Vikings, squirrels and leprosy

Studies on a ~1000-year-old skull of a Medieval woman from Hoxne in the East of England by scientists from the University of Cambridge, showed signs that she had suffered from leprosy. Similar signs of the same strain of leprosy have been found in skeletal remains from Denmark and Sweden from the same period. It is believed that the leprosy bacteria could have been transmitted to England from Europe on red squirrel meat and skins, traded by the Vikings at this time. Leprosy is believed to have been common in the British Isles for hundreds of years. In the early parts of this century, leprosy was identified in red squirrels from Scotland, and from  the Isle of Wight and Brownsea Island off the coast of southern England. The strain of leprosy is similar to that in the Hoxne woman. The original paper was published in the Journal of Microbiology and has since been widely reported (e.g. BBC News, Forbes, Hospital Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian, Daily Mail Online). Although thought to have died out over 200 years ago, cases of leprosy continue to be reported in the UK (The Telegraph).

*Avanzi, C., del-Pozo, J., Benjak, A., Stevenson, K., Simpson, V. R., Busso, P., . . . Meredith, A. L. (2016). Red squirrels in the British Isles are infected with leprosy bacilli. Science, 354(6313), 744-747. doi:10.1126/science.aah3783

**Inskip, S., Taylor, G. M., Anderson, S., & Stewart, G. (2017). Leprosy in pre-Norman Suffolk, UK: biomolecular and geochemical analysis of the woman from Hoxne. Journal of Medical Microbiology, 66(11), 1640-1649. doi:doi:10.1099/jmm.0.000606


Rawlcliffe, Carole (2016)Leprosy in Medieval England. 440 pages. Boydell & Brewer, UK.

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