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.