Academic journal article International Social Science Review

Medieval Leprosy Reconsidered

Academic journal article International Social Science Review

Medieval Leprosy Reconsidered

Article excerpt

Historians recognize that during the High Middle Ages--from shortly after 1000 to 1300 A.D.--Western Europe experienced a period of unparalleled growth. Populations tripled; first schools and then universities flourished; new cathedrals rose up in many cities; and, commerce and manufacturing had been revitalized on the Italian peninsula and gradually spread throughout Western Europe. Ironically, this period also witnessed an unprecedented outbreak of leprosy in the region, a disease that could be horribly disfiguring, but fortunately did not have a significant impact on demographic growth.

This leprosy "epidemic" and the attempts of Latin Christian society (Roman Catholic Europe) to deal with the health problems it created have attracted the attention of experts in the history of medicine and cultural historians. (1) Unfortunately, some of these scholars have failed to read the medieval sources in their proper contexts, sources that describe both the outbreak of leprosy and the organization of leprosaria, the medieval hospices designed to care for victims of the disease. This has caused some of them to misrepresent medieval Christianity's response to leprosy as an attempt to punish victims of the disease rather than to assist them in their suffering.

Most studies published in English during the past thirty years have focused on evidence from Latin Europe during the time of the leprosy epidemic beginning ca. 1100 A.D. To understand the Latin sources of the High Middle Ages properly, one must study them together with the Greek sources of the patristic age (300 to 500 A.D.), a period during which the Early Byzantine Empire experienced an outbreak of leprosy similar to that which occurred in England, France, Italy, and Germany in the two centuries following the First Crusade (1099). Accordingly, this study will first describe what modern medical science has discovered concerning leprosy. It will then review some of the opinions historians have expressed regarding how medieval society viewed leprosy and treated its victims. Lastly, it will examine primary sources and reinterpret the evidence they present in the wider context of Christian society as a whole.

In 1873, the Norwegian scientist, Armauer Hansen, correctly identified Mycobacterium leprae as the bacterium which causes leprosy. Although Mycobacterium leprae exists in only one strain, leprosy can appear in several forms depending upon how effectively the human hosts' biological defenses combat the infection. In its most extreme form, leprosy causes skin lesions and raised tumors, disfigurement of the face, and even loss of fingers and toes. These horrific symptoms doubtless explain why ancient and medieval societies often forced lepers to live in isolation from communities. In its less severe manifestations, however, leprosy can be confused with other skin diseases. In fact, the leprosy of ancient Israel, described so vividly in the Old Testament, was certainly not the disfiguring disease caused by Mycobacterium leprae, but a milder form of skin allment. True leprosy seems to have first appeared in the Mediterranean basin during the Hellenistic period and to have become especially well-established in Egypt by the time of the famous Greek physician Galen (129-200 A.D.). Modern science also has proven that leprosy is contagious as ancient and medieval societies suspected. Most people, however, possess a natural immunity to the disease. Thus, leprosy does not sweep through a society killing millions in a few months. It affects only a small number of people (five to ten percent of the population) whose bodies cannot resist Mycobacterium leprae. (2)

Several recent influential books have reexamined medieval leprosy. Each of these studies emphasize that Christian Europe's response to lepers reflected a more general program to identify and isolate alien elements in society. In his popular history of medicine, Roy Porter briefly discusses the leprosy epidemic of the High Middle Ages. …

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