Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, was an incurable affliction in medieval England from the 11th to the 14th centuries. Contrary to the popular image of lepers being harshly expelled from society, the reality was complex and, at times, deeply sympathetic.
Before the Black Death
Emergence of Leprosy
By the 4th century AD, leprosy had surfaced in England, spreading through droplets from the nose or mouth. Between the 11th and 14th centuries, over 300 leprosaria emerged, resembling monasteries but offering a semblance of freedom for sufferers.
Life in Leprosaria
Leprosaria, akin to monastic retreats, allowed leprosy sufferers to live outside busy areas, enjoying the rural environment. While some were subject to strict rules, others lived a life centered around prayer and spiritual devotion. Charitable donations and alms from local communities supported their existence.
Closer to God?
Reactions to leprosy varied. Some saw it as divine punishment, while others considered it a form of purgatory on Earth, bringing sufferers closer to God. This perception led to benevolence and even reverence towards those with leprosy.
Life in the Leprosaria
Leprosaria encouraged clean living, fresh food, and a connection to nature. Inhabitants could tend to gardens, and contrary to common belief, leprosy sufferers were not entirely isolated; they received visits from family and friends.
Misdiagnosis and Repurposing
By the 14th century, some leprosaria housed individuals not afflicted with leprosy, possibly due to misdiagnosis or because they were deemed worthy places for the poor. However, as the Black Death struck, societal attitudes shifted.
After the Black Death
In the mid-14th century, the Black Death intensified fears of contagion, leading to harsher treatment of leprosy sufferers. They faced stricter isolation, social restrictions, and even abuse. As leprosy’s prevalence waned, some leprosaria closed or transformed into almshouses and hospitals.
Living with leprosy in medieval England was marked by complexities and varied perceptions. From compassionate care to increased stigma post-Black Death, the journey of leprosy sufferers reflected the evolving attitudes of society.