The Truth about the Medieval Leper, Part I

“The Dragon Princess” — the European Leper in the 12th and 13th Centuries
A presentation for the annual conference of the Society for the Independent Study of Social Imagery (SISSI) 2013, Martha Kennedy

Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us. (Rilke, “The Dragon Princess”)

My entanglement with Medieval Switzerland is a long story that started when I read How the Irish Saved Civilization — a book I bought because it was a joke! I learned how, in the 9th century, a couple of Irish monks had headed east across the channel from Scotland in small round boats, carrying books and Christianity. I learned how the patron saint of Switzerland is an Irishman (St. Gall). I was enchanted! 

The thing is, I knew NOTHING about the middle ages. In grad school, I’d endured Chaucer such antediluvian irrelevancies only long enough to check off the requirements and move on to what really interested me. I had only been in Europe once, Zürich, in 1994, and I hadn’t liked it. I’d found it claustrophobic and old. After reading Cahill’s book, I wanted to return to Switzerland, find St. Gall and take a long look at everything I’d scorned in my ignorance. At the time, I believed I was Irish, majorly Irish, not the 30 cents to a dollar I truly am.

When I returned to Zürich in the winter of 1997 my friend’s mother told him to take me to see the little church at Gfenn, a village north of Zürich. In evening winter light, I saw the rough stone walls of true medieval church. It was closed, so we returned the next morning. I picked up the informative brochure and decoded the German to learn Gfenn had been a hospital of the Knights of St. Lazarus; a leper community. I was stung by destiny. 

This is what I learned about the medieval leper while researching and writing my novel, Martin of Gfenn, about a young painter who contracts leprosy and goes to live at the Lazariterkirche im Gfenn. Where I could, I relied on primary sources — stories, songs and fables from the time. I was also very lucky to make friends with a Swiss Medievalist Historian — Rainer Hugener, then a grad student at the University of Zürich, whose specialization (and home town) was the tiny area north of Zürich where Martin of Gfenn is set.

The Backward Telescope of Time

Take a short trip in the Way-Back Machine, and imagine walking through the streets of Ghent, Paris or Zürich in, say 1240. 

“The dark ages, right?” 

Yeah at night. This world is very beautiful, and certainly mysterious, even to those living in it. Northern European cities such as Zürich, Brussels, Ghent, Paris, are in the midst of the expansion that will make them northern Europe’s urban centers of scholarship and trade. 

On your way home from the public baths, you smell the scent of freshly cut wood, newly opened stone, boiling sausage, fresh bread. If you’re thinking, “Yeah, right, what about the awful sanitation?” your thought is reasonable, but not necessarily accurate. European cities that had been Roman settlements continued to use the Roman plumbing and baths until the 14th century when the population was so decimated by plague and war that there were no longer human resources to maintain much of anything.

You step back and watch artists perched on high scaffoldings paint the fresh clay and plaster walls of stone and half-timber buildings. If you wander inside and see more painting, here a drapery on the lower part of a wall beneath a frieze of roses; there a wall painted to resemble fur; here a scene from the street below — a vendor cooking sausage.

Wall Paintings, Stein am Rhein

The cathedral is slow to rise. You know you’ll never see it finished. Your neighbor’s grandfather was one of the first stonemasons to work on it. Decorating a column, is a relief carving of this very man as a boy, himself learning to carve. Your friend’s father captured his son’s embarrassment. Now your neighbor is teaching his own son. One large window, set in a finished wall, tells the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Leper.

Average Lifespan?

I’m always amused when I read that a medieval person lived to be 40 years old, and the historian adds the comment, “…well past the average lifespan.” Infant mortality rates were high as was the possibility of dying in battle. This is not known as the feudal age for nothing.

Warfare was constant. Once these important factors are taken into account and an “average” lifespan of 40 actually means that many people made it into old-age. Still, medieval people certainly had to sort out a perspective to help them accept death. In their world God, the saints, angels and Satan lived together with the human race in a vivid real-time allegory in which all people had a part, and lepers had a special role. Pariah or savior? Pariah AND savior.

Three more parts. Hold onto your hats!!!! 🙂