Why do the bones of a wealthy medieval family show signs of malnutrition?

The Medicis were one of the richest, most powerful families of the Renaissance.  This family  produced four popes, and were patrons to Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.    Ironically this wealth may have contributed to malnutrition in their children.  Malnutrition can happen when someone (rich or poor) has a diet that is low in, missing, or has an excess of certain nutrients.

In the May issue of the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, a study was published in which Italian anthropologists and radiologists examined nine skeletons of the Medici children born in the sixteenth century.  The children in this paper ranged in age from newborn to five years old.  The bones were studied using x-rays and isotopic analysis, the results of which showed that most of the children had symptoms of rickets, a vitamin D deficiency that causes bones to soften and bend when children try to crawl or walk.


Photo on left via Nature. Photo on the right via DailyMail

A physical examination of the bones and X-ray analysis showed that six of the nine children had bone abnormalities that suggest rickets.  These signs include lesions and deformation of the skull, and curved long bones.  The above picture on the left is a painting of Medici heir, don Filippo (1577–1582), which shows a slight skull abnormality called frontal bossing (prominent forehead), which is indicative of vitamin D deficiency.   Pictured on the right is his skull showing how enlarged his cranium was at the time of his death at 4 years old (the cut to the cranium is believed to have been caused by an autopsy at the time of his death).

How did the children of this rich and powerful family suffer from a disease associated with poverty?   According to the study, poor nutrition and Renaissance customs contributed to the malnutrition in these Medici children. Isotopic analysis revealed the children were breastfed for two years and had diets supplemented with cereal and fruit, which are low in vitamin D.  This prolonged breastfeeding along with a poor diet were contributing factors of their malnutrition.   It was also customary for wealthy women in the Renaissance to have pale ivory skin because it was a sign of privilege (poor women were tan from working the fields outside).  Because these elite women stayed inside to achieve their alabaster skin, and didn’t get adequate amounts of sun, this led to low levels of vitamin D in themselves, which they passed onto their children when they breastfed.  Also infants who couldn’t walk were swaddled in heavy layers of cloth, which left little skin exposed to the sun.  So babies were wrapped in fabric from head to toe to prevent movement, while being kept in doors with their mothers for prolonged periods of time.

See more pictures of bones and read more of the study at:


International Journal of Osteoarchaeology




Categories: Archaeology

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2 replies

  1. “Prolonged” breastfeeding in and of itself is NOT a contributing factor of rickets–it is only if the mother’s diet is vitamin D deficient.

    With a broad view of history and the current non-industrialized world, 2 years is not even remotely “prolonged.”


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