Scientists have found evidence that the medieval taste for the beautiful fine fur of red squirrels, traded with Viking Scandinavia, may have been a factor in the spread of leprosy.
The link between human and animal leprosy had already been suggested when the disease was found in modern squirrels in the UK, but the new evidence is from analysis of the skull of a woman who died more than 1,000 years ago in Suffolk, before the Norman invasion.
She suffered from the same strain of leprosy as other medieval skeletons from along the East Anglian coast, and from skeletons of the period from Denmark and Sweden – and closely related to the type of leprosy still found in modern red squirrels.
The disease was one of the most dreaded of medieval times, with many victims shunned and forced to live apart from society. The unfortunate woman – whose remains were found by chance in a garden in Hoxne in the late 20th century and are now in the collection of the museum in Diss – had disfiguring marks to the skull including the destruction of her nose, hallmarks of leprosy. The damage was so severe it suggests the disease would have had terrible effects on her life, leaving her with extensive facial lesions and probably nerve damage to her hands and feet.
Scientists led by Sarah Inskip, of St John’s College Cambridge, who publish their findings this week in the Journal of Medical Microbiology, managed to extract ancient DNA from bone shavings from the skull, and also traces of the bacteria M. leprae.