During the Middle Ages, being wealthy didn’t make you healthy or wise. While only rich urbanites could afford to eat off the finest plates or sip beverages from colorful cups, their opulent lifestyle was slowly poisoning them. The glaze that gave the flatware its glossy finish was made of lead oxide—and when salty and acidic foods were served on the pottery, the glaze’s surface would dissolve. Lead seeped into the diners’ food, which researchers say likely harmed their health and lowered their intelligence.
Researchers from the University of Southern Denmark conducted chemical and anthropological investigations of 207 skeletons from six cemeteries in Denmark and Germany. Published recently in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, the findings revealed that lead levels were high in the bones of city dwellers, thanks in part to their glazed earthenware dining accessories. In contrast, country folk had almost no lead in their skeletons because they dined off less-expensive, unglazed pottery.
Of course, townspeople weren’t immune to the threats of lead poisoning. Thirty percent of rural individuals were found to have been in contact with the substance—an occurrence that was nearly unavoidable during this time period if you ever left your town. Lead was present in many things, including coins, stained glass windows, roof tiles, and the drinking water collected from those roofs. However, unlike their wealthier counterparts, people of the lower classes weren't literally eating it—showing historians that money can buy many things, but not foresight or health.