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Study reveals differences between nobles, commoners in Middle Ages

Study reveals differences between nobles, commoners in Middle Ages
Image of the Montella Chapel near Naples, southern Italy, which was used in the research on how nobles and commoners lived in Italy and Denmark. Photo courtesy of the University of Southern Denmark. 

July 15 (UPI) -- A chemical analysis of bones from Danish and Italians from the Middle Ages revealed interesting clues on how they lived, particularly in the differences between noble families and less fortunate.

The research, that was published in the journal Heritage Science earlier this month, looked at 87 samples taken from femoral bones from 69 individuals from Svendborg, Denmark, and Montella, Italy.

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Kaare Lund Rasmussen, the lead researcher from the University of Southern Denmark, said samples were taken from the burial sites of noble families and others from common townspeople.

"This is the first comprehensive and comparative study of post-medieval noble families in Denmark and Italy," said the study's abstract. "The results show that there are distinct similarities in the trace element distribution patterns in the noble family members irrespective of country, which is tentatively suggested to be due to their higher social status."

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One example displaying the difference in the life of nobles of both countries and their common residents was that there was less strontium and barium in the bones of nobles. It was a sign that the nobles ate more animal meat.

Researchers found more lead in the nobles than the commoners as well. Lead was expensive and used for everything from kitchen utensils to capturing rainwater. This showed nobles were more likely to suffer from lead poisoning.

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Something that both Italian nobles and commoners shared was copper. Copper was used regularly for cooking and found at rates 21 percent higher in them than the Danes, who used copper much less.

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Mercury was often used during the Middle Ages as a medicine for everything from leprosy to syphilis. While none of the bones from Italian commoners showed traces of mercury, a few of Italian nobles indicated use.

In contrast, the use of mercury was detected in the bones of both noble and commoners in Denmark, suggesting that both groups had equal access to the medicine.

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