The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

Lives of Deprivation or Lives of Industry: Possible Cerebral Palsy on the Mary Rose


Department of Archaeology, University of Winchester UK

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Contemporary historical and medical writing on impairment in the medieval period claim the congenitally disabled and deformed were blighted evidence of God’s disfavor for the sins of their parents. Such opinions are tautologies based on secondary sources, unsupported by 14th century primary sources (Piers Plowman, Lollard writings). Vagrancy proclamations (1495), and dissolution of monasteries from 1538 encouraged self-sufficiency. Impairment may not have equalled poverty.

Cerebral palsy (CP) is associated with maternal infections, low birth weight, premature birth, and labor complications. Chronic disorders are considered when examining archaeological remains; anomalies suggesting CP include hip dysplasia; Talipes; flexion contractures; valgus ankle in a Pleistocene hominin. Clinically, affected femora retain infantile valgus and anteversion angles due to muscle imbalance and abnormal loads. Normal neonate anteversion averages 40 degrees, reduced to 19 degrees in adolescence, 8-15 at maturity; neck-shaft angles similarly decline with age, from 140 to 125 degrees. Other vara or valgus deformities may occur distally, related to ‘windswept disorder’.

In this speculative study, 98 femora from the Mary Rose are examined for anteversion and valgus: with commingling, elements are best considered in isolation. Six femora have anteversion of 30-45 degrees, one with 140 degree valgus. Four have 27-28 degrees anteversion, with one also having 144 degree valgus. Differentials include idiopathic anteversion; congenital hip dysplasia; activity. Mary Rose crew with possible CP were employed at time of death, and thus challenge our assumption that only compassion and charity enabled an impaired person’s survival, overlooking the very real probability of productive membership in society.

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