Medieval Leper Stories Shrouded in Myth and Misunderstanding
Fordham University Press Release
The image of a medieval leper cast into the wilds of the forest, doomed to wander alone outside of the protective walls of the city, is a popular one, and can be found in popular representations to this day.
It is also complete fiction, said Carole Rawcliffe, Ph.D., professor of history at University of East Anglia in England. Rawcliffe demolished the commonly held perception that medieval lepers were outcasts in “Outside the Camp? Inventing the Medieval Leper,” a presentation she gave on Nov. 6 at the Walsh Family Library on the Rose Hill campus.
“This idea that they were completely confined or excluded is wrong,” she said. “The provision of proper physical and spiritual services for such people—as well as for the sick in general—became a growing priority, soon to be enshrined in canon law.”
Rawcliffe, who drew upon her book Leprosy in Medieval England (Boydell Press, 2006), used overhead projections to show representations of how those suffering from leprosy, or Hanson’s Disease as it is now known, were incorrectly said to have been treated. In particular, Villagers Scrambling to Get Away from a Leper, a 1912 watercolor by Richard Tennant Cooper that shows an entire village recoiling in fear from a hooded leper, has found a receptive audience.
“[The artwork] is especially beloved of paleopathologists, who use it to provide a historical context for skeletal analysis; but it also crops up regularly in books for the popular market,” she said. “We can find it, for example, in the recent Plague, Pox and Pestilence, a glossy and profusely illustrated history of epidemics aimed at the general reader. The accompanying text observes grimly that ‘the world of the medieval leper was outside the safety of walled cities and towns, a world belonging to bandits and other wild creatures.’”
Though her research, Rawcliffe has found that in fact, in the early 1300s, there were as many as 320 houses spread around England that were built expressly to care for lepers. Although they were located at the edge of towns and in suburbs, they were far from dismal flophouses.
Some of these so-called lepers were probably suffering from diseases other than Hanson’s Disease, but Rawcliffe said she was more interested in how people reacted to what they perceived to be this affliction, which receives plenty of attention in the Bible.
“The prayers of the leper were supposed to be particularly efficacious because Christ had loved the leper. So if you wanted to set up a charitable institution and whiz through Purgatory at record speed, then a leper hospital offered you a good bet,” she said.
“It’s also easy to forget what dominant landmarks they were in the urban geography. They were what you saw when you entered a city, and they’re advertising the fact that they’re not trying to drive the leper away,” she said.
When the Bubonic Plague swept Europe in the late 13th century, apprehension about possibly infectious lepers developed, but Rawcliffe said that even then, those cast out of communities were often scapegoats on the socioeconomic fringes, and not limited to those actually suffering from leprosy.
In that regard, she compared it unfavorably to the recent scares affiliated with AIDS and cancer, the former of which she came across often while working on her book.
“So much of the writing on AIDS at the time referred to it as being like the new leprosy, because over and over again, victims of the disease would say we’re like the new medieval leper. And I thought, ‘If only you were, because you’d get a much more sympathetic attitude,” she said.
“We have this tendency to see the medieval as somehow superstitious and retrograde, but a lot of modern responses to disease are much less sympathetic than those in the Middle Ages,” she said. “That element of reflective-ness about disease is gone. People today tend to see disease in a very mechanistic fashion.”