Mapping Malaria in Anglo-Saxon England

Guthlac at Croyland in the marshes of the Wash.

England once looked very different. Much of southern Britain was marshland for most of the island’s occupied history. These bogs, fens, and marshes ensured that areas of virtual wilderness persisted from before Roman Britain through the Norman period and beyond. Despite the difficulties of using fenlands, these areas were not only occupied throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, but important centers like Croyland, Bardney, and Ely eventually developed in the marsh.

The largest fenland region was known as ‘the Wash’.  This low-lying region drained four rivers into  a square bay of the North Sea that forms the corner between Lincolnshire and Norfolk. In Anglo-Saxon times, this tidal marsh and bog was a vast border region between the region of Lindsey and East Anglia.  Places like Croyland and Ely were islands in the wetlands.  The eighth century Life of Guthlac describes the environment of Croyland when Guthlac arrived:

“There is in the Midland district of Britain a most dismal fen of immense size, which begins at the banks of the river Granta not far from the camp which is called Gronte (Cambridge) and stretches from the south as far north as the sea. It a very long tract, now consisting of marshes, now of bogs, sometimes with black waters overhung by fog, sometimes studded with woodland islands and traversed by the windings of tortuous streams.” (Hill, 1981:11 cited in Gowland & Western, 2011).

These marshes are ideal for malaria, but evidence of malaria in Anglo-Saxon England has been lacking. It is supposed that malaria would have been brought to Britain with the Romans (1). Unfortunately, there is no evidence that I know of that malaria became endemic in Roman Britain much less lasted into the early medieval (Anglo-Saxon) period. It has also been speculated that ‘spring fever’ (lecten adl) found in Anglo-Saxon leechbooks is the spring manifestation of tertian malaria (1) caused by Plasmodium vivax. This would fit the pattern of malaria in cool or cold climates like that found in Finland discussed in a recent post. Indoor transmission in Anglo-Saxon earthen floored, open-structured wooden homes with thatched roofs would be an ideal way to concentrate malaria in a thinly populated marsh.  (Without chimneys homes had to open enough to allow smoke to escape from a central hearth.)

Incidence of Malaria in England, 1840-1910 (2)

It has long been known that Britain can environmentally support endemic malaria. Malaria was fairly wide-spread in 19th century Britain when it was first mapped (figure to left) (2). The upper black area on the map includes much of ‘the Wash’. However, proof of malaria is more tenuous for the medieval period.  Together with the unhealthy reputation of the brackish marshlands there is at least enough evidence to suggest that endemic malaria reached back into the late medieval period.

Malaria went by a variety of local names before the early modern period. Malaria-like fevers are mentioned in literature from Geoffrey Chaucer to William Shakespeare (2, 3). Terminology for malaria was not settled upon the Italian ‘malaria’ until the early modern period. Before then, it went by a variety of terms the most universal being ‘ague’, meaning the shakes, and sometimes  ‘fever and ague’ referring to the cyclic breaking of a fever.

Gowland and Western (2011) took a new approach to finding evidence of malaria in Anglo-Saxon England (400-1100 AD) (4). Malaria caused by Plasmodium vivax causes chronic hemolytic anemia that may result in cribra orbitalia due to the expansion of the bone marrow in the cranium. Gowland and Western correlated the presence of cribra orbitalia in Anglo-Saxon skeletal remains with the presence of the malarial vector Anopheles atroparavus and reports of ‘ague’ in 19th century England.

The Anglo-Saxon cemeteries used in their study are mapped in the figure below on the left. Note that not many cemeteries are located near the modern coastline of ‘the Wash’. This area would have likely been too wet for settlement.

Anglo-Saxon cemeteries (4)
Map of A. atroparvus with 19th-century “ague” records. (4)

Gowland and Western determined areas capable of sustaining malaria by mapping the presence of A. atroparvus from a 1900 AD British Museum survey (shown above on the right) (4).  The darker the shading the more reports of mosquitoes. This survey was reported to not have been systematic, so they augmented it with 19th-century ‘ague’ reports (triangles).  There are some notable areas with high levels of mosquitoes that lack ague reports. This map was used to determine malarial regions for correlation with either cribra orbitalia or the poor nutrition control enamel hypoplasia. It also roughly correlates with the 1840-1910 malaria incidence in the color map above by Kuhn et al (2).

An inverse distance map showing A. atroparus incidence vs. hot and cold spots for cribra orbitalia. (4)

In this last map, malarial areas are plotted with hot and cold spots for cribra orbitalia.  Purple and blue areas on the map indicate the highest areas of A. atroparvus in 1900, while red and orange circles indicate the cribra orbitalia ‘hot’ spots. Areas of cribra orbitalia correlate very well with malarial areas around the Wash.  Cribra orbitalia ‘cold’ spots (blue circles) correlate with areas of low A. atroparvus. They found no correlation between enamel hypoplasia with either ‘malarial’ or ‘non-malarial’ areas (4).

If this cribra orbitalia is due to malaria, it is likely an underestimate of the amount of malaria in the English wetlands. Cribra orbitalia forms in children so it will not indicate adults who contract malaria. Communities like Ely, Croyland and Peterborough were large monasteries who probably drew many into the marsh as adults.

Confirmation of malaria in Anglo-Saxon England will have to wait for molecular evidence, but this skeletal evidence strengthens the hypothesis that it was endemic in early medieval Britain. It also should be informative for the areas to concentrate efforts to find molecular evidence.


(1) Cameron, M.L. (1993, repr. 2006) Anglo-Saxon Medicine. Cambridge University Press.

(2) Kuhn, K., Campbell-Lendrum, D., Armstrong, B., & Davies, C. (2003). Malaria in Britain: Past, present, and future Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100 (17), 9997-10001 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1233687100

(3) Reiter P (2000). From Shakespeare to Defoe: malaria in England in the Little Ice Age. Emerging infectious diseases, 6 (1), 1-11 PMID: 10653562

(4) Gowland RL, & Western AG (2011). Morbidity in the marshes: Using spatial epidemiology to investigate skeletal evidence for malaria in Anglo-Saxon England (AD 410-1050). American journal of physical anthropology PMID: 22183814

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10 thoughts on “Mapping Malaria in Anglo-Saxon England

  1. I was thinking about this just last week. Wondering if home-grown anemia treatments would be helpful in some mild cases (e.g. plunging hot poker into wine or cider to heat it–and shedding iron). I doubt that iron would be easily absorbed, though.

    Thanks for this info. Very useful.


    1. Eating iron rich animal products like liver would have been more helpful, I would think. Any red meat (beef, sheep, horse, venison) would also be iron rich. Pork and chicken are less iron rich.


        1. Debate still goes on concerning the exact etiologies of classic malaria-related lesions, such as cribra orbitalia or porotic hyperostosis, and whether they are caused by iron deficiency or, for instance, megaloblastic or haemolytic anaemia. If P. vivax was the parasite responsible for past British malaria, then cribra in infected individuals may be a result of severe haemolytic anaemia. If you aren’t familiar this article, I’d check it out:

          Click to access Walker_et_al_2009.pdf


  2. Michelle, yep, but it’s hard to get haem iron if one isn’t eating animals–if one is following a penitential Lent diet, for example. I was trying to think of ways around that. Especially ways to increase acidity/vit C to facilitate absorption (if Lent is early, and there’s no fresh stuff around).


  3. Reblogged this on eukaryography and commented:
    Mapping malaria in Anglo-Saxon England. An interesting look at using skeletal remains and historical reports to reconstruct disease distribution.


  4. I’m currently working with Dr Gowland on my PhD research looking at biomolecular evidence for malaria from Roman to medieval skeletal populations in the Fens – hoping to get some reliable positives!


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