Scientists Find Medicinal Mercury in Medieval Bones

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Historians agree that the Dark Ages began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 A.D; a time when culture and science are “popularly” believed to be almost completely forgotten.

Medicine is and always has been of utmost importance, regardless of the age in which people lived and as Europe progressed through the Middle Ages, one particular science really evolved – the science of healing.

Researchers at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense found out that medicinal mercury was used very often in various treatments. Specialists studied bones from a number of people buried in Danish cemeteries, including two Franciscan friaries, a Cistercian abbey and a parish churchyard.

The researchers, who were using atomic absorption spectroscopy, found levels of mercury in various human bone samples, which dated back to the Medieval period. Mercury was used to treat various skin diseases, sexually transmitted diseases, such as syphilis and even the dreaded leprosy.

Some individuals who displayed no signs of disease, still had a slight increase of mercury levels in their bodies (of around 30-50 ng/g). The vast majority were monks or clergy, who may have come in contact with the poisonous metal, whilst working in the scriptorium; a writing place where text was copied, often using red ink, which was laced with mercury.
Of those who displayed symptoms of disease, most had been given medicine containing mercury, with 7 out of 11 leprosy sufferers given medieval medicine. Establishing the levels of mercury found in the bones of syphilis sufferers was harder for the scientists. Only 40% of them received treatment with medicine containing the substance and the other 60% may have not had any treatment at all, meaning that their mercury levels remained unchanged.

Sources: 1, 2

By Vlad Jecan