The skeleton of a leprosy victim found in the U.K. will help in gathering more information on the horrible disease. The remains were found in one of Britain’s earliest hospitals.
The skeleton appears to belong to a man aged between 18 and 25. The researchers discovered it in the St. Mary Magdalen leprosarium in Winchester, Hampshire, United Kingdom. They suggest the victim might have been a religious pilgrim who came from Spain and most probably contracted the disease while traveling around Europe.
They identified the remnants as belonging to a pilgrim after judging by the specific burial he had received and the place where it occurred. He was buried after the pilgrims’ custom and was not treated as an outcast.
The scientists at the University of Winchester suggest that leprosy reached Europe via the numerous pilgrimages that occurred during the Middle Ages. Winchester was an important point of on the map of the pilgrims since it had both shrines and hospitals in the 12th century.
Between the 11th and the 14th century, Western Europe faced an unprecedented rise in the number of leprosy cases. Yet the disease had existed for centuries, why did it strike Europe at that specific point in time? This skeleton might offer an answer to this intriguing question.
Leprosy is caused by a bacterial infection with Mycobacterium leprae or Mycobacterium lepromatosis. It has affected humans for thousands of years and it still does to the present day. However, the disease reached epidemic levels only during the Middle Ages. Scientists found that no significant change occurred in the genome of the bacteria, therefore what arises from this is the fact that resistance to the disease increased and disease transmission declined.
The researchers discovered that the remnants belonged to a pilgrim judging from the scallop shell that was found buried with him. The shell was given only to those who completed the pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
Therefore, due to the increased intensity of the disease in Europe during the Middle Ages, it is suggested that leprosy was brought from the pilgrimage sites. Santiago, together with Jerusalem and Rome, was one of the most important pilgrimages in the medieval period.
The skeleton offered new information on the crippling disease and gave us new perspectives on how leprosy spread around Europe.