Buried within the abbey walls: paleopathological examination of leprosy frequencies of a rural monastic population in medieval Denmark
Kelmelis, Kirsten Saige
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In paleopathology, few other diseases have received more attention than leprosy and studies of skeletal remains from medieval Denmark have primarily focused on urban and leprosarium cemeteries in order to construct diagnostic criteria and disease frequencies of past communities. This project presents data from the rural monastic site of Øm Kloster in the Central Jutland region of Denmark in order to establish disease frequencies between demographic subgroups and general disease prevalence in a regionally representative site. With a sample of 311 adult individuals, cranial and postcranial diagnostic criteria were utilized in order to determine the presence or absence of leprosy on individual skeletons. Each individual was analyzed and categorized by sex, age group, and social status based on burial location and this data was used to yield results on the demographic makeup of the sample and disease frequencies. Lastly, chi-square tests of independence were conducted to determine if there were statistically significant relationships between sex, age, social status, and leprosy. The results indicated that there were no statically strong relationships between these variables; however, it was evident that disease prevalence did increase with age and that there were significantly more males and lay people with leprotic lesions than females and high status individuals. The results suggested that each individual had most likely carried the bacterium, but that there were no significant numbers of individuals affected at any one time. Lastly, the results from the Øm Kloster analysis were compared to those of the rural village cemetery at Tirup and were found to be compatible. Ultimately, this study reflects that disease may have been much more prevalent than was osteologically visible and that this rural community illustrated comparable data with other regional sites. This study shows that lesion frequencies do present evidence to determine general disease prevalence in past populations and to gain data on the overall health of a regionally representative, non-leprosarium cemetery site.