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Paleopathology: An Important Source for Medieval Studies. Rewiew of the Seminar of History of Medicine, University of Rome "La Sapienza" (May-June 1996)

The Department of History of Experimental Medicine and Pathology of the University of Rome has recently arranged a series of research seminars in History of Medicine. It has been a new opportunity to deal with the complex question of quality of life in ancient populations, of incidence of diseases comparing with different methods and branches of studies apparently very distant between them as Paleopathology, Urbanistic, History and Philosophy. It seems more and more evident the necessity to involve a whole of matters both to understand in wich way the disease was faced and "lived" by the ancient populations and to understand the most general aspects of social life of individuals: presence or absence of specific pathologies, their impact on expectation of life, on its quality, on the age of death of individuals and groups of people. Up to some years ago these fundamental aspects were not fully considered by medieval societies researches even though historians and archeologists did not miss big aggregative studies on contagions or epidemics that were thought, especially within the collective imaginary , as a distinguishing mark of Medieval Europe compared with other ages. Nevertheless, anthropological data, advised like precious archeological fonts, could allow us to face new aspects of medieval life.
Paleopathological studies offer a lot of meaningful informations: if biologists turn their sudies toward the capability to gain patterns of presence and diffusion of a illness, and the useful elements to fight them, maybe the contribute of these analysis represents for historians and archaeologists one of the only element able to deal with some questions still unsolved. Relationships among paleopathologists and researchers on medieval society have been recently strongly accelerated: if is not still possible speak of a continous collaboration and popularization, a frequent interlacement among scholars of different fields is estabilished : certainly it will consent to medieval society studies an improvement. One of the central themes faced in the seminars held between May 17 and June 7 1996, has been the occurrence and frequency of the tumor in the past. Prof.Gino Fornaciari, of Pisa University, one of the greater scholars of Paleopathology in the world, has fully explaned it. On account of this subject, very important to reach knowledge about conditions of life in the past, we have two different positions. USA scholars support the tumor was present only in very few cases; Czech researchers instead retain that tumor had a little smaller diffusion comparing with today. Unfortunately tumors have a very large diffusion in contemporary societies (20 % of death's cause). At least a quarter of this pathologies has an effect on the skeleton, and we could find it in ancient burials. But in the ancient necropolis we never found such percentage, not even, at least, the exspected 5 %: impact of tumors achieves 1% scarcely. Appearently tumor was not a large cause of death in the past: What is the reason why ? There are two answers to this question : 1) generally cancer strikes the aged men : if we believe, following a general opinion, that ancient people was less long-lived than us, that is explaned one reason. 2) A fewer presence of chemical carcinogens in the past comparing with today. Moreover, contemporary society, because of easy intercontinental travelling, the worldwide circulation of objects and food, is steadly in contact with infectious illness, from which the antigenic stimulus, jointly responsible of the birth of some kinds of tumor. It surely would happen more rarely to ancient populations. Moreover Prof. Fornaciari has illustrated a series of studies realized on medieval mummies found in the tombs of Aragonese court in Naples: in two cases he has found the cause of death was a tumor. Currently paleopathological studies turn toward the study of mummified samples that consent, together with the modern analysis of molecular biology, to obtain many informations as regards the diffused diseases in the past centuries. Not to understimate are the interrogatives that spring from the study of tumors in ancient age:1) is it real that in antiquity the "middle age" (or better, the individual "hope of life") was so low? 2) is it possible identify a difference among the different epoches? 3) Were some kinds of disease experienced at the same level of vulnerability of contemporary societies? 4) In which way did medicine, society and environment fight these sicknesses? Researching about cancer presence among ancient people is just one of the various possibilities that paleopathology allows to us. The field of application of this discipline is pretty wide, particularly when conspicuous groups of individuals are considered. It is possible to study the regime feed, the scarceness, the diffusion of "environmental" illnesses (like malaria) or collective poisoning episodes like lead poisoning, that strucked late-ancient elevated classes, popular as “saturnism”. If we help these studies with anthropological ones (statures, ethnic analysis, diagnosis of death and sexual dimorphism), informations involving archeological and historical fields extend widely. Firmed ideas and theories could be discuss, so to open new ranges to the scientific search. As soon as anthropological analyses are part of the archeological excavations, it is necessary to claim a lack of communication between researchers of different sectors; they often have different objectives and methods so when they have to collaborate they often don’t understand each others as much as incomprehensible are often the results or, anyway, contaminated by ancient and solid prejudices. Medieval society is particularly helpless from this point of sight: the rarity of written sources about daily life, and the difficulty of archeological excavations necessary to understand life of medieval men in a lot of cases, could be overcome with the help of paleopathology and anthropology, also with the aim of cancel old biases and opinions only relied on historical studies, that, cause their synthetical structure, could not explane the manifold sides of a fragmental society but at the same time culturally well linked as Medieval Europe was.The seminar of History of the medicine have demonstrated, specially thanks to Prof. Fornaciari, that is possible obtain results of sure interest and promising development in this direction.

Fabio Giovannini

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