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The only thing worse than fighting in a medieval battle is

trying to fight while suffering from leprosy

Italian archaeologists working in a medieval cemetery of Campochiaro in Central Italy
excavated hundreds of graves that date to between the 6th and 8th centuries A.D. In
an article published a few years ago, the archaeologists describe the remains of a “leper
warrior” who was 161cm (or 5’3”) tall and was more than 50 years old when he died. When
the researchers examined this soldier’s skeleton they found indications of sharp force
trauma to his forehead, osteoarthritis in his spine, and leprous destruction to the bones of
his face, hands, and feet.

Skull of “leper warrior” with leprous destruction and an unhealed gash on the forehead.
Photo credit: Mauro Rubini via LiveScience.

Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, is a mycobacterial disease, like tuberculosis, that is caused

by M. leprae bacteria. It’s spread by “airborne nasal secretions,” the bacteria can’t be
spread through touch. Leprosy is thought to have originated in Eastern Africa or the Near
East then moved to Europe. It was common in Europe during the Middle Ages and reached
its peak between the 12thand 14th centuries.
Hansen’s disease is mainly a disease of the skin and nervous system, but the infection can
move to the skeleton. Leprotic bacteria will infect muscles of the hands and feet, causing
fingers and toes to contract and nerves to atrophy. Hands and feet will weaken and become
paralyzed. People with leprosy can also get secondary infections, like osteomyelitis, from
injuries they cannot feel.
An example of a skull with severe rhinomaxillary syndrome. Photo credit:Gwen Robbins

The bones in the face, hands, and feet are most often resorbed. If leprosy destroys the bones
of the skull it’s called rhinomaxillary syndrome. Rhinomaxillary syndrome means that
the maxilla and nasalbones have been obliterated and resorbed by the disease. Leprous
destruction in the hands and feet will start in the tips of the fingers and toes (phalanges) and
move inward toward the hand. The bones will waste away and become narrower in a
process called pencilling.

Examples of hands and feet with leprous destruction. On the left bones of the hand
destroyed by leprosy from @ChirurgeonsAppr on Twitter. On the right is an image of foot
bones showing resorption caused by leprosy. Image fromPinterest.

Italian archaeologists working at the Campochiaro cemetery excavation found that the
“leper warrior” suffered rhinomaxillary syndrome because the bones of his face and nose
showed signs of destruction. There was also bone resorption in his hands and feet, which
would have caused muscle weakness and numbness in his fingers and toes, something that
would have made it hard to swing a heavy sword or axe in battle. This would have made a
brutal life exponentially more difficult.
Meyers, K. (2011 June 9). The Cemetery of the Barbarian Warriors. Bones Don’t Lie.
Retrieved on February 16, 2014 from:
Pappas, S. (2011 April 7). Bones of Leper Warrior Found in Medieval Cemetery.
LiveScience. Retrieved on February 16, 2014 from:
Waldron, T. (2008). Paleopathology (Cambridge Manuals in Archaeology). New York,
NY: Cambridge University Press.