Were medieval monks “sinful” for their dirty gardening habits?

A team of Cambridge archaeologists who conducted the first on-site analysis of parasitic infections in medieval townspeople have unearthed some surprising results. As it turned out, the local monks were riddled with worms. While this might seem like an opportunity to chuckle at the irony of the hygienically challenged medieval monks, parasitic infections were more problematic for the brothers themselves. Although the source of infection was likely contaminated vegetables, the monks saw worms as a shocking sign of their own sinfulness.

The study released last week by a team led by the University of Cambridge International Journal of Paleopathology, analyzed the remains of 19 burials of Augustinian monks and compared them to 25 burials from a local parish cemetery. Scientists took sediment from the pelvic area of ​​the remains and used microsieving and digital light microscopy to identify intestinal parasite eggs. The results were amazing. Despite the excellent sanitation systems enjoyed by the monks, 58 percent of them showed signs of roundworm and whipworm infection. However, only 32 percent of the lay people buried in the parish cemetery of All Saints near the castle, which has since been demolished, were infected with the same parasites. like dr As Piers Mitchell, archaeologist, infectious disease expert and lead author of the study, put it, “The monks of medieval Cambridge appear to have been infested with parasites.”

Given that parasites are spread through poor hygiene and feces, these results were unexpected. It is likely (although further research is needed to confirm this) that the Augustinian friars had some type of running water used for sanitation. In contrast, lay people only had access to cesspool toilets—basically holes in the ground. Given that parasitic infections are transmitted from hand to mouth by ingesting contaminated feces, it is surprising that the monks have outperformed their lay counterparts in infection rates.

Mitchell suggested a possible explanation science direct“the monks fertilized their vegetable gardens with human feces, [which was] not uncommon in the Middle Ages, which may have led to repeated infection with the worms.” The study also identifies the fertilizer made from pig excrement, which is sometimes used in gardens (pigs can also be infected with roundworms), as a further potential source of contamination. These fertilization methods, the team said in the article, “may have led to higher infection rates” among the brothers.

The extent of the infection would almost certainly have been noticed by the monks themselves. The study’s co-author and graduate student Tianyi Wang noted that “ascarids were the most common infection” among the monks. roundworm (ascaris lumbricoides) is often visible in stool and causes symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite and abdominal pain. It is likely that some sufferers were aware of the cause of their symptoms.

In addition, as the study authors note, parasites are discussed in contemporary medical literature. John Stockton, a 14th-century Cambridge physician, bequeathed to Peterhouse College a manuscript containing a chapter entitled De lumbricis. (“About Worms”). This text connects different types of intestinal worms with different types of mucus: “There different forms of worms are produced according to the type of liquid, mucus. Long round worms form from excess salt slime, short round worms from sour slime, while short and broad worms form from natural or sweet slime. Bitter medicinal plants such as aloe and wormwood kill these intestinal worms, but they must be camouflaged with honey or other sweet things.” The descriptions of the long round and short round worms, the scientists observe, appear to correspond to roundworm and pinworm, respectively. For what it’s worth, wormwood has been used as a dewormer in livestock for centuries, and sweet wormwood tea is still used as an effective antiparasitic treatment for the tropical parasite schistosomiasis.

Since we are dealing with people in religious life, the moral and religious significance of parasitic infections also seems relevant. Late Antique and Medieval Tours of Hell—stories in which a protagonist (usually an Apostle or Mary) travels through the regions of Hell and sees the punishments inflicted on sinners—often describe people being consumed by worms in the afterlife. dr Meghan Henning, Associate Professor at the University of Dayton and author of Hell has no angertold The Daily Beast that in these stories people are punished with worms for a variety of sins: heresy, denial of baptism, adultery, fornication, charging interest on loans, murder, poisoning, strangling their offspring, sex with a mother and her daughter , and the universal crime of “being filled with evil.”

Some of the crimes related to worm punishment, Henning said, centered on office abuse. For example, those deacons who ate the offerings provided for the poor, held undeserved high ranks, or abused their power would face such a judgment in Hell. There are even tales of parasitic infections among the powerful, linking them to religious crimes. Antiochus IV of Syria, the tormentor of the Maccabees, met an unpleasant end when his body was “swarming with worms… his flesh rotted” and the people refused to carry his litter because of the repulsive stench that emanated from his form ( 2 Macc. 9:10). Or take Judas, for example, the archetypal traitor of history. A second-century tradition of Judas describes him in his final days as completely swollen and emitting a putrid stench. When he urinated, “pus and worms” flowed out of his body. The same motif appears in later accounts of improper deaths. As Jennifer Barry and Ellen Muehlberger have examined in their work, heretics and persecutors were eaten by worms as they died. The emperor Galerius died of a painful worm infestation, while the heretic Arius met an undignified end on the dresser from an explosive diarrhea containing parasites.

This was not good news for the educated monks of the Augustinian monastery. While there was more neutral medical literature on the subject, religious literature associated parasites with sinfulness. And it is clear that stories of eternal punishment were popular with members of the monastic orders. For monks suffering from parasitic infections, the realization that their bodies resembled those of the damned must have been terrifying. When I asked Henning about this, she replied, “I think a person who had a parasitic infection would think that they or their body would be punished, that they would be eaten alive inside out because they were weak, penetrable and sinful be. They would have thought that their bodies would become ‘feminine’ and reveal a hidden sin to themselves and others.” Just as some modern conditions are erroneously associated with sexual immorality, monastic literature regularly associated all manner of diseases with sin.

All of this suggests that monks not only suffered from parasitic infections, but may also have been consumed by fears about the state of their souls. Monks may have sought treatment in silence or suffered in silence instead of admitting their plight. After all, their bodies contained vermin associated with sinfulness in the religious imagination of the day. Aside from a chilling warning about the dangers of unsanitary home gardening, perhaps the lesson here is to suspend judgment on the causes of people’s suffering. Or, if that’s impossible, to remember the crisp truth of the leaf: God judges those who don’t wash their lettuce.

https://www.thedailybeast.com/were-medieval-monks-sinful-because-of-their-filthy-gardening-habits?source=articles&via=rss Were medieval monks “sinful” for their dirty gardening habits?


Hung is a Interreviewed U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Hung joined Interreviewed in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing: hung@interreviewed.com.

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