning from lead-glazed plates

(Read the article on one page)

Rich city dwellers in medieval northern Europe had elevated lead and mercury levels that probably caused them serious health problems. Fewer rural people, who were poorer, had elevated heavy metals and those that did had less of the toxins in their systems than city dwellers.

An analysis of medieval skeletons by a Danish research team shows poisonous lead had entered the bodies of people buried in cemeteries in northern Germany and Denmark. The study says the lead could have been introduced through several sources but rules out absorption after death.

The medieval people would not have known how poisonous lead is, of course, or they probably wouldn’t have used it to glaze their kitchenware and put it in coins. Other sources of the heavy metal in the villagers’ systems may have included the lead-lined roofs, where drinking water was collected, as well as stained-glass windows.

The researchers examined the remains of people from six cemeteries, both urban and rural, in the two countries and revealed high levels of lead and mercury for city dwellers. Fewer people who lived in the countryside had elevated levels, says a press release from Southern Denmark University.

"The exposure was higher and more dangerous in the urban communities, but lead was not completely unknown in the country. We saw that 30 percent of the rural individuals had been in contact with lead—although much less than the townspeople,” Professor Kaare Lund Rasmussen of University of Southern Denmark’s Department of Physics, Chemistry and Pharmacy, said in the press release.

"Lead poisoning can be the consequence when ingesting lead, which is a heavy metal. In the Middle Ages you could almost not avoid ingesting lead, if you were wealthy or living in an urban environment. But what is perhaps more severe, is the fact that exposure to lead leads to lower intelligence of children.”

A stained-glass window in Schleswig, German; remains in a cemetery there were analyzed for the study. Only the rich could afford such windows.

A stained-glass window in Schleswig, German; remains in a cemetery there were analyzed for the study. Only the rich could afford such windows. (Photo by Frank Vincentz/ Wikimedia Commons )

Some of the symptoms of lead poisoning in kids include learning difficulties, developmental delay, loss of appetite and weight, vomiting, hearing loss, fatigue and sluggishness, according to WebMd . Constipation and abdominal pain affect both children and adults. says children are primarily at risk of lead poisoning, but adults too suffer ill effects from it, including high blood pressure, joint and muscle pains, lower mental function and headache. Adults also suffer from pain or numbness of extremities, bad moods, abnormal or reduced sperm counts and premature birth or miscarriage.

The glazed pottery, used more in the more affluent towns than in the country, was a big source of lead, according to the press release from the University of Southern Denmark.

"In those days lead oxide was used to glaze pottery. It was practical to clean the plates and looked beautiful, so it was understandably in high demand. But when they kept salty and acidic foods in glazed pots, the surface of the glaze would dissolve and the lead would leak into the food," Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen and colleagues examined 207 skeletons from cemeteries in Rathaus Markt in Schleswig (Germany) and Ole Worms Gade in Horsens (Denmark). The remains from both were from medieval cemeteries in wealthier towns that had more contact with the world than people in the countryside.

An aerial shot of Skt. Alberts cemetery on the island of Ærø, Denmark

An aerial shot of Skt. Alberts cemetery on the island of Ærø, Denmark (Aegislash; Museum/ SDU)

They also studied bodies from cemeteries in St. Clements outside of Schleswig (Germany), Tirup outside of Horsens (Denmark), Nybøl in Jutland (Denmark) and St. Alberts Chapel on the island of Ærø (Denmark), the press release says,

The team tested the skeletons mercury content. That element, also poisonous to humans, was employed in making red pigment cinnabar and for gilding. Medicines were also prepared from mercury to treat syphilis and leprosy, the press release states.

Again, city dwellers had more mercury than rural folk. Amazingly, about half the people examined had leprosy, which was treated with mercury.

Featured image: The skull of a young girl who suffered from syphilis; she would have been a candidate for treatment with mercury in the Middle Ages. (Birgitte Svennevig/ SDU)

By Mark Miller


The glass window looks amazing. Any information on that would be greatly appreciated.


Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

Aristotle’s Masterpiece Completed in Two Parts.
A perverted "sex manual" featuring shocking magical and mythical X-rated content will be sold at a UK auction next month. The first edition of this sordid book entitled Aristotle's Masterpiece Completed In Two Parts, The First Containing the Secrets of Generation, was published in London in 1684.

Myths & Legends

An illustration of Vasilisa the Beautiful, by Ivan Bilibin.
[…] In the evening the girl laid the table and began waiting for Baba-Yaga. It grew dark. The black horseman swept by and it was night. The skulls’ eyes began to shine. The trees creaked, the dead leaves crunched, the earth trembled, and there was Baba-Yaga…

Human Origins

Silhouettes (Public Domain) in front of blood cells (Public Domain) and a gene.
Most people who have the Rh blood type are Rh-positive. There are also instances, however, where people are Rh-Negative. Health problems may occur for the unborn child of a mother with Rh-Negative blood when the baby is Rh-Positive.

Ancient Technology

The Lycurgus Cup.
A strange chalice made its way into the British Museum’s collection in the 1950s. It is a 1,600-year-old jade green Roman artifact called the Lycurgus Cup. The image on the chalice is an iconic scene with King Lycurgus of Thrace...

Ancient Places

The highly-decorated tomb is built in a distinctive ‘L’ shape
A mysterious ancient tomb with “unusual and rare” wall paintings has been discovered in Egypt. Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Enany told BBC reporters the discovery of a 4,400-year-old tomb found during excavation work in Giza’s western cemetery “likely belonged to Hetpet, a priestess to Hathor, the goddess of fertility, who assisted women in childbirth.”

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article