LEPERS IN MEDIEVAL CATALONIA
James W. Brodman
Medieval hospitals, whether located in Catalonia or elsewhere in Europe, functioned principally as shelters rather than as providers of medical services. The need of their clientele was viewed as arising more out of “poverty” than from any particular malady, with the consequence that many shelters intermingled individuals who suffered from disease with those who were afflicted with old age or economic distress. While it might be argued that blindness, age or disease was itself the primary cause of the poverty that beset the inmates of hospitals, nevertheless, the tendency of the medieval documents to label these folk as being poor or “the poor of Christ” frequently obscures the specific nature of their distress. Indeed, it seems that many medieval hospitals made no fundamental distinctions among inmates and limited their services to the basics of bed and bread, served with a measure of religious consolation. Thus, throughout the medieval period, there are notices of the foundation and operation of shelters that served pilgrims, the indigent, and the sick. Yet, the mid-twelfth century marks something of a watershed, for it is in this era that a new category of asylum begins to appear, one dedicated to particular groups of the needy, like lepers, the victims of ergotism, and orphans. Of these, the earliest, and by far the most numerous, were leprosaria.
The first leper colonies developed in Europe when instances of leprosy increased after 1100. These rural gatherings initially were organized not too differently from the early communities of Augustinian canons, and frequently were headed by the oldest surviving leper. Gradually a process of institutionalization and definition set in, as the lepers acquired a legal status and formal title to the property they occupied, and organized themselves through statutes into some sort of regime. This process was advanced by Canon 23 of the Third Lateran Council (1179), which gave such communities official status within the Church: “When these men are gathered in a number sufficient to lead a common life, we enact that they can have a