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Feet bones, showing effects of leprosy, from Om Kloster museum in northern Jutland Denmark. Image courtesy: Saige Kelmelis/Sante Fe Institute

Leprosy was a scourge for Medieval Europe, inflicting disfiguring agony on commoners and kings alike.

But the condition was just a grueling fact of life that didn’t necessarily kill everyone it touched, according to a new bones analysis by a team from Penn State and the Santa Fe Institute published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

“It is difficult to determine exactly how many among the living individuals suffered from leprotic infection as everyone in the population was most likely exposed to and may have carried the bacterium,” they write.

The analysis was of 311 skeletal remains that had been disinterred from the Cistercian monastery graveyard in northern Jutland in Denmark. The archaeologists were looking for lesions that are caused by the long-term infection by Mycobacterium leprae, the bacterium that causes the trademark skin and nerve damage of the disease mentioned prominently in the Bible, and earlier.

The skeletons were assessed for gender, and also for age based on the pubic symphysis. The bones, dated between the 12th and 16th century, were especially examined for the damage caused by the flesh-eating disease. The damage was most often discovered on the bones around the nose, the palate, as well as the fibula and the fifth metatarsal (little toe).

A fifth of the male commoners (20 percent) who were buried in the graveyard showed serious lesions on the bones.

The rates were lower for females (8 percent), and also for the monks and other males who were associated with official religious roles (11 percent), they added.

But it was still present on the bones from people from all echelons of society, the authors wrote .

“This indicates that leprosy negatively affected the health of infected individuals, although the observation of leprotic infection does not imply that leprosy was the immediate cause of death,” the scientists add. “More likely than not, leprosy put individuals at a significant disadvantage for fighting off other infections or impaired their mobility and ability to work.”

The analysis of relative health of the Danish community attempted to adjust for the ages of the deceased, so that a set of remains buried at age 25 did not necessarily indicate better longevity and less morbidity than someone who died at age 50 covered in leprosy lesions, added Saige Kelmelis, the lead author, from Penn State.

“This model takes into account how we calculate age of death and errors in that, and lesion data, to get a picture of someone’s risk of death,” she said. “Then we can say something tangible about what the living population would have been like.”

Leprosy was an equal opportunity scourge. Even Robert the Bruce, perhaps the greatest kind of Scotland, appeared to have died from the dreaded disease.

Bones have begun to tell us more about the affliction of our ancestors than ever before. The bones of a Byzantine woman who suffered until her death 800 years ago showed scientists earlier this year how she was killed by a runaway staph infection.

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