Leprosy in the middle ages

Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease (so named because it was G.H. Armauer Hansen who discovered, in Norway in 1873, that the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae was the cause) has been known to man for over 4000 years. The word leprosy comes from ancient Greek meaning ‘scaly skin’ or ‘scaly back’. Most people are naturally immune to the disease and nowadays it mostly affects people in developing countries where resources are scarce. It is not highly infectious and is probably transmitted through airborn droplets. After infection symptoms can take up to 20 years to develop and begin by affecting the nerves that control feeling in the skin. If left untreated, further nerve damage occurs and ulcers may develop. Because of the loss of sensation, wounds and cuts go unnoticed and the consequent damage leads to the visible signs commonly associated with leprosy.

Leprosy appeared in Europe in the early 11th century and by the 15th century it had all but disappeared. It is thought that the disease may have been brought to Europe from Middle Eastern countries by those who had been on Crusade and it was regarded as being an upper-class disease rather than a disease of the poor. In fact early sufferers were pitied and treated well, but as the prevalence of the disease grew those with leprosy were reviled and seen as unclean and sinful. They were forced to carry a clapper, and later a bell, to warn of their coming so that people could avoid them and not come into close contact with them.

A person with leprosy from a 14th century manuscript. The bell may have been to attract charitable donations as well as warning that a diseased person was in the vicinity.

In the Middle Ages, many skin conditions were labelled as ‘leprosy’. These may have included such conditions as eczema, psoriasis and skin cancers and by the 12th century those with leprosy became regarded as unclean. Around this time many leper houses were built to keep sufferers separate from society as it was believed that the disease was very contagious. The Benedictine monk and chronicler, Matthew Paris, who lived from around 1200 to 1259, estimated that there were 19,000 leper houses in Europe, with 2000 being in France and over a hundred in England. These houses were run along similar lines to monasteries and convents and were for care as well as quarantine. In fact those with leprosy were sometimes viewed as experiencing purgatory whilst still on earth and their suffering was viewed as holy. The residents spent much time in prayer and, as it was also popularly thought to have been a sexually transmitted disease, the leper houses made the sufferers take a vow of chastity.

Those who did not enter leper houses took the vows that are listed in the Mass of Separation including vowing not to enter any church or marketplace and not to touch the rim or rope of a well except with gloved hands. They were also excluded from inheriting.

Famous sufferers include Baldwin IV, king of Jerusalem, who continued to rule despite his illness and Alice the Leper, a Cistercian nun who became a leprous martyr. There is also, of course, Richard FitzEustace, in my novel The de Lacy Inheritance, who is based on a real person.

Many wealthy people in the middle ages gave donations to the leper houses and Roger de Lacy (who was Richard’s brother) gave land for a leper hospital on the banks of the river Ribble near Clitheroe. The site is now the Edisford Hotel near the bridge that spans the river. The hospital was named St Nicholas’s.

Nowadays leprosy is curable with treatment by a multidrug therapy that combines dapsone, clofazimine and rifampicin. However the disease remains in parts of Africa, Asia and South America and there are still occasional cases of leprosy treated in the UK.

I have also been told by Sian Arulanantham, Head of Programmes at The Leprosy Mission, that legislation still exists that discriminates against people affected by leprosy. This is just one of the issues that The Leprosy Mission is trying to address. You can find out more about their work at: http://www.leprosymission.org.uk/

11 thoughts on “Leprosy in the middle ages”

  1. One thing that most leprosy hospitals have in common is there where usually built beyond the boundary of a town , across a bridge before the town and at a crossroads. With them facts in mind it’s accurate to say it would have been located roughly in or around the area of the Edisford hotel and certainly on that side of the river.

  2. Having lived in Low Moor (Edisford Area) all my life I do not believe that the Edisford Hotel is the site of the leper colony/Hospital. Because of the desease would it be placed on one of the main roads leading into Clitheroe? I believe is was placed about 100mtrs from my house in Low Moor on the Clitheroe side of the River, about 1 kilometre up river on what is now call the Ribble Way.

    1. I think it’s going too be too hard to pinpoint an exactly location of the leper hospital at Edisford just as no one seems to know exactly where the battle of Edisford was. Regarding the leper hospital I have heard it was located on the Yorkshire side of the river which would be the Edisford hotel side before the boundaries got changed in the 1970s. I would be very interested if anyone could give a more precise location.

      1. I believe it was near to where the Edisford Hotel now stands. The battle of Edisford seems to have been in that location too, as battles were often fought at points where a river could be crossed because that’s where forces met. But without an archaeological investigation I doubt anyone can be more precise.

  3. Estou no terceiro ano do Ensino Médio e estou estudando doenças que ocorrem pela proliferação de vírus ou bactérias. No decorrer das aulas de biologia, o professor comentou bastante sobre tal doença e me interessei verdadeiramente pelo tema. Achei interessante tal posição social em relação aos leprosos na época citada. Além de tal fatos já comentados, gostaria de acrescentar o que ouvi hoje de um professor e que me impressionou bastante: Eram feitas missas para leprosos e quando tais missas não ocorriam, minutos da missa eram dedicados aos leprosos. Afinal, Lepra era tida, como já foi dito, um sofrimento necessário enviado por Deus. Quando digo missas, logicamente, estou me referindo de forma mais ampla à Igreja Católica. Afinal, estamos falando da Lepra na Idade Média, onde a Igreja Católica na união com o Estado, mandava.
    Digo mais: Sou espírita, umbandista, por mais que ainda não tenha me descoberto como tal verdadeiramente e gostaria de citar que, em um dos meus estudos sobre tal religião, descobri que alguns santos(orixás) obtinham lepra. Tais santos são Omulu e Obaluaiê. Só tenho uma pergunta sobre: Se para a igreja católica Lepra é um sinal pecaminoso, qual seria o cenário da Lepra no mundo umbandista? Por qual motivo leprosos se tornariam santos em uma sociedade extremamente preconceituosa em relação aos mesmos?
    Quem puder me responder, por favor, entre em contato: laiscarballal@hotmail.com

    Favor, respostas coerentes.

    1. Thank you for your interesting comment, Lais. I’ve put it through Google translate and posted it again below in English. What you have to say about the paradox between leprosy being viewed as a punishment for sin whilst others were sanctified for their suffering is a good question.

      I’m in third year of high school and am studying diseases that affect the proliferation of viruses or bacteria. During the biology classes, the professor commented a lot about this disease and I truly interested in the topic. I found it interesting that social status in relation to the lepers in the mentioned time. In addition to such facts already mentioned, I would add that I have heard today from a teacher and that impressed me: They were made for the lepers and the masses when these masses did not occur, minutes of the Mass was dedicated to the lepers. After all, leprosy was considered as already stated, a necessary suffering sent by God. When I say masses, of course, I’m referring more broadly to the Catholic Church. After all, we are speaking of leprosy in the Middle Ages, where the Catholic Church in union with the state ruled.
      I say more: I am spirit, Umbanda, as much as I have not really figured out how this and would like to mention that in one of my studies of the religion, I discovered that some holy (deities) obtained leprosy. These saints are Omulu and Obaluaiê. I just have a question about: If the Catholic church for leprosy is a sign of sin, what would be the scenario of leprosy in the world umbandista? For what reason lepers become saints in a society extremely prejudiced attitude toward them?
      Who can answer me, please contact: laiscarballal@hotmail.com

      Please, coherent answers.

  4. Having worked at one time in the USPHS Hospital in Carville, LA, a world center of Hansen’s disease research, your synopsis strikes me as being quite accurate. I applaud your efforts because there continues to be so much false information, especially about the misdiagnosis of other diseases and conditions termed “leprosy” both in the Bible and popular literature.

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