A new study suggests that being wealthy in the Middle Ages was not all benefitting, as rich people living in Europe during this period were more exposed to the toxic heavy metal lead than the poor.
Scientists from Southern Denmark University (SDU) examined skeletons from cemeteries in Germany and Denmark to find that wealthy people living in Europe between the fall of Rome in 476 CE and the beginning of the Renaissance in the 14th century "ingested lead" as they ate and drank from beautiful, colored glazed cups and plates that contained the poisonous element.
"Lead poisoning can be the consequence of ingesting lead, which is a heavy metal. In the Middle Ages you could almost not avoid it if you were wealthy or living in an urban environment," said Kaare Lund Rasmussen, an associate professor at SDU's department of physics and chemistry.
"But what is perhaps more severe is the fact that exposure to lead leads to lower intelligence of children," said Rasmussen. Researchers found that lead content in the skeletons depended on whether the individual lived in the country or in a town.
"There is a big difference in how much lead the individuals from the cemeteries had in their bodies. This depended on whether they lived in the country or in a town. We see almost no lead in the bones from rural individuals, while the levels of it were high in urban individuals," Rasmussen said.
Glazed pottery was not the only source of lead in the towns. Lead was also present in coins, stained glass windows and lead tiles on the roofs of important buildings.
Drinking water was often collected from the roof, and this may also have been an important source of lead. Rasmussen carried out a series of chemical and anthropological analysis of 207 skeletons from six cemeteries in northern Germany and Denmark.
The findings of the study was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports