BBC History Magazine
David Olusoga’s Hidden Histories
In the three centuries after 1000 AD, a terrible disease took hold in Europe. Across the British Isles hundreds of hospitals of various sizes were built to house those afflicted by it. During the medieval period this dreaded condition was known as lepra. We know it today as leprosy, although modern doctors prefer to use its clinical name: Hansen’s Disease, after Gerhard Hansen, the Norwegian doctor who discovered that leprosy is caused by a bacterial infection.
Many of our notions as to how those who contracted leprosy in the past were treated, and how they were regarded by those around them, come to us via Victorian writers, who were themselves living through an age of endemic and epidemic disease. As cholera, typhus and TB tore across the world, notions of contagion rapidly evolved, as did a developing understanding of the germ theory of disease transmission. Victorian historians, it seems, imposed some of their own anxieties on to the past. From that mindset came the presumption that medieval society had responded to leprosy by extricating its victims from society and strictly imprisoning them within leper hospitals. As the work of historians such as Carole Rawcliffe has shown, the reality was more complex and more surprising.
By the middle of the 14th century, around 300 leper hospitals had been established in England alone. Many were destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. The Hospital of St Nicholas in Harbledown, built around 1084 just outside of the city of Canterbury, is one of the few that still stands today. Yet people suffering from only mild symptoms of leprosy were not immediately sent to such institutions. Only as their condition deteriorated, which often led to deformation of the face and hands, were they required to move into leper hospitals. This did not mean that they were completely isolated and ostracised, however. Leper hospitals were seldom in remote locations. Nor were their inmates confined within their walls. Typically they were sited on the edge of town, often just beyond the city gates. Many were built on major roads, beside which their inmates sometimes begged passing travellers for alms, which they used to buy food from local markets. And while medieval sufferers were required to live separately, most leper hospitals allowed family members and friends to pay visits. All a far cry from modern notions of clinical isolation.
To the medieval mind, leprosy and lepers were understood primarily through the prism of the Christian faith. The disease is referenced on numerous occasions within the Old Testament, those suffering from it defined as ‘unclean’ in the book of Leviticus. Yet, in the New Testament, Christ broke that taboo. He laid hands on those suffering from the disease, treating them with compassion and healing their wounds. The association between Christ and lepers became so strong that in some artistic depictions of Christ’s suffering, flogging, and crucifixion, his skin was portrayed marked with leprosy-like sores.
While leprosy was viewed as a curse it was also, in one sense, regarded as something of a blessing. In a belief system that judged everyone a sinner, it was assumed that those suffering from leprosy were being punished. However, by enduring their punishments during their earthly lives, it was thought that after death the souls of lepers would spend less time in purgatory before being admitted to heaven. The wealthy benefactors who often helped found leper hospitals believed that, by giving alms to lepers, and by asking the inhabitants of the hospitals to pray for them, they too might reduce the time their own souls were condemned to purgatory. It was not until the Black Death, which swept Europe in the mid-14th century, that deeper fears of contagion led to the imposition of stricter regimes of isolation for the inmates of the leper hospitals.