Life with Leprosy

Hannah Southern

‘Now there were four leprous men at the entrance of the gate; and they said to one another why do we sit here until we die’ 2 Kings 7:3

Now known as Hansen’s disease, bacterial leprosy (caused by the Mycobacterium leprae) causes skin sores and discolouring; left untreated it will progress until it has caused considerable damage to your bones, destruction of the lips and nose and nerve damage; eventually leading to disfigurements and paralysis. During the medieval period, leprosy was a disease greatly feared by people which ignited suspicion, prejudice and segregation. For medieval society, there was a distinct correlation between illness, disease, disfigurement and sin. The belief was that it was divine judgment for your sins and sufferers were condemned to a living death. However, living with leprosy was more complex than the image we have come to believe due to representation in films and books. The fear and stigma associated with leprosy led people who suffered from skin ailments such as eczema, psoriasis and lupus to be targeted as leprous. For example, London Baker John Mayn was accused, though he repeatedly refused to leave the city when ordered to do so by the mayor under the royal decree of Edward III (which expelled lepers from the city of London). Considering the nature of John’s occupation, he could have been suffering from acute dermatitis of the hands (known as baker's itch). Misdiagnosis of leprosy was surprisingly quite uncommon; as excavations of leper cemeteries that have been excavated ‘70%-80% of the recovered skeletons have classical signs of Hansen’s disease’. A diagnosis of leprosy was life-altering, and in line with the decree of 1179 (that leper’s be separated from healthy communities), you would be shunned by society, and forced to wear a covering cloak and to ring a bell or a wooden clapper to warn people of their approach. Sufferers were treated as if they were already dead, and given funeral services while still alive, after which family members were allowed to inherit their estates. There were theories and on what caused Leprosy and how it spread, it was even believed that a child could be born with leprosy if it was conceived during the mother’s menstruation- a time when she was supposed to refrain from sex according to church law. The agreement at the time was that leprosy was highly contagious and that it was even thought the breath of a leper could give you leprosy, or the droplets from the nose and mouth.
Life with Leprosy
Leper with bell

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Between the 11th and 14th century, around 300 religious houses and hospitals for the care of lepers (known as leper or 'lazar' houses) were established in England.

The fact that almost a quarter of medieval hospitals were dedicated to people with leprosy, not only indicates how common the disease was amongst medieval society but also the care instated towards them. Christian emphasis on healing and caring for the sick while providing spiritual care was prevalent, with remains of leprosy hospitals showing evidence of comfort, a varied diet with access to herbal and vegetable gardens. Arguably patients had more rights than those within other institutes, with far higher living standards, where both leprous men and women had similar rights (although there were some houses that separated sexes), and there are cases of women in prominent roles. There are also accounts of female patients making grants and interacting with local nobles to gain further lands and revenues. The gifting of pious bequests was not uncommon and was a popular form of charity, which featured regularly in wills. It was believed that the suffering of lepers was similar to the suffering of Christ, bringing them closer to God and gaining sympathy towards the pious leper. Leprosy declined by the 1400s onward in England. However, there are numerous countries that still have cases of Hansen’s disease, and sadly the stigma and myths still surround it. The 1860s leprosy epidemic in Hawaii led to the colonial government isolating the sufferers to a volcanic island, with the government placing emphasis on the extreme contagion of the disease, and the necessity of protecting the healthy. As late as the 1920s (British campaigns in India), there were still designated establishments for sufferers, mostly supported by Christian missionaries with an emphasis on spiritual care. Ultimately, until quite recently treatment of sufferers still followed medieval practices which included the stigmatization of the leper, and reliance on religious care, rather than clinical care. Thereby, prolonging the stereotypical image we have come to recognise still.
Ancestry UK
Life with Leprosy

Hannah Southern

I have a degree in Medieval history from the University of Winchester. My depth studies focused on the War of the Roses and also Medical history. My presentation on Medieval and Early Modern midwifery won me a placement at the Wellcome Library. My dissertation explored how artistic representations of witches reflected contemporary values and attitudes towards women within Early Modern Europe. I currently work for National Museums of Liverpool, and have previously published for the magazine. My previous article explored the Scandinavian witch trials ‘The Christmas Eve storm and the Vardø.
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