Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Strange Case of the Medieval Leper (Part II)

The prevalence of leprosy in the warmer environment of the Middle East and the spread of the disease in the early medieval period in Europe lead to the infection of individuals of some note in history.  In 1119, for instance, a crusader commonly known as Robert of Zerdana lead troops against the Muslim troops, despite having leprosy.¹

Map of Near East during the early Crusades

Coin from Antioch, period of the Crusades

In 1174, Baldwin IV – who was visibly leprous – was crowned Latinate king of Jerusalem.  Baldwin’s tutor, William of Tyre, was the first to notice that the young man had one of the signs leprosy: the inability to feel pain in the appendages.  When Baldwin took the throne, Pope Alexander III denounced the coronation, associating leprosy with sin and insisting that the acceptance of Baldwin as king would be the downfall of the Christian kingdom in the East.²  There are several illuminations of Baldwin in the early medieval period, and he is depicted with the lesions characteristic of the disease. 

Baldwin IV (top) on his deathbed.

In the 1995 film Braveheart, Scottish lord Robert Bruce is represented as having leprosy.  While there is no historical evidence to buttress this portrayal, there is historical documentation suggesting that his son, who would become Robert Bruce I (coronated 1306), did have the disease. A contemporary chronicle insisted he could not engage in a 1327 battle due to the debilitating effects of leprosy, but modern scholars suggest Robert may have had a form of syphilis.  This debate is interesting, but since medieval Scotsmen believed Robert had leprosy, they would have treated him as if he had the disease.

Robert Bruce's death mask

Pope Alexander’s association of leprosy with sin would travel along with the disease as it affected Europeans on the continent.  Since it was difficult to distinguish between the effects of syphilis and leprosy, lepers were often characterized as possessing an “inordinate sexual appetite …incestuous… rapists… [who] sought to spread their condition by forced sexual intercourse with healthy persons.”³ Persons catching the disease were also thought to be bearing the burden of a curse that could go back generations, with the son paying for the sins of the father.  The disease was considered just cause for divorce, and prior to being cast out from society to live in the margins, the leper was often bestowed with the last rites of the dead – despite the possibility that he or she might live many years. 

Two lepers' windows in medieval
                English churches. Allegedly, these
windows gave lepers access to mass from
the exterior of the churches.


Libera me, Domine: Medieval chant that a priest or already sick man might perform for the leper before he is cast out of society. 
Already marked by the lesions, loss of appendages, and clappers or bells that announced their movements, the lazar in Europe was marginalized in terms of space, too.  Lepers were to live outside of city walls, eking out a living, if they were not fortunate enough to live near a leprosarium.  

Map of London, with its many gates (top)
London Roman gate (buttom)
Such devices prevented outsiders and l
epers access to the city

In medieval literature and even in medieval etymology, leprosy is associated with ostracism and moral decrepitude.  In one version of Tristan and Isolde¸ Isolde is sentenced to serve as a whore for colony of lepers.  Tristan disguises himself as a lazar so that he can be with Isolde, but the text is ambiguous about his intent – implying that Isolde’s association with the leprous also has her steeped in sin.  The Oxford English Dictionary, which tracks etymological lineages, lists terms such as the “leprosy of villainy,” “leprosy of the soul,” and the “leprosy of sin” as common usages of the period.4 

For some men of the cloth, ministering to the lazars was considered the highest act of Christian charity.  Alberic, of the Order of Saint Lazarus in Jerusalem, aided the lepers, coming into daily contact with them.  According to legend, Alberic would wash their feet and althoughthe water mixed with the blood and discharge moved him to nausea, but he at once immersed his face and, horrible to say, took away not the least part.” 5

Burton stone carving of a leper (top)
and Burton lazar seal (bottom) both from England

Medieval European monarchs typically tried to leave the “leper problem” under the jurisdiction of the church and its many lazar houses, but in one very disturbing instance in fourteenth-century France, the lepers were persecuted under the jurisdiction of Philip V.  To understand the events of the persecution, a brief discussion of the 1320 Pastoreaux, or Shepherd’s Crusade, is crucial.  In 1320 in Normandy, a teenaged shepherd claimed to have a vision instructing him to lead a campaign against the Moors in Spain.  As the movement gained momentum, the goal of the crusaders became mired in anti-Semitism and well as anti-Islamism. Finding no Moors to attack in their campaign across France, the Pastoreaux turned their vitriol toward the Jewish communities.  After the crusade disbanded, Philip fined the communities that did not protect the Jews during the upheaval. 

Philip V of France

Bereft of an acceptable target – since Philip was protecting the Jews by levying these fines – the thwarted crusaders soon found another mark for their hatred.  During Easter of 1321, the mayor of Perigueux arrested all the lepers under his jurisdiction after hearing rumors that the lazars were stashing barrels of rotting bread with which they intended to poison local wells.  The lepers were systematically tortured.  Few confessions survive, but there is one from a Johan de Bosco who admitted that he was part of a leper conspiracy to poison wells, fountains, rivers of “diverse areas.”6 

Medieval illumination of Jews being burned
at the stake.  Note the circular yellow badges.

Johan claimed he was paid to spread poison through various cities and villages in France.  As rumors of the leprous infecting wells spread through the countryside, accusations ran rampant.  Rumors held that the lepers were under the direction and purse of the Jews – who had hoped to deflect attention from themselves. The Jews, in turn, had been hired to poison all Christians by the Muslim king of Granada. 

Unlike the Jews, who saw some royal protection, the lepers were a ready target for medieval persecution.  Their bodies already had them marked as sinful, diseased, and rotting.  The leper houses were “privileged, endowed institutions,” with eight houses in France and significant land holdings.7  In this case, Philip does not authorize an organized campaign against the lepers – but his June 1321 proclamation that the accused lazars face torture and burning for their crimes might as well have been an official stamp of approval.  The deaths of the convicted lepers in France meant that their significant holdings would go to the king’s coffers. 

Swineburne's "The Leper"
continued to perpetuate stereotypes
about people suffering from Hansen's disease

Leprosy saw a decline in the later Middle Ages, perhaps in part because the Crusades ended, but also because the communities in which they lived insisted on their separation from society.  Although the numbers of leprous skeletons in medieval cemeteries waned, and archeological digs from the period have demonstrated the decline, interest in this figure living on the fringes of society continued well into the Victorian age, with poets such as Lord Alfred Tennyson and Algernon Charles Swineburne writing pieces on the lazar.   500 years had passed since the leper persecutions of 1320s France, yet Swineburne’s poem – which you can read in its entirety at the link below – maintained the disdain and suspicion of leper’s sexuality in its figure of the lecherous churchman who is obsessed with his leprous female charge as she suffers the effects of the disease and after she dies. 


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1.        See Malcolm Barber,  “The Order of Saint Lazarus and the Crusades,”  The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 80, No. 3 (Jul., 1994): 439-456.

2.        Ibid, 441.

3.        See Douglas, 732.

4.        See Barber, 455.

5.        Ibid, 446.

6.        See David Nirenberg, Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages, (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1996): 56. 

7.        Ibid, 56.

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