Completely Irrelevant Post about an English Woman with Leprosy Living in 13th century York, England

The other evening I watched a program — Medieval Dead — which is about disease in medieval times. It features recent discoveries in archeology and paleobiology. The episode I watched was “Pestilence and Disease” which looked at a dead person who’s interested me since I learned of her; a woman who was found during construction on Dixon Lane in York, England. I know, I know, it’s a little odd but the woman had leprosy and as you may or may not know I’m an amateur expert on the reality of the medieval leper. In fact, I don’t even think the term “medieval leper” should exist but I don’t think “homeless” should be a noun because it makes homelessness a social institution.

Yes, I’m a weirdo.

The show did pretty OK for a 45 minute show on medieval disease. What they got right is that during medieval times, people with leprosy weren’t sent to remote islands, but had a role in society. BUt…

Some things bothered me. One was the portrayal and assumption that people in the Middle Ages were miserable because they didn’t live like we do. That drives me nuts. First, they lived like THEY did; their world was their world and they lived in it as it was. I’m pretty sure they were as happy as we are in our world. Their world was normal for them — fraught with danger though it was — they had been born into it and didn’t know about any other world. I am 100% sure that if humanity survives another 1000 years, they are likely to look at us with the same pity and condescension the show looked at the lives of people in the 13th century.

Second, because this was (allegedly) a science driven program the literature of the era played no part in the narrative. Medieval literature says just about everything about medieval times, including the attitude toward lepers. I will never understand why science has such a repulsion to the “softer” arts (and vice versa). It’s nuts if you’re going to look at people in the past and their lives. Just like us they wrote and spoke of themselves and described the salient philosophical features and assumptions of their times from the inside. We can learn about the diet of this York woman from the dense calculus on her teeth, but her beliefs? Not at all.

Third, the term “Dark Ages.” I really really really hate that. “Well, little Johnny, mom and dad are sorry you had to be born into these dark ages. There will be light ages, but we’re in the dark ages.” First, they were actually filled with colors, faith, travel, poetry, theater, music, painted buildings (outside and inside). Darkness inside their houses? Probably but that’s what they knew. We feel sorry for Abraham Lincoln learning to read by the firelight but that’s what HE knew. Poor Abe? No. JUST Abe living in his time and place. My mom and her sisters didn’t have electricity in their house, either, and it was the 20th century.

Fourth, dirt. The Middle Ages have an undeserved reputation for being dirty. They were far less dirty than the Renaissance. Anywhere the Romans had been, their public baths were left behind and, in the medieval cities I know, were used by people until the Black Plague hit them hard. The effect of the plague on European life was drastic and profound. It changed European life forever and, IMO, dispelled the universal allegory and paved part of the road that led to the Reformation. The high Middle Ages (12th and 13th centuries) were, except for the feuding, a pretty well cultured and comparatively hygienic time.

And lepers… In the persistently allegorical world of Europe in the high Middle Ages, lepers had a place, a real place and a kind of status that led to the building of numerous leper churches and hospitals. Helping a leper was a short road to salvation after death. St. Francis was hugely influential on the minds of his time and one of his kind gestures was kissing/helping a leper. And then there was Christ healing lepers on one of the gates of Jerusalem known as the Leper’s Gate. And the program never mentioned the inalterable fact that leprosy is not very contagious.

And the life expectancy myth. Lots of people lived long lives in medieval times. They didn’t die at 40 (the median age). MOST babies died and many women died in childbirth, skewing the life expectancy down quite a ways. I know who my medieval ancestors were and they all lived into their 80s. Most of their children, however, didn’t make it to 10 years old. 80 + 10 divided by 2 is 45.

I mention all this because it’s totally irrelevant to our times (or is it?) and also because if I could learn all of this (which is factual) without having a degree in history or the mastery of any European language (though I can read French and Italian pretty well), how come this program takes the dim route? Is it their belief that they would shock their audience? Some very fine historians have already explicated this — or how would I know it? And yet science thinks it’s discovering something? Or is it that we get off on feeling we’ve progressed as human beings, so far beyond the sorrowful meager lives of people in the Dark Ages? After all the time I spent “in” the Middle Ages I like those people. I admire their struggles and their world view has something to recommend it. How can we learn from history if we cloak it in the idea that our world is superior? How can we even know what it is if we do that? To look at people from the past is like visiting a foreign country with its own values, laws, assumptions, beliefs and culture.

Thanks for listening.

The Truth About the Medieval Leper, Part IV

Leper Knights

The Hospital of St. Lazarus in Jerusalem was located just outside the Leper Postern where it was believed Christ had healed a leper. There are a great many stories as to the origination of the Knights of St. Lazarus, but, as explained by David Marcombe in Leper Knights:

It would appear…that the order established itself in the 1130s on a site outside the St. Lazarus postern, though the first unambiguous reference is a grant by King Fulk in 1142 giving land in Jerusalem ‘to the church of St. Lazarus and the convent of the sick who are called miselli’ . (8-9)

During this time, the word “hospital” was closer in meaning to our word “hotel” than our word “hospital.” The Hospital of St. Lazarus was a hospital in a more contemporary sense. Any Templar, Hospitaller, or Teutonic knight in the Holy Land who contracted leprosy, would go to live at this hospital. A second hospital was built at Acre. These men became the legendary Leper Knights of Jerusalem.

There is something desperately romantic in the image of leprous men in chain mail charging Saracen hordes ahead of the other troops. It’s logical they would have fought. Leprosy develops slowly in otherwise healthy individuals. A leper knight might have a few good battles left, and certainly he would have had the will to fight. Death by sword, mace, spear, battle-axe, boiling oil, lance or arrow would certainly be preferable to the excruciating saga of leprosy.

The Knights of St. Lazarus are said to have participated in many raids and battles,“… wherever there was fighting between Christians and infidels, knights of the Order rallied to the support of the Holy Cross…They considered themselves the ‘living dead’, these ‘men who walked alone’; final death in the defense of the Faith held no terrors for them.” (Order of St. Lazarus) Leper knights are known to have participated are the Battle of La Forbie in 1244, the battle which marked the end of the Frankish Kingdom in Palestine. All eighteen leper knights were killed, as were most of the European forces. The Leper Knights were also present for the final siege of Acre in 1291.

Crusading knights who returned from Europe with leprosy, or who developed leprosy after their return could live in one of the communities of the Knights of St. Lazarus that were literally “springing up” all over Europe. They were built in lowlands to keep the lepers’ breath away from healthy people, and usually near cities, often with convenient alms boxes located near main roads. Followed the Rule of the Knights of St. Lazarus, based on the Rule of St. Augustine; not all residents were former knights, but all followed the Rule. It must have presented an interesting paradox when men whose souls were absolutely saved by fighting for the Cross ended up with a disease that was a badge of sin. Grand Masters, Preceptors, and Commanders of Lazarite communities were required to be lepers, a custom that vanished as leprosy vanished in the 14th century.

Endowing leper houses gave nobles a way to accomplish their temporal and spiritual goals. It helped protect their earthly fortunes and ensured them and their families a shorter stay in Purgatory, if not a place in Heaven itself. For a rich man to share his riches with “Lazarus” by donating land and buildings to military/religious orders was especially appealing as these groups had the power, training and arms to protect their lands. For example, in the Glatt Valley north of Zürich, a long-running border dispute between the Duke of Rapperswil and the Baron of Toggenburg was settled when Toggenburg and Rapperswil jointly gave a large piece of land to the Knights of St. John Hospitaller. Rapperswil also gave land to the Order of St. Lazarus. (Hugener) The two large properties created an immense buffer zone in a strategic, volatile Swiss valley.

In England:

[t]he Order of St. Lazarus built up a moderate landed estate scattered over a very considerable geographic area because of the benevolence of an extremely wide set of patrons…Benefactors included kings, noblemen and gentry, but it was the peasant farmers who made up the majority in terms of numbers of grants, if not in terms of the volume of property granted. (Marcombe 65)

Francois-Oliver Touati in Archives de la Lepre explains the urban localization of leper hospitals in France saying that wealthy donors wanted to have their compassionate generosity visible to others and close to home where it could be administered easily. Touati tells of the Viscomte of Saint-Florentine who, in 1184 had pledged a regular gift to the Dilo Abbey of 4 cents per year for the care of lepers to procure for him and his family a place in “the bosom of Abraham.” Touati goes on to explain that there were hundreds of acts of this kind, done by the same type of person to procure the same goals:

Un acte semblable a des centaines d’autres, de même type, de même objets, de même milieu aristocratique en faveur d’un monastère don’ le donateur attend en retour la prière pour son âme et celle des proches, une garantie pour l’éternité. Rien que de très ordinaire… (Touati 35) (Basically that for aristocrats, endowing a leper hospital was a guarantee to the donor that he/she will go to Heaven; such actions were very common)

“Yeah but, leprosy was an epidemic, right? Isn’t that why they were marginalized and persecuted?” 

In a word, “No.”

Nor were they necessarily “marginalized” or persecuted.

The rapid increase in the number of hospitals built for lepers during the late 12th and early 13th centuries (in Britain the number rose 80% from the 11th to the end of the 13th century, with similar statistics in France and the Holy Roman Empire) led historians to believe that leprosy was widespread during this period. Some historians argue that a rise in Europe’s population and crowding and poverty in the urban centers increased the incidence of leprosy. Other historians have contended that medieval doctors confused leprosy with other diseases.

Recent paleo-historical research shows that leprosy arrived in Europe in the 7th century and increased in the population very slowly, with a slight increase during the 300 years of the Crusades. The statistical ratio of lepers to the general population has not changed from the 12th century to today, roughly 1-2 to 10,000 people (WHO) Leprosy of the 12th and 13th century did not occur in the same populations in which we see leprosy today, that is, the very poor. Excavated cemeteries in England and France reveal that at any one time a typical Lazar Houses sheltered fewer than a dozen lepers. Certainly not ALL medieval lepers were housed in leprosaria, Lazar Houses, but excavations of other cemeteries have brought up very few leper skeletons. Clearly, there were never so many lepers in Europe that the average person was certain to see one. By the 14th century, leprosy had essentially vanished in Europe, returning to its pre- Crusade levels. Medieval doctors correctly identified leprosy.

Until a cure was found lepers were treated with rest, fresh air, cleanliness, and a healthy diet. 12th and 13th century men and women who gave their lives to the care of lepers provided their patients exactly this kind of care, in semi-monastic communities, regulated by the Rule of St. Augustine. Accepted and cared for rather than persecuted, the most stringent punishment a leper faced for breaking the rules of the Lazar House was expulsion. By the end of the 13th century very few lepers remained in northern Europe, and “Lazar House” began to describe a facility for housing the very poor.

The word “leper” combined with the word “medieval” still evokes the image of pitiful people in desperate need of a miraculous cure, wandering around with a disease horrifying in its ugliness and terrifying in its contagion, begging for help. However, for people of the high middle ages, lepers were powerful allegorical expressions of the true nature of human life, bearing on their outer body the corruption all humankind carries within. The leper provided medieval men and women a test of faith and the opportunity to move closer to their own salvation if they found the courage to show compassion to the Dragon Princess.

In Other Leper Stories….

Aue, Hartmann von. Henry the Leper: a Swabian Miracle-Rhyme. Trans. Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Boas, Adrian J. Jerusalem in the Time of the Crusades. London: Routledge, 2001. Bruehlmeier, Markus and Michale Thomaschett.

Commandery of the Order of St. John at Bubikon. Bubikon: Ritterhauscesellschaft. 1999.

Cawley, Father Martinus, trans. The Life of Alice the Leper. Lafayette: Guadelupe Translations, 1994. 12 December 2007

Druck, Walter and Hans Rutishauser. Die Lazariterkirche Gfenn bei Dubendorf. Bern:Gesellschaft fur Schweizerischen Kunstgeschichte. 1992

Goetz, Hans-Werner. Life in the Middle Ages from the Seventh to the Thirteenth Century. American Edition. Trans. Albert Wimmer. Ed. Steven Rowan. Notre Dame:Notre Dame Press. 1993.

Hugener, Rainer. “Die Gründung des Lazariterhauses im Gfenn.” Heimatbuch Dubendorf 2004. Dubendorf. 2005

“The Leper Hospital, Winchester, 25 March 2001.” Channel 4 Time Team. 25 Mar. 2001. 3 Jan. 2008

Enders, Howard and Carlos M. Morel. “Disease Watch: Leprosy.” The UNICEF-World Bank-WHO Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases.

“History.” The Ritterhaus in Bubikon. For the Young and the Young at Heart. Ritterhaus Bubikon 2012. Web. 27 Dec. 2012.

Lee, Frances and John Magilton.”The Cemetary of the hospital of St. James and St Mary Magdalen Chichester – a case study.” World Archeology. Vol. 21, No. 2 Archeology of Pubic Health. October 1989. 273-282.

Manchester, Keith and Charlotte Roberts.”The Paleopathology of Leprosy in Britain: A Review.” World Archeology. Vol. 21, No. 2 Archeology of Pubic Health. October 1989. 265-272.

Marcombe, David. Leper Knights. Woodbridge:The Boydell Press. 2003

Moore, R.I. The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Medieval Europe 950-1250. London:Blackwell. 2007

Peyroux, Catherine. “The Leper’s Kiss.” Monks & Nuns, Saints & Outcasts. Ed. Sharon Farmer and Barbara H. Rosenwein. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 2000 pp. 172-188.

Rawcliffe, Carole. Leprosy in Medieval England. Woodbridge:Boydell Press. 2006.

Richards, Peter. The Medieval Leper. New York:Barnes & Noble. 1977.

Seward, Desmond. The Monks of War; the Military Religious Orders. London: Penguin. 1995

St. Suplitius Serverus. St. Martin of Tours. 01 December 2007

De Vitry, Jacques. The Exempla, or Stories from the Sermones Vulgares. Elibrion Classics: facsimile London: David Nutt. 1890

Touati, Francois-Olivier. Archives De La Lepre: Atlas Des Leproseries Entre Loire Et Marne AuMoyen Age. Paris: Comite Des Travaux Historiques Et Scientifiques:Memoires Et Document D’Histoire Medievale Et De Philologie, 1996.

Tuchman, Barbara. A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century. New York:Alfred Knopf. 1978

The Truth about the Medieval Leper, Part III

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.