How Medieval People Probably Saw Leprosy as Reflected in the Stories they Wrote and Performed
The ancient Indian game of Snakes and Ladders is an excellent model for the medieval view of life. The challenge was to navigate their temporary, corporeal life without falling into Satan’s clever snares and losing eternal life. In this journey the leper was particularly fortunate because his condition set him apart from many of the temptations and evils into which “normal” people could fall. Lepers gave others the chance to transcend the world of the flesh and find salvation. Caring for a leper, washing a leper’s feet or kissing a leper said, “What is of this earth is irrelevant and unreal. The outward signs of disease are nothing more than the true nature of the fleshly life showing itself for what it is. This person is already dead, and so closer to God than I. Through my faith, I can relieve his suffering by caring for his comfort. Why should I fear death when death is the only path to God?”
The Biblical model for this is the story of the Rich Man and the leprous beggar, Lazarus for whom the Lazar Houses are named. It offers a clear and eloquent sermon against greed.
There was a certain rich man…clothed in purple and fine linen [who] fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at [the rich man’s] gate, full of sores…desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table…the dogs came and licked his sores…it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and…in hell he lifted up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom…He cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame…Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and…Lazarus evil things…now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. (Luke 16:19-25)
Many believed the leper’s revolting appearance represented the true nature of humanity, the soul turned inside out. Lepers were admonished to believe that though their lives were “apart from men” they were “with God.” God had CHOSEN to separate them from Earthly temptation so they could concentrate their attention more completely on Him.
Medieval people believed that any poor suffering person could be Christ in disguise. Many stories give gruesome details about the appearance of lepers to demonstrate how much faith and courage it takes to embrace the transience of human life, and for the story’s hero to touch, or kiss, a leper. A story of Queen Matilda, wife of Henry 1 of England, (1112 – 1165), who built a hospital for forty lepers, makes this point:
During his youth at the royal court, David [Queen Matilda’s brother] had been called one night by the queen to her own bedchamber, where he found her washing the feet of lepers, and even kissing them. The prince chided his sister, asking her, “My lady, what are you doing? Sure if the king knew of this, your mouth, soiled with the putrefaction of the lepers’ feet, would never be worthy to kiss his lips.” But Matilda replied, smiling, “Who does not know that the feet of the Eternal King are to be preferred to the lips of a king who must die?” (Peyroux 183)
Compassion toward lepers was shown by St. Martin and St. Francis and reported in Lives of the Saints. Jacques de Vitry (1160-1240) in his Sermones Vulgares included several stories in which lepers provided an opportunity for brave and charitable nobles to find salvation.
He begins one story by jogging the memories of his parishioners about the good acts of St. Martin, saying, “We have read how St. Martin kissed a leper who was then no longer a leper, and of Theobald of blessed memory, who was count of Champagne…” (de Vitry 43) who was…
…wont to bestow alms upon the poor with his own hand, as was in the habit of visiting a certain leper who lived outside of the town called Sezenna. Now the leper died, and some time after the Count returned to the town and went to visit the leper as usual, asking him how he was: he replied, “Well, by the Grace of God, never was I better.” Presently, some citizens…\asked the count’s servants where he was, and said that the leper had been dead a buried a month before. The Count was amazed when he heard this and returned to the leper’s hut but did not find him. The Lord, however, filled the air with an odour of great sweetness to show how pleasing to Him is pity. (de Vitry, Notes, 174)
Naturally, there is little written or dictated by REAL medieval lepers, but Alice of Schaerbreke (St. Alice the Leper) who died in 1250, dictated a journal of her physical and spiritual experiences. She believed that she had been “rewarded” with illness so that she would be closer to God during her Earthly life.
God…wished her to be thoroughly purged of all temporal din, all defilement from this secular world (Acts 9:15) what he did now, he did not in any vindictiveness, nor as if blaming her for some crime. He did it as might a Bridegroom, minded to pay his bride a visit and bring her a token of his perfect love for her. God longed that his bride be free, be at leisure for him alone; that she linger with him in the bedroom bridal chamber of her mind…And what did he do? He struck her a heavy blow, struck her down with a disease, an incurable disease, one few could wish for: leprosy itself! (Cawley)
Hartmann von Aue’s narrative miracle poem Der Arme Heinrich or Henry the Leper, written at the end of the 12th century, tells of a brave knight with fine lands and happy tenants; a handsome, goodhearted person — in all senses the medieval hero, “…most of all by the fame far- flown, of his great knightliness was he known.” But, as happens, his wealth and fame were not to last. The reality of life on earth, for medieval men and women, is described by von Aue as:
The torch that flames for men to see
And wasteth to ashes inwardly
Even with Earl Henry it was thus:
The curse that fell was heavy and deep— .
..Full of foul sores, increasing fast,
Which grew into leprosy at last.
Henry does not accept his torment with the faith and acceptance of Job. When all who once worshipped and adored him shun him, he spends a fortune visiting various doctors. One promises a cure, the still-beating heart of a virgin. Resigned and hopeless, Henry returns to his lands where a peasant family, father, mother, and little daughter, takes him in. Hearing Henry tell his story, the little girl is so moved that she decides to sacrifice her life for Henry. Her reasoning demonstrates the two-part view of human life. If Henry lives, her family would be safe and secure in the temporal world. By giving her life for another — and a leper at that! — she would be assured a spot on the “Bosom of Abraham.” She tells her parents, who naturally object, but their arguments carry no weight. The young girl argues that temporal life is a terrible hardship, and its treasures and victories empty.
What booteth it him a long-drawn life
To have traversed in trouble and in strife,
…Therefore my lips give praise to God, Who this great blessing hath bestow’d On me,—by loss of body and limb
To have the life that lives with Him.
In her argument with her father, she focuses on the temporal advantages to her family her sacrifice will bring.
And you, from every troublous thing That threateneth you, delivering.
…He is good; he will not drive you away. But if we now should let him die,
Our ruining hasteneth thereby.
Her mother responds that by sacrificing her life for Henry’s, the girl is disregarding God’s commandment to children to honor their father and mother. Instead of being a comfort to them in their old age, her parents must mourn and pray for her. Plus, her mother continues, Henry’s leprosy is God’s will. Who is this girl to defy that? Finally the mother alludes to the eternal torment that will await the little girl for taking her own life, “Yet oh! whate’er our ills may be, So much and more shall God do to thee.”
The girl understands her mother, but argues that such a sacrifice for the life of another is simply giving up the illusion and vanity of the temporal world for the permanence and glory of Heaven. She demands of her mother, “…is it thou wouldst grudge my soul its white robe and its aureole?”
In wonderment at the girl’s ability to express herself so well on behalf of her decision, her parents realize that God is speaking through her. Her father says, “Daughter, if God is in thine heart, Heed not our grieving, but depart.”
When the girl tells Henry of her decision, he protests that she is too young to know what she is saying. He tells her to go talk to her parents, but they tell him they agree with her. They dress her in beautiful clothes and set her upon a horse that will carry her and Henry to “…the place where the dead are.” The doctor is horrified at the sight of this child together with the leper, Henry, and takes her into a room alone and asks if she had been forced into her actions. She says it is her free decision. He tries to frighten her:
Bethink thee—…with sharp hurt and with grievous harm I cut from out thy breast the part
That is most alive—even thine heart.
Thou shalt feel worse than death’s worst sting
Ere thy heart be drawn forth quivering.
She does not back down, and says to Henry, and to the doctor:
The endless life shall be mine thereby… Sir, inasmuch as the work is hard,
So much the more is our great reward.”
Henry will return to the glory of his former life, her parents’ prosperity will be protected and she will reach eternal glory. Just before the blade is thrust into the girl, Henry wakes up to the reality that his pride and vanity led her to this sacrifice. He is struck with penitence and says,
Sith all then is as God ordereth,
Rest evermore in the hand of faith. …’Tis the ways
Of penitence lead unto grace.
He breaks open the door and stops the hand of the doctor, saying he would rather suffer the torment God has given him than see the little girl die for his sake. The girl is distraught to have Heaven so close and then taken away. Henry takes her home, knowing that he returns in shame, but he has humbly accepted God’s will. Here von Aue makes the connection between leprosy of the soul, which is pride, and leprosy of the body, saying:
Thus by the damsel’s help indeed
From a foul sickness he was freed,
Not from his body’s sore and smart,
But from hardness and stubbornness of heart. Then first was all that pride of his
Quite overthrown; a better bliss
…That looks to God through the tears of pain
Henry awakens the next morning, healed, and humbly thanks God. When she’s old enough, Henry marries the girl and they live happily ever after.
Popular stories, Biblical parables, and the Lives of the Saints all said the same thing; share with the poor — and who was poorer than a leper? — and salvation would be assured. The ruling of the Third Lateran Council allowing the establishment of leper churches opened a way for wealthy landowners to provide for their souls by donating land and income to leper communities, particularly to the Knights of St. Lazarus, the Leper Knights.