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Medici children malnutrition - Italy Florence

Bones from the wealthy and privileged Medici children show they suffered from malnutrition

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The Medici family rose to power in the 13 th century in Florence and Tuscany through banking and commerce and became one of the most powerful families of the Renaissance period. However, new research has revealed that the bones from nine Medici children show signs of rickets , a disease typically associated with malnutrition and poverty.

The discovery was made after osteoarchaeologists studied the bones of nine Medici children which were found when researchers discovered a secret entrance to a tomb in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence.  A large sarcophagus in the tomb contained the remains of the last Medici Grand Duke but on the floor were a series of small coffins and several loose bones which had all been moved when the River Arno flooded in 1966. Bones from children in the crypt, aged from newborn to about five years old, showed classic signs of rickets, including bow legs and bent arms.

It seems that being rich and powerful was little protection from the diseases of ‘commoners’. The Medici family produced four Popes of the Catholic Church - Popes Leo X, Clement VII, Pius IV and Leon XI were all Medicis – two regent queens of France, and in the 16 th century the family became hereditary Dukes of Florence. The family also dominated the city’s government and the Medici bank became one of the most prosperous and respected institutions in Europe. The Medicis are also credited with fostering and inspiring the birth of the Italian Renaissance. So how could such rich and powerful people fall victim to a disease of ‘paupers’?

Scientists believe it was a combination of a poor diet and lack of vitamin D. Previous studies have already shown that the Medicis continued weaning their children until they were two, with the addition of ‘pap’, probably made from bread and apple or cereal. This diet lacked the essential vitamin D that the children needed and meant that when they learn to crawl and walk their weight bent their leg and arm bones.  Furthermore, the Medicis, in common with many other wealthy families, kept their young children indoors which could have prevented them from absorbing enough vitamin D from sunlight. Swaddling babies was also commonplace and this would also have reduced their expose to sunlight.

The research team wrote: “The present study clearly demonstrates how, even in the high social classes, children were at the risk of developing rickets as a result of prolonged breast-feeding and inadequate exposure to sunlight. With this prolonged breast-feeding, vitamin D deficiency is highly expected to rise, in particular if the other main risk factor, inadequate sunlight exposition, is associated with this diet based on maternal milk.”

Normally, newborn babies would have enough vitamin D from their mothers at birth but researchers have suggested that the mothers may have also suffered from vitamin D deficiency. During that era, a pale ivory skin was considered a sign of health, wealth and elegance, and so women avoided exposure to sunlight in order to maintain this complexion.

By April Holloway

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