Why one should avoid having congenital abnormalities during the medieval era

Medieval skeleton puts a face on accounts of torture & violence

EXCERPT: In a medieval Italian cemetery, archaeologists recently exhumed the skeletal remains of a victim of a medieval torture device known as the breaking wheel. University of Milan archaeologist Debora Mazzarelli and her colleagues found the young man (who was probably between 17 and 20 years old when he died) in a medieval cemetery beneath what is now S. Ambrogio Square in Milan. Radiocarbon dating of his bones suggests that he died sometime between 1290 and 1430. His skeleton bears evidence of brutal trauma inflicted around the time of his death, and it appears to match medieval descriptions of execution using the wheel.

[...] Although a few accounts of the saints describe them being tied to a large wheel and rolled off a cliff, more historically reliable sources tend to describe convicts being tied, with their arms and legs spread, to the spokes of a wagon wheel while the executioner shattered their limb bones with a heavy maul.

When archaeologists exhumed the young man in Milan, they saw that the bones of his forearms and lower legs on both sides had been broken by heavy blows around the time of his death, leaving sharp edges the same color as the outer surface of the bone. A blow from some blunt object had also broken several of the bones of his face. But none of those things would have been immediately fatal, and that was the point.

“The final blow[s] to the face and stomach [were] given after a certain amount of agony, chosen by the executioner,” wrote Mazzarelli and her colleagues.

[...] Six-hundred years later, we have no way of knowing who the unfortunate young man was or why he was executed, but historical records and his own skeleton may offer a reasonable line of speculation. In medieval Northern Italy, the wheel was mostly a tool for public executions, especially for men accused of spreading the plague. Based on the details of the wheel victim’s skeleton, his appearance might have caused his medieval neighbors to view him with suspicion, especially if they were already fearful of a plague outbreak.

He was shorter than the average man in medieval northern Italy by about 11cm (4.3 inches). Despite his small stature, he sported an extra thoracic vertebra and an extra rib on each side. The unusual thickening of his frontal bone (the forehead) suggests that he probably had a hormonal disorder. In the sutures between the bones of his skull, archaeologists found several small bits of what are called Wormian bones, which often show up along with a congenital disease. He had a noticeable gap between his upper front teeth, and his upper incisors are turned at an odd angle.

Based on bones and teeth alone, there’s no way of knowing what condition (or conditions) the man had or how else they might have impacted his appearance or his behavior. No single condition could account for everything Mazzarelli and her colleagues observed in the skeleton. But they suggest that he “could have been considered as ‘different’ by his contemporaries, and possibly this discrimination may have been the cause of his final conviction, as he could have been sacrificed, for being a ‘freak,’ by an angry crowd, as a plague spreader.” (MORE - images, details)

Journal of Archaeological Science, 2019. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2019.104990

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