Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is now treatable and fairly rare. But there was no cure for leprosy in the medieval period. From the 11th to 14th centuries, it was a widespread affliction around the globe which caused, in severe cases, lesions, gangrene and blindness.
The popular image of a medieval ‘leper’, expelled from society and brutally imprisoned away from the populace, is largely a misconception. In fact, in medieval England, the treatment of those suffering from leprosy was complex, varied and, at times, deeply sympathetic.
Before the Black Death devastated Europe and heightened fears of infection, leprosy sufferers received care and accommodation from the church and local communities. Leprosaria, also known as ‘leper colonies’ or lazarettes, functioned as monastic-style retreats for those with leprosy. Contrary to popular misconception, leprosaria weren’t inherently austere or wholly isolated from society.
Here’s what it was like to live with leprosy in medieval England.
Before the Black Death
By the 4th century AD, leprosy had emerged in England. Spread by droplets from the nose or mouth, it became widespread by the mid-11th century.
From the 11th century to around the time of the Black Death (1346-1352), possibly more than 300 leprosaria emerged across England. Similar to monasteries, these pseudo-hospitals were often established outside of busy settlements. There, leprosy sufferers lived not in total isolation, but with certain freedoms: being outside of busy areas meant they weren’t banished to cells or islands, but could enjoy the available space of their rural environment.
That said, some leprosaria were subject to strict rules of management, restricting their inhabitants to certain routines and a life of celibacy. Those who broke the rules could expect harsh punishments.
The first known leprosaria in England is thought to have been that of St Mary Magdelen in Hampshire. Archaeological excavations there have revealed remains showing signs of leprosy. Built around a chapel, life at St Mary Magdalene, as at other leprosaria, would have revolved around prayer and spiritual devotion.
There’s evidence that leprosaria would receive charitable donations from members of society, while those with leprosy would receive alms from local communities.
Closer to God?
Reactions to leprosy were complex and varied in the middle ages. Some, for example, viewed it as divine punishment for sin, known as ‘the living death’. Disregarded as already being dead, those with leprosy could be given funeral services and have their belongings passed to their relatives.
However, others compared the affliction of those with leprosy to purgatory on Earth, meaning sufferers would bypass purgatory after death and go straight to heaven. This made those with leprosy, some believed, closer to God, and hence worthy subjects of benevolence, even reveration.
Life in the leprosaria
Leprosaria encouraged clean living, fresh food – often grown on site – and connection to nature. It’s thought that many leprosaria had gardens that the inhabitants could tend to.
Also, far from being locked away from society, leprosy sufferers were granted visits from family members and friends.
There’s evidence that by the 14th century, leprosaria had started to be populated by those not actually suffering from leprosy. This may have been due to misdiagnosis, but it also may have been simply because leprosaria were thought to be worthy places to call home – particularly for the poor or destitute.
After the Black Death
In the mid-14th century, the Black Death ran rampant across medieval Europe, devastating populations and killing millions. After the worst of the outbreak, medieval societies were more concerned about contagion and disease. This resulted in the harsher treatment of leprosy sufferers.
In the face of scrutiny and stigma, leprosy sufferers were forced into stricter isolation and subject to social restrictions, even abuse and corruption.
That said, around that time, leprosy’s prevalence in Europe was beginning to wane, forcing some leprosaria to close down or be repurposed into almshouses and general hospitals.