A recent study published in The International Journal of Osteoarchaeology states the children of the Medicis, one of history’s wealthiest families, may have had rickets, a disease typically associated with the inadequate diet and living conditions of the poor, reports the New York Times.
Surprisingly, the family’s wealth may have been to blame for the childhood disease.
The House of Medici, or Famiglia de Medici, was a political banking dynasty, a family who first began to gather prominence under Cosimo de Medici in the Republic of Florence during the late 14th century. They founded the Medici Bank – the largest in Europe during the 15th century.
The Medici Bank was one of the most prosperous and respected institutions. Therefore, it was suggested the Medici family was the wealthiest family in Europe for a period of time. After acquired political power in Florence they later expanded their influence over other parts of Italy and Europe. But their empire fell sometime during the 18th century.
Exploration of the Medici Chapels in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence revealed the burials of nine juvenile members of the Medici lineage from the 16th and 17th centuries. Skeletal ages ranged from newborns to 5 – each showing a series of bone abnormalities, in particular the bowing of long bones indicative of rickets.
Porosity manifestations of the disease were evident in pathological lesions present on the skull, orbital roofs, costocondral ribs, and growth plates between metaphyses and epiphyses of the long bones.
The diagnosis of a metabolic disease linked to vitamin D deficiency would appear to be unexpected for children brought up in high social class. However, an analysis of the nitrogen isotopes in the bone collagen, suggested the children were breastfed, which is a poor source of vitamin D, until they were 2.
Assuming the Medicis followed the custom of the time, they would have supplemented the breast milk only with soft bread and apples, which do not contain much of the nutrient. Additionally, the children were likely deprived of sunlight – which naturally stimulates vitamin D. Wealthy children of that time were often tightly swaddled and kept inside. Suntans were discouraged as they were signs of low social standing.
Rickets is a softening of bones due to deficiency or impaired metabolism of vitamin D, phosphorus, or calcium.
This condition can potentially lead to fractures and deformities, such as a telltale bowing or greenstick fractures of the body’s long bones, and cranial (craniotabes), pelvic, and spinal abnormalities (lumbar lordosis).
Although the disease can occur in adults (osteomalacia), rickets is commonly seen in children – the predominant cause being a dietary deficiency of vitamin D from malnutrition.
Rickets is on the rise among more and more children, even those with access to adequate sources of the essential vitamin. The contemporary lifestyle of remaining indoors, the regular use of high numbered SPFs, a chronic lack of exercise, and junk food based diets full of sugar and soda have contributed to the resurgence.
[Image via Wikicommons – Coat of arms of the House of de' Medici]