Medieval Winchester skeleton reveals how leprosy spread

medieval-leprosy-skeletonThe skeleton of a medieval leprosy victim found in one of Britain’s earliest known hospitals has shed light on the history of the disfiguring disease.

The remains of a young man, between the age of 18 and 25, were found in the St Mary Magdalen leprosarium near Winchester, Hampshire.

Researchers suggests the man was a religious pilgrim from Spain who may have caught the disease while travelling around Europe.

They discovered that, at least in his death, he was given a traditional pilgrim burial and was not treated as an outcast.

University of Winchester scientists believe the disease became widespread in Europe in the Middle Ages because of religious pilgrimages.

Winchester was a key focal point for pilgrimages because it was full of shrines and hospitals in the 12th century.

‘From the 11th Century to the 14th Century in Western Europe we get an unprecedented rise in the foundation of leprosy hospitals,’ Dr Simon Roffey, of the University of Winchester told BBC News.

‘Why is leprosy – which has been around for centuries – suddenly finding its way and impacting so much on Western European society at that time?

‘This one individual gives us an insight into one of the reasons why this disease found its way into a medieval society.’

The bacterial infection caused by Mycobacterium leprae or Mycobacterium lepromatosis afflicted humans for thousands of years and reached epidemic levels during the Middle Ages.

And although people continue to be affected by the disease today scientists found that the M. leprae genome has not significantly changed since the disease peaked in Medieval Europe.

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