• Medieval monks had access to better facilities, expected to be more sanitary
  • But, their parasite prevalence was "notably higher" than in ordinary people
  • Their horticultural practices may be a reason behind their worm infections

Medieval monks were twice more likely to have intestinal parasites compared to ordinary people, researchers found, describing them as being "riddled with parasites."

This is despite the fact that they had better access to hygiene facilities.

One would think that having better sanitary facilities would protect Augustinian monks from medieval Cambridge from parasites, but that doesn't seem to be the case, according to a new study published in the International Journal of Paleopathology.

For their work, the researchers compared samples from 19 monks from the friary grounds and 25 locals from All Saints by the Castle parish cemetery, Cambridge, by testing the samples collected from the pelvis area of the remains. Most of those interred in parish cemeteries were of "lower socio-economic status" such as agricultural workers, the University of Cambridge noted in a news release.

As the researchers explained, even though parasites are known to have been "widespread in medieval Europe," not much research has been done to compare the risks associated with people's different lifestyles. In this case, monasteries' sanitation systems were actually "better planned" compared to the houses of ordinary people.

"At a time when even the aristocratic households did not usually possess running water systems, it was a common feature of monastery design," the researchers wrote. "A raised cistern was typical, from which water drawn by gravity ran through channels diverting water through all the working areas in the monastery, including the latrine."

In other words, monasteries had facilities for handwashing as well as latrines, which are somewhat like toilets or outhouses, when the houses of the poorer people did not.

Furthermore, the friars were expected to be more sanitary because hygiene and water usage were said to be "necessary" in the rule of Saint Benedict, "which regulated all aspects of monastic life."

However, the researchers found that the prevalence of parasites among the friars was "notably higher" at 58%, compared to the 32% prevalence rate among ordinary townspeople.

The parasites they found, roundworm and whipworm, are usually spread via poor sanitation, study co-author, Tianyi Wang of the University of Cambridge, said in the news release.

"It is striking that the friars had nearly double the infection rate of parasites spread by poor hygiene, compared with the general population," the researchers wrote.

It's possible that the difference boiled down to the friars' lifestyle, particularly their horticultural practices, Wang and study lead author, Piers Mitchell of the University of Cambridge, wrote in a piece on The Conversation.

The parasites roundworm and whipworm can spread via fecal contamination, and the friars may have fertilized the crops in their vegetable garden with feces from their own latrine block.

"One possibility is that the friars manured their vegetable gardens with human feces, not unusual in the medieval period, and this may have led to repeated infection with the worms," Mitchell said in the news release, describing the friars as being "riddled with parasites."

"This is the first study to compare the prevalence of parasite infection between groups with different socioeconomic status from the same location," the researchers wrote.

For further studies, they recommend conducting more extensive studies, perhaps covering "different time periods and regions."

Pictured: Representative image. James DeMers/Pixabay