A collection of the medieval bones at the chapel in Montella, Italy. Source: University of Southern Denmark

Bone Analysis Reveals Disturbing Habits of Medieval Danes and Italians


A fascinating, and exceptionally niche, new scientific study has looked at the mineral content of medieval bones of Danish and Italian people. The results paint a fresh picture of the lifestyle similarities and differences of noble and common people in the extreme north and south of Europe in the 1600s.

Dr. Kaare Lund Rasmussen, a professor of archaeometry at the University of Southern Denmark, is the lead researcher of a new anthropological and archaeological article  published in the journal Heritage Science . Studying 17th century bones recovered from two private noble-family chapels associated with Franciscan Friaries, one in Svendborg in Denmark and the other in Montella, Italy, the results of this new study offer a fascinating insight into what people consumed in the 1600s.

Skeletons during the excavation in Montella, Italy. The medieval bones were taken from the chapel and the access way. ( University of Southern Denmark )

A Sample of Medieval Bones from Nobles and Commoners

When the researchers analyzed the strontium, barium, lead, copper, and mercury (heavy metals) in the medieval bone samples from Denmark and Italy, hidden information about the people’s historic diets was gained. This was used to identify the social class of the ancient skeletons.

The researchers analyzed 87 mostly femoral bones from 69 individuals: 17 unearthed from the chapel and 34 from the cloister walk in Montella, Italy, and 7 taken from the chapel and 14 from the cloister walk in Svendborg, Denmark. Contrary to finding common features for the two different social classes in each country the scientists discovered “similarities and differences that are not linked to social status.”

The Hardenberg chapel in Svendborg was probably erected by the noblewoman Helvig Hardenberg in the late 16th century. When the railroad came to town in 1876, it was demolished. ( University of Southern Denmark )

Juicy Steaks for the Rich and Putrid Porridge for the Poor

Beginning with the commonalities found between the Danish and Italian medieval bone samples: it was discovered that the strontium and barium levels in bones excavated from within the noble chapels was much lower in comparison to the bones from the cloister walks - where the common people and friars were buried.

Knowing that trace levels of strontium and barium found in bones are generally ingested through food, the scientists deduced that the low levels measured in the nobles’ bones suggest they ate more animal meat. According to the researchers this occurred because in both Italy and Denmark fresh meat was much more expensive than standard cereals, porridges, and stews.

One observation that stands out was the measured copper content in the Danish medieval bone samples, which contained “21 times lower copper than in the Italian bones from the chapels and the cloister walks.” It is thought this occurrence is caused because it is not only what people ate that affects the mineral levels in bones, but also, what food was cooked in.

Dr. Kaare Lund Rasmussen explains in the paper that Danes did not prepare food in copper pots whereas the Italians “did it diligently, regardless of their social status,” and because small amounts of copper are consumed with the food it accumulates in the bones.

The Elite Alchemical Diseases

Most often when you read about mercury and lead in a medieval context it is in association with alchemists, and while these mystical metallurgists filled castles with the fumes of these melting metals, the nobles of 17th century Europe were practically surrounded, inside and out, by these two highly-toxic chemicals.

Most often when you read about mercury and lead in a medieval context it is in association with alchemists. ‘The Alchemist.’ (1640-1650) by David Teniers the Younger. ( Public Domain )

Kaare Lund Rasmussen says earlier studies have shown that high lead concentrations in bone samples generally indicate high social status and that the ancient Romans and wealthy Germans and Danes in the Middle Ages “could be more or less permanently sick with lead poisoning from consuming too much food and drink that had been in contact with lead.”

And while nobles were under attack from lead used in building and day to day living, on the inside, traces of mercury were also discovered. In the 1600s mercury was a widespread and trusted treatment for leprosy and syphilis and the study shows that some of the noble Italian family members had ingested mercury, while none of the samples from the Italian cloister walk contained any traces of mercury. What’s more, the study concluded that both social groups in Denmark had equal access to mercury containing medicine, while in Italy it was reserved for the noble classes.

Top Image: A collection of the medieval bones at the chapel in Montella, Italy. Source: University of Southern Denmark

By Ashley Cowie

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