Lead Poisoning Rampant for Wealthy Medieval Europeans

It wasn’t just the Romans that accidentally poisoned themselves

lead skull
Birgitte Svennevig/SDU

During the Middle Ages in Europe, only the rich could afford beautifully designed and delicately glazed pottery to hold their food and drink. Unfortunately for them, that same glaze was full of heavy metals and may have deadened their minds as it slowly killed them, according to new research.

These days, doctors know that exposure to mercury damages the nervous system, while lead can affect intelligence and overall health. But unintentional poisonings are common throughout history. The Romans used lead like sugar, which may have contributed to the eventual fall of the Roman Empire

In the Middle Ages, mercury was commonly used in medicines to cure diseases like syphilis and leprosy, and lead was used to glaze pottery. Salty and acidic foods placed on lead-glazed surfaces would partially dissolve the glaze and seep into the foods, study author Kaare Lund Rasmussen says in a press release

Curious about if these commonly used substances affected people during the Middle Ages, a team of researchers measured lead and mercury in 207 skeletons from graveyards in both wealthy towns and rural communities in Denmark and Germany. 

Mercury was slightly higher in skeletons from wealthy townships, but varied somewhat between the graveyards tested, according to the results recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

However, the skeletons of the urban rich had substantially higher (and potentially toxic) levels of lead compared to rural communities. Lead glaze "was practical to clean...and looked beautiful, so it was understandably in high demand," study author Rasmussen says in the press release

Because lead is soft and malleable, it made sense to use it for all sorts of things, from coins to roofing tiles. “In the Middle Ages you could almost not avoid ingesting lead, if you were wealthy or living in an urban environment,” Rasmussen said in a statement.

But it was too expensive for poorer people who lived on the outskirts of towns and villages, Hannah Osborne writes for International Business Times. Life as a medieval farmer may have had its hardships, but this was one surprising and unknown benefit to living in one of these struggling communities. 

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