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Cancer was 10 times more prevalent in medieval Britain than thought, University of Cambridge study finds




Analysis of 143 skeletons from six medieval cemeteries in and around Cambridge has shown that the prevalence of cancer in the period was about 10 times higher than previously thought.

The University of Cambridge study was the first to use X-rays and CT scans to detect evidence of cancer among the skeletal remains of a pre-industrial population.

CT scan of bone from a medieval skull showing metastasis hidden within (white arrow). Picture: Bram Mulder
CT scan of bone from a medieval skull showing metastasis hidden within (white arrow). Picture: Bram Mulder

It found that between nine and 14 per cent of adults in medieval Britain had the disease at the time of their death

Earlier research using the archaeological record has been limited to examining the bone exterior for lesions and suggested cancer affected less than one per cent of the population.

But by coupling visual inspection with radiological imaging to study skeletons from the 6th to the 16th century, the researchers have changed our understanding.

The Department of Archaeology’s Dr Piers Mitchell, who conducted the research as part of the ‘After the Plague’ project, said: “The majority of cancers form in soft tissue organs long since degraded in medieval remains. Only some cancer spreads to bone, and of these only a few are visible on its surface, so we searched within the bone for signs of malignancy.

The remains of numerous individuals unearthed on the site of the former Hospital of St John the Evangelist in the city of Cambridge. Picture: Cambridge Archaeological Unit/St John's College
The remains of numerous individuals unearthed on the site of the former Hospital of St John the Evangelist in the city of Cambridge. Picture: Cambridge Archaeological Unit/St John's College

“Modern research shows a third to a half of people with soft tissue cancers will find the tumour spreads to their bones. We combined this data with evidence of bone metastasis from our study to estimate cancer rates for medieval Britain.”

The work was published in the journal Cancer.

Study co-author and After the Plague researcher Dr Jenna Dittmar added: “Using CT scans we were able to see cancer lesions hidden inside a bone that looked completely normal on the outside.

“Until now it was thought that the most significant causes of ill health in medieval people were infectious diseases such as dysentery and bubonic plague, along with malnutrition and injuries due to accidents or warfare.

“We now have to add cancer as one of the major classes of disease that afflicted medieval people.”

Excavated medieval bone from the spine showing cancer metastases (white arrow). Picture: Jenna Dittmar
Excavated medieval bone from the spine showing cancer metastases (white arrow). Picture: Jenna Dittmar

In modern Britain, 40 to 50 per cent of people have cancer by the time they die, meaning it is three to four more common today.

Our longer lifespans, the impact of tobacco, the cancerous effects of pollutants and the possibility that DNA-damaging viruses are more widespread due to long-distance travel are all thought to be reasons for the increase.

The skeletal remains came from three village cemeteries and three more uncovered in the medieval centre of Cambridge, including the site of a former Augustinian friary and the site of a former charitable hospital that cared for the sick and destitute, which is now part of St John’s College.

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