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Study: Medieval British friars had more intestinal worms than general population

Excavation of an Augustinian friar with remains of his metal belt buckle in situ (left) and closeup of buckle (right). Photo courtesy of <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1879981722000316?via%3Dihub">Cambridge Archaeological Unit</a>
Excavation of an Augustinian friar with remains of his metal belt buckle in situ (left) and closeup of buckle (right). Photo courtesy of Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Aug. 19 (UPI) -- The remains of dozens of medieval British Augustine friars discovered by the University of Cambridge were plagued with twice the parasitic intestinal worms of the general population at the time, according to a new study published Friday.

"It is striking that the friars had nearly double the infection rate of parasites spread by poor hygiene, compared with the general population," the Cambridge University researchers concluded. "Differences in prevalence between the friars and general population are likely to be related to the life cycle of this parasite and how the population of Cambridge managed their sanitation."

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The discovery was surprising given that friars in medieval Cambridge lived better, much more sanitary lives than commoners at the time. Their study, published in the International Journal of Paleopathology, looked at things that could explain that difference.

"The Augustinians might have manured the crops in their friary gardens with the feces from their own latrine block, and if the townspeople did not, then this might have caused disproportionate reinfection in the Augustinians," researchers wrote. "Similarly, if the Augustinians purchased manure from the town to fertilize their gardens that contained human feces or pig feces (pigs can be infected by roundworm), then this might have led to higher infection rates when they ate the crops from their gardens."

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At a time when even the aristocratic households did not usually possess running water systems, the study said, it was a common feature of medieval monastery design in Cambridge. Monasteries were also built with latrine blocks and had hand-washing facilities.

For most people at the time, sanitation was based on a cesspit toilet, just a hole in the ground used for human waste. They lived subsistence lives in squalor in close proximity to animals.

According to the study, medical texts were available in medieval Cambridge that indicated doctors were aware of intestinal worms and knew about medicines they believed would help treat them.

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Evidence of roundworms and whipworms were found in the friar remains.

The Cambridge University researchers said the Augustinian friary was founded in the 1280's. Excavation recovered 32 burials dating to the 13th-14th centuries. The friar remains were identified from belt buckles on their burial shrouds.

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