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Who treated the lepers? Where were they treated?
Although, there were educated doctors in the Medæval Times, it is important to note that doctors were usually not the arbiters of the disease. In fact, often priests or other clergy [see the Bible and Leprosy section] and sometimes, even the paupers diagnosed this disease. It is also interesting to note that the title “Leprosy” was often misused and employed to describe a range of other disfiguring illnesses.

When diagnosed, (although they were likely not to admit it!) many doctors didn’t know how to treat leprosy so the cure was often isolation. The lepers were banished to Leper Hospitals and Leper Colonies.

Leper Hospitals were the commonplace lepers were sent to help stem the spread of the disease. Leprosy was prevalent in Norway in the Medæval Times and, there are many records of Leper Hospitals and the disease still strewn over the country.

Although Leper Hospitals were putrid places, Leper Hospitals also often housed the poor and sick – those desperate or hungry enough to risk infection because they were surprisingly wealthy places. Due to the communities’ fear of lepers and the disease, people not only paid taxes to the hospitals but also donated, paid tolls and left endowments to the hospitals. (Endowments accounted for much of the average hospital’s wealth!) Depending on the hospital and financial status of the leper, lepers could be asked to pay admission fees, too!

A leper colony was a place that the lepers could live in groups of their own “kind”. Other names for leper colonies: leprosarium; lazar house. An afflicted person (a leper, obviously!) could be made comfortable without the possibility of spreading the contagion but thus isolating them from public exposure.

Often, leprosy meant separation from the family, friends and spouses of the leper. Some European countries allowed the spouse of the leper to join them but, in many cases, divorce was often the answer. This was difficult because under law, a leper held no rights and, under Church Doctrine, a leper was deemed dead. The spouse of a leper had to choose whether to abandon their life-long partner (and possible love!) or to go and live a non-existence. If the spouse chose to stay with their love, then they had the problem of finding a leper colony that would accept both male and female as they were usually split gender.

A leper in a leper colony would often suffer from depression due to the sudden abandonment of a known circle of family and friends and the new, unfamiliar surroundings. In addition lepers weren’t allowed visits as leprosy was extremely contagious. In the Medæval Times, other sick people were allowed visits!

(Nota Bene: Leper Colonies and Hospitals suffered a decline and, in the early 16th century the leper population was practically nonexistent. This could be attributed to the Black Death, which killed the greater proportion of lepers. Scientists argue leprosy could have made the average leper more prone to the disease.
Before we move onto the subtopic of “Norway and the Lepers” I would like to make it abundantly clear that I am in no way inferring that Leprosy wasn’t an issue in Medæval England as, trust me, it was!

The first known mention of the St. Mary Magdalen Leper Hospital, Winchester, was in 1199. It is probably one of the more famous leper hospitals in England along with St. James’ (Ipswitch) In the mid-12th century it was often referred to the “Lepers on the Hill” The hospital escaped Henry VIII’s official dissolution (it was a religious institution, likely founded from community to hospital by Henry de Blois, Bishop of Winchester, 1129 – 1171) in the 16th century and, was still receiving endowments through this period. The site is of archeological interest. If you want to know more (as I have done a brief potted history) here is an interesting video about the “dig” that was done on the sight.

Leprosy is referred to as the least contagious of the contagious diseases.

Norway and the Lepers.
Picture: The Leprosy Hospital in Bergen.

Leprosy was shrouded by myths and fear mongering “old wives’ tales” well into the 1800s, as it was a huge public health problem in Norway, spanning over several centuries.

There was a lack of good, effective treatment and very poor living conditions, malnutrition and poor hygiene which all contributed to the disease.

Norway had the highest concentration of Lepers recorded. For example, the small leprosy hospital at Bergen, St. Jørgens’ was very crowded. In the 1840s, records show upwards of 170 people staying there at any one time. The hospital had patients as late as 1946, the year the last two patients (aged 78 and 82) died.

Leprosy probably came to Europe during the Crusades, peaking in 1200s before waning in the late 16th century. Everywhere, that is, except Norway. A quotation from a paper by Grete Eilertsen, a historian at the Leper Museum reads, “…Norwegian authorities and scientists [went] into the most innovative, intense and comprehensive health effort of the country’s history…” Leprosy Institutions were established and a national registry created to record all cases of the disease.

Schools of Thought:
Dr. Daniel Cornelius Danielssen (1815-1894) - The disease is hereditary.
Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen (1841-1912) – The disease is caused by bacillus. He was educated in microbiology and wrote a paper recording his findings under a microscope. Hansen is indeed correct, although it took several years for his theories to be believed and to take the lead in the stead of Danielssen’s.

Leprosy and Punishment.
Many Medæval hospitals, including leper hospitals, were religious institutions likely to have been organised in a semi-monastic fashion. In Medæval Times, leprosy was believed to be a punishment for the sin of sexual misconduct, sent to poison the mind and force the soul to repentance. In 1175, the English Church Council for Leprosy at Westminster ordained, “Lepers should not live amongst the healthy”. Leprosy is also shown in the Bible as symbolism for those whose souls are unclean and possessed by the devil. Indeed, many Medæval Churches promoted the idea of leprosy being caused by the devil entering one’s heart as the result of sin.

Here is an extract from “Forbidden Words” by Keith Allan and Kate Burridge:
“The following description (our translation) comes from the fourteenth-century text by the Brabant physician Thomaes Scellinick. According to contemporary theories of the “humours”, the horrible physical disfigurement of lepers was felt to reflect an inner corruption and mental derangement (and note the common-sense separation of lepers).
“Leprosy is corruption of the body externally and internally… their complexion [i.e. the lepers’ combination of humours] is bad and corrupting and so are their thoughts and their mind is bad and poisoned. And therefore one should separate the from healthy people.”(Scellinck 1343: 198)

In particular, leprosy was associated with lust and sexual misdemeanors. Within society, lepers were branded tanquam mortuus, ‘as though dead’. Fear of contagion deprived them of all normal community rights such as marriage and laws of inheritance and forced them to undergo appalling rites of exclusion. In most places, lepers were made to dress distinctively and to sound a warning bell whenever they approached. Occasionally, they were even expected to undergo a… ritual burial before entering the leprosarium – presumably marking their civic death. Their animal like physical appearance was perceived to be fitting punishment for their transgressions against God.”

It is interesting to note that the “animal-like appearance” is only in the case of “knobby” leprosy which causes knobs to grow on the effected areas. “Smooth” leprosy eats away at the skin.

Leprosy and the Bible.
There are thousands of quotes on leprosy from the Bible, so I am only including ones I see as useful and interesting.

Leviticus 14:1-57 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “This shall be the law of the leprous person for the day of his cleansing. He shall be brought to the priest, and the priest shall go out of the camp, and the priest shall look. Then, if the case of leprous disease is healed in the leprous person, the priest shall command them to take for him who is to be cleansed two live clean birds and cedarwood and scarlet yarn and hyssop. And the priest shall command them to kill one of the birds in an earthenware vessel over fresh water.”

Leviticus 13:1-14:57 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling or an eruption or a spot, and it turns into a case of leprous disease on the skin of his body, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests, and the priest shall examine the diseased area on the skin of his body. And if the hair in the diseased area has turned white and the disease appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a case of leprous disease. When the priest has examined him, he shall pronounce him unclean. But if the spot is white in the skin of his body and appears no deeper than the skin, and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest shall shut up the diseased person for seven days. And the priest shall examine him on the seventh day, and if in his eyes the disease is checked and the disease has not spread in the skin, then the priest shall shut him up for another seven days.
What is especially interesting about both of these quotations is that they both are specifying ways to deal with a leprous person or case and, they both involve priests as being the arbiters for the disease.
Matthew 10:8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay.
Luke 17:12-14 And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed.
These two quotations are from the New Testament and are both more positive. Matthew shows that we should not ignore lepers but help and the Luke shows Jesus practicing the commands given in Matthew.
Leviticus 13:45-46 “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.”
Quite disturbing. This highlights the idea found in many other Bible quotes, including Luke 5:13 and Matthew 8:3, that leprosy was unclean. It also mirrors the exclusion of lepers in Numbers 5:1-3.
Revelations 6:8 has interesting and potentially useful imagery of Death and, 2 Chronicles 26 shows God smiting King Uzziah with leprosy.…...

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