Medieval Nutrition and Its Effect on the Peasantry

As an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, I majored in history, with a strong interest in the social history of the Middle Ages.  My father was a biochemist with a specialty in nutrition.  So with suggestions from him, it was a natural for me to write my senior thesis on late medieval dietary deficiencies.

medievaldiet

The results of my research, based largely on secondary sources, were that the medieval peasantry, particularly those living in northern Europe, suffered from a variety of nutritional diseases.  For example, many suffered from:

  • a vitamin A deficiency which would have impacted their vision;
  • a vitamin C deficiency resulting in scurvy;
  • a vitamin D deficiency resulting in rickets;
  • an iodine deficiency resulting in goiters; and
  • malnutrition resulting in permanent mental impairment and kwashiorkor in children.

Because of my research I done 46 years ago, I was particularly interested in a recent study of bones from medieval London (National Geographic, Feb 2016, p. 97):

Isotope and bone analysis from a collection of 14th- and 15-th century skeletons unearthed during an excavation at Charterhouse Square paint a harrowing picture of life in medieval London.  Many showed signs of malnutrition, and one in six suffered from rickets.  Severe dental problems and tooth abscesses were also common, as was a high rate of back injuries and muscle strains from heavy labor.  People from the later period in the 1400s, had disturbingly high rates of upper body injuries, possibly consistent with violent altercations that resulted from a breakdown in law and order in the wake of the plague.

It is also useful to note that maturation–puberty or menarche–is delayed by poor nutrition. Since life expectancy in the Middle Ages was much shorter than it is today, the period between maturation and death was relatively short.

Dietary and bone analyses paint a rather dismal picture of peasant life in the Later Middle Ages.

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