Conventional narratives tell us that medieval lepers were pariahs who lived out their days as rejected invalids, rotting away in decrepit asylums, quarantined from society. Some of this is true. The disease became so common in Europe, however, that medieval society was compelled to adapt to the presence of the chronically ill. Listen as we explore the lived experiences of medieval lepers on the Eurasian continent using documentary evidence combined with the latest paleopathological and anthropological findings. 

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Transcript for “Walking Corpses”: Life as a Leper in Medieval Eurasia

Marissa: It was the year of our Lord, 1323, when Bernard Gui, the Inquisitor of Toulouse, put quill to vellum in one of many efforts to revise his Flores Chronicorum, a yet unpublished universal history from the birth of Christ to his own times. So much had passed since his last revision but he knew exactly where to begin, writing:

“In 1321, there was detected and prevented an evil plan of the lepers against the healthy persons in the kingdom of France. Indeed, plotting against the safety of the people, these persons, unhealthy in body and insane in mind, had arranged to infect the waters of the rivers and fountains and wells everywhere, by placing a poison and infected matter in them and by mixing (into water) prepared powders, so that healthy men drinking from them or using the water thus infected, would become lepers, or die, or almost die, and thus the number of the lepers would be increased and the healthy decreased. And what seems incredible to say, they aspired to the lordship of towns and castles, and had already divided among themselves the lordship of places, and given themselves the name of potentate, count, or baron in various lands, if what they planned should come about.”

He went on to describe an event resembling a cross between a zombie apocalypse and a populist political plot perpetuated almost entirely by people with leprosy, what has come to be known as the Leper Scare of 1321. Post-Enlightenment hostility toward the Middle Ages and Victorian preoccupations with contagion and quarantine have fed unhelpful stereotypes of the medieval leper. These stereotypes contend that medieval lepers were all pariahs who lived out their days as rejected invalids, rotting away in decrepit asylums, quarantined from society. Some of this is true. People with leprosy had objectionable bodies whose disfigurement was believed to be their own fault. The disease became so common in Europe, however, that medieval society was compelled to adapt to the presence of the chronically ill. In many ways, leprosy was an ordinary presence in medieval Eurasian lives. Today we’ll be talking about the lived experiences of medieval people with leprosy, and how their diseased and disabled bodies shaped medieval Eurasian societies and imaginations for centuries.

I’m Marissa.

Elizabeth: and I’m Elizabeth

Marissa: and we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

Marissa: I want to interject quickly to say that we will be using the term “leper” in this episode because it was the word used in our sources to describe people with leprosy. Some historians argue that leper is a slur- and today it is indeed uttered with judgement and disgust, but recent research has suggested that the medieval usage of “leper” carried less baggage than it does today and that sometimes it had positive connotations. Therefore, we will occasionally use the term leper but be aware that we use it in the medieval sense. I also want to say that I relied heavily on an excellent article by Elma Brenner at the University of Cambridge from the journal History Compass. It’s in our show notes and I give Brenner the credit for giving me a framework to build on.

Elizabeth: Leprosy is caused by Mycobacterium leprae whose origins are still being investigated. In 2009 the Department of Anthropology at Appalachian State University published their findings of leprosy infection in a 4,000 year old male skeleton unearthed in Balathal, India. This is the oldest case of leprosy that has yet to be uncovered. Comparative genomic research which traces the historical migration of the bacterium through DNA analysis, suggests that the earliest leprosy infections originated in either the Indian subcontinent or East Africa in the late Pleistocene period (sometime before 10,000 BCE).

a black and white etching of a man with rough, wart-like skin
Nodular leprosy | Wellcome Images

The disease reached the Mediterranean region around 500 BCE. Those dates are constantly contested. In the 1960s, anthropologists surmised that Alexander the Great’s soldiers contracted leprosy during their campaign in India during the 4th century BCE and brought it back to the Mediterranean when they were decommissioned. Paleopathologist and historian of ancient seafaring Samuel E. Mark argues that it was cargo ships and their human cargo that brought leprosy from the Indian subcontinent to the Mediterranean world. One of his most compelling arguments is that Alexander’s men spent no more than 2 years in India while Indian slaves often lived for decades in close proximity to leprosy. Moreover, the disease spreads most easily among children and adolescents. There were no children or adolescents among Alexander’s soldiers but they made up a large portion of the slave population being transferred in ships at this time.

Marissa: Once the disease was introduced into the Mediterranean basin, it would have spread slowly but steadily into Western Europe and the British Isles. As you can see, leprosy had been around for quite some time on the Eurasian continent before it became a public health emergency in the medieval period. In some ways, the increased visibility of leprosy can be attributed to the greater survival of documentation in this period. But there is also evidence that the infection was spreading faster and infecting more people than it had in the centuries following its introduction into Europe. Leprosy has been identified in substantial proportions of skeletal remains from France, the British Isles, Denmark, Italy, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. India and Byzantium housed leper asylums or leprosaria, but nowhere near the number that proliferated in medieval Europe during the High Middle Ages suggesting that leprosy infection was not so burdensome to south Asian and Eastern European populations as it would be to those living in Western Europe.

a black and white photograph of Hansen as an older white man with a beard looking in a microscope
G.H.A. Hansen, discoverer of M. leprae | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Mycobacterium leprae was identified by Norwegian physician G. H. Armauer Hansen in 1873 and leprosy has since been known as Hansen’s Disease. There are currently 250,000 cases of leprosy worldwide but since the biology of humans and of bacteria change over time, we can’t know if today’s leprosy acts on the body in the same ways that medieval leprosy did. Though it is an infectious disease, leprosy is not contracted easily. Very few people who are exposed to the bacterium actually develop the disease. Yet there been at least two instances of leprosy epidemic in recorded history. In the fourth century CE, the Eastern Roman provinces suffered a leprosy epidemic. The disease spread and grew for centuries but it was not until the High Middle Ages (1100-1400) that the rate of infection again reached epidemic proportions. Scientists still have no idea why leprosy grows very slowly and then enters episodes of crisis when it spreads aggressively.


Elizabeth: It might also help to know that there are two forms of leprosy: lepromatous leprosy and tuberculoid leprosy. The worst of these was lepromatous leprosy, which progressively ravaged the body over time. Sufferers often had large, open sores, deteriorating facial features, nerve damage, and degenerating extremities like fingers and toes. People with leprosy often tend to develop hoarse voices, a staggering gait, and partial or total blindness. In the second century CE, Aretaeus the Cappadocian described how the leper  appearance influenced the behavior of those around them writing, “When in such a state, who would not flee;—who would not turn from them, even a father, a son, or a brother?” One anonymous sermon written in the 9th century compared lepers to “walking corpses.”

Historically, though, several diseases outside of Hansen’s disease were deemed to be “leprosy.” For example, leprosy makes several appearances in the Bible (and in Jesus Christ Superstar obvs) but historians have discovered that this term denoted people who were separated from mainstream society because of conditions that rendered them impure. It could also be used to denote an illness that was miraculously cured, whatever that illness might have been. True leprosy, caused by Mycobacterium leprae, was called by Greek and Arabic medical scientists elephantiasis.

Marissa: It is believed that several skin diseases and otherwise degenerative diseases outside of Hansen’s disease could have been deemed to be leprosy in medieval period. Very few leper cemeteries have been excavated but of the few that have, 70%-80% of the recovered skeletons have classical signs of Hansen’s disease. The others may have suffered from leprosy’s less aggressive form or an entirely different pathology altogether. It’s important to keep in mind that a medieval diagnosis of leprosy is not necessarily an accurate identification of Hansen’s disease but that medieval people had no conception of Mycobacterium leprae so they would not have differentiated between Hansen’s disease and diseases with similar presentation.

At the same time, the possibility of misdiagnosis was more rare than one might think. Medieval clinicians were incredibly conscientious in their examination and diagnosis of suspected leprosy. A positive diagnosis of leprosy was life-altering. For most, it resulted in their admission into a leprosarium which, in turn, triggered, arrangements for the leprous person’s property liquidation and transferral of any outstanding inheritance to the trusteeship of the leprosarium prior. Suspected leprosy often led to litigation which could sometimes pit ecclesiastical against secular authorities. We have documentation of one suit that was filed “against two leprous priests from the burgh of Saint Siria, who are not residing in their own cottages outside the burgh but among the people in the very burgh. What is worse, the keep concubines with them, who openly bring the ecclesiastical vestments to the church of Saint Siria for the masses to be celebrated by those leprosi, to the scandal and peril of all the people of the said burgh.” The townspeople petitioned the ecclesiastical court of Troyes to take action “or else, lords such as the temporal lords of said place will apply a remedy in accordance with the law.”

Elizabeth: When a town lacked a leprosarium or the suspected leper was a foreigner or Jew (and was thus ineligible for admission into a leprosarium), a leprosy diagnosis usually meant expulsion. A French Jew, named Eliannus de Montel was suspected to have leprosy in 1462. Enraged townspeople of Bourge-en-Bresse petitioned the town council, writing the following:

The people are clamoring about the Jew Eliannus de Montel, why he is not being expelled from this town even though he is and has long been leprous and many, Christians as well as his own folk, have dealings with him. Because of this constant interaction, several have allegedly been affected and stricken by the said disease and many more can expect to be unless remedial action is taken. Furthermore, while Christians are expelled from the town when they become leprous, this Jew is allowed to stay here in town, thanks to numerous irregular favors.

Marissa: He was not eligible for a bed in a nearby leprosarium— unlike Christians with leprosy, he had nowhere to go– so their complaint about favoritism seems hypocritical. In any case, months of litigation followed. The local burghers agitated the conflict by accusing Eliannus’s son of also being leprous. The son was outraged at what he perceived to be defamation and the town council agreed, saying “he had only the beginning of this disease, with signs in his eyes, eyelashes, face, and speech.” Eliannus, on the other hand, was pressured to leave willingly so as to save the time and expense of legally expelling him but he refused. The syndics of the town council forwarded the people’s complaint to Amedeus, heir apparent of Savoy, adding:

many Christians as well as Jews, would communicate with him all the time, especially his wife, children and household, and the town’s other Jews who trade and deal with Christians on a daily basis throughout the town, not only in the market and streets but everywhere. Furthermore, it should be kept in mind that these Jews also bake bread in the town’s ovens; draw and use water from its springs, wells, and streams; buy meat, eggs, cheese, fruits and other vittles in its food-market, squares and shopping quarters; and that they touch all these things with their hands. They breathe in the face of the Christians when they come close, walk or stand around, talk, and so on, and they infect the air.

Elizabeth: The council, Amedeus, and Eliannus eventually reached an agreement “in order to remove all doubt and to calm the people’s clamor.” Eliannus and his son would be inspected for leprosy and if they were found to be leprous, they would have to pay the expenses and examiners fee. If they were found to not have leprosy, the town would be on the hook for the expenses. Perhaps to spare his son the humiliation of an inspection and possible diagnosis, Eliannus eventually admitted to having leprosy and was initially relocated to the outbuildings in the Jewish cemetery and later moved to the nearby castle of the lord of Romans. His son agreed to reimburse the town for the expense. Given the high stakes of a leprosy diagnosis, and the possible litigation involved in a misdiagnosis, authorities were careful to render diagnoses only after irrefutable signs of leprosy.

Iudicium Leprosorum

Marissa: In the history of medicine, it is a rarity for us to have surviving records describing the inspection and diagnoses of patients in detail. We have more of this for leprosy patients because of a legal procedure called iudicium leprosorum (judgement of the lepers). In the early centuries of the medieval period, priests conducted iudicium leprosorum but in the 1200s, the process morphed into a medico-legal procedure performed all across Europe with small variations. The first medical iudicium leprosorum took place in 1250 in Tuscany. Four physicians were paid by the state to inspect the bodies of suspected lepers so that the court could pass judgement on their legal status as lepers or non-lepers. In 1261, both the magistrates and bishops of Castiglione del Lago appointed two trusted men to inspect the body of a suspected leper under the aegis of a physician and in the presence of three witnesses.

Though the sources say that people’s entire bodies were inspected, we have paleopathological evidence that medieval Europeans focused primarily on facial disfiguration when rendering a leprosy diagnosis. Anthropologist Jesper Boldsen analyzed skeletal remains from three Danish cemeteries: Odense (a leprosarium cemetery), Malmo (an urban cemetery), and Tirup (a rural cemetery). One would expect that skeletons showing signs of leprosy would be generally confined to the leprosarium cemetery. Not even close. Boldsen found that up to 50% of the skeletons in Tirup, the rural cemetery, showed classic signs of leprosy. The biggest difference between the rural cemetery and the leper cemetery were the incidence of facial disfigurement. If these findings are representative of Europe as a whole, then there were many people living with leprosy in mainstream society and leprosaria were probably reserved for patients who presented with facial deformities.

a poster from India depicting drawings of people with non-infections leprosy lesions
A public health poster from India on non-infectious leprosy | Wellcome Images / CC-BY

Elizabeth: However, there is no doubt that leprosy was particularly common in continental Europe after 1100. Some have called this uptick in leprosy infections a full-scale epidemic. This was not a case of the increased visibility of lepers and a resultant shear panic. Leprosy really was becoming an uncontained infection. We know this from skeletal remains, written documentation, and by the institutional histories of leper asylums. In the 7th century CE, the French opened the first leper asylum or leprosarium in Western Europe. The number of leprosaria grew steadily for centuries until the eleventh century when their numbers multiplied exponentially. By 1225, there were an estimated 19,000 leprosaria in Europe, with 2,000 of them in France alone.

Leprosaria  were most often located a small ways outside main settlements. This practice was prescribed in the Bible and was thus the general rule in Christendom. At the same time, leper hospitals were almost always situated alongside a well-traveled thoroughfare so that the patients could solicit alms from passersby. For example, the propagation of leprosaria in Spain coincided with the growth of the Santiago pilgrimage route to Compostela. People with leprosy made the pilgrimage themselves in search of a miraculous cure but they also developed leprosaria along the road or traveled alongside other pilgrims for the sole purpose of attracting alms.

Leprosaria as Poor Relief

Marissa: Leprosaria were important hubs of poor relief in medieval Europe. Many of them housed clergy and qualified as monastic institutions eligible to perform Christian offices. They were legitimate religious institutions and attracted wealthy benefactors. King Henry II of England, for instance, was a regular supporter of leprosaria. It is possible that people suffering from poverty or from unidentified diseases may have collaborated with authorities to secure diagnoses and seek refuge in these institutions.

Wealthy lepers could often use their resources to conceal their disease or to at least support themselves outside of these institutions. King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem contracted leprosy early in his life and benefited from several physicians who scrambled to develop a cure during his short life. This was a rare luxury for a privileged monarch. Until at least the 14th century, physicians wrote treatises about the cause, diagnosis, and treatment for leprosy but very few, if any, actually treated leprous patients. Hundreds of records of leprosy diagnosis exist for the years 1100 to 1350 and almost none of them indicate the presence of a physician. There were some exceptions to this but when the treatment of lepers was permitted, it was highly regulated. Physicians at the University of Montpellier were subject to the following decree released in 1240 stating that their physicians were to “accept no leprosus in their care for longer than eight days … except with permission of the royal court if the leprosus is in the king’s territory, or from the episcopal court if he is in the bishop’s territory.”

Elizabeth: At first glance, the removal of lepers from main settlements and the strict regulation of physicians in treating the disease suggests that medieval Eurasians believed leprosy to be highly contagious. This was, however, not the case. Europeans did not begin to regard leprosy as a contagion until the 13th century. Classical Greek and medieval Arab scholars described leprosy as an infectious disease that was spread by breathing infected air or eating infected food. They also asserted that there was a hereditary factor that determined someone’s susceptibility to the disease. Perhaps their caution prevented leprosy epidemics like the one experienced by Western Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries. According to an Arab medical certificate from a collection of medieval manuscripts, a Jewish man named Abraham living in the Abbasid Caliphate was diagnosed with leprosy in the 1260s and a physician wrote that it “debars him from mixing freely with the Muslims and from earning his living… because that condition is a transmissible and communicable disease.” It was only during the massive pandemic of the Black Death that medieval Europeans began to theorize about contagion and identify leprosy as a infectious disease that could spread from body to body.

Marissa: For most of the medieval period, Europeans conceived of leprosy as a chronic, corruptive illness that caused the body to deteriorate from the inside out. This understanding of leprosy is grounded in humoral medicine (which we’ve discussed before on the show). In short, most diseases were perceived as being caused by an internal imbalance of bodily humors rather than as a result of outside factors on the body. Physicians relying on the humoral doctrine used purgatives, enemas, and plasters to draw excess humors out of the body. Even when physicians were willing to treat patients with leprosy, very few people could afford to pay for the long-term treatment that was required for this chronic disease. Physicians more often appear in records as witnesses or consultants in leprosy cases, and not as clinicians who treated them.

The vast majority of lepers relied exclusively on the lay staff at their leprosarium for treatment. Though they had no medical training, leprosaria staff did their best to treat the patients in their care based on physicians’ advice. Diet modification was thought to be the most effective way to bring the humors back into balance. Leprosy was attributed to an excess of black bile, a drying humor, so sufferers were encouraged to eat foods designated as moist: eggs, poultry, pork, fresh milk, and fish. Leprosaria typically secured fishing rights, raised dairy cows, and kept pigs and hens so that patients had access to foods that improved their health.

Elizabeth: Lepers living in the Abbasid Empire were encouraged to spend as much time as possible in hot and moist environments (to counteract the cold dryness of their excess black bile.) Arab physicians also recommended bleeding, cupping, bandaging, and the application of stimulating ointments. They may also have used cauterization to treat ulcerated skin, an old treatment dating back to ancient India. Arab medical experts also believed in the healing power of certain gems. For leprosy, Xenocrates recommended topaz engraved with the design of a ship and warn on the left ring finger to protect against leprosy.

At leprosaria in Byzantium, lepers were treated with bleeding and purgation at the advice of Paul of Aegina. Others focused their energies on the seeking of miraculous healing. One thirteenth-century account describes a man suffering from advanced leprosy who worshipped the Life-Giving Font in Constantinople and was subsequently cured. During the ninth century, several miraculous cures of leprosy were reported in the Byzantine city of Germia (which is now in Turkey). People suffering from leprosy and other disfiguring skin diseases entered a fish pond filled with holy water. God commanded the fish to “lick the patients’ bodies all over.” When they emerged from the fish pond, they were miraculously cured.

a bluish green fish resting on sand
A “doctor fish,” or red garra | Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: Some scholars have argued that this was not a miracle so much as an early example of balneotherapy combined with fish therapy. Apparently some fish (called doctor-fish in modern contexts) will eat dead skin off people’s bodies when they are submerged in water. Balneotherapy is simply the use of spring water for therapeutic uses. This was common in ancient times, medieval times, over the 18th century (with the resort town of Bath, England), and through to today. Unsurprisingly then, bathing was the other primary treatment for the disease which explains why leprosaria were typically located near water sources. Fortunate hospitals like the leprosarium of St. John the Baptist were located near natural springs and mineral-rich waters containing sulphur. Leprous patients were encouraged to take hot, scented baths. The heat encouraged sweating which was believed to rid the body of impurities and soaking relieved some of the pain of their open sores. As they scrubbed their bodies, they removed dead skin and brought sensation back to their damaged limbs.

There was also a religious aspect to this treatment. Water was believed to have the power to wash away sin and, in the case of baptism, restore the bather to a state of grace. Medieval people often believed that humoral balance had a parallel relationship to moral rectitude. A chronic imbalance and the resulting corruptive illness might have signaled to peers that the patient suffered from a guilty conscience or moral failures. Their decaying bodies were outward manifestations of their decaying souls. This agrees with what we know about leprosaria before leprosy was understood to be contagious. Rather than an infectious threat, Western Europeans may have confined people with leprosy in spaces where they could not influence the moral integrity of medieval society.

Elizabeth: Roman and Byzantine writers had always associated leprosy with venery. Aetius, writing during the reign of Emperor Justinian, asserted that lepers had insatiable sexual desires. Rather than a symptom of the disease, Aetius insisted that venery made people’s bodies particularly vulnerable to leprosy. This was why, he argued, the disease was more common in men than in women. This line of thought is particularly apparent in medieval literature. Lepers appear as malevolent characters lacking a moral compass. In Tristan and Isolde, lecherous lepers begged King Mark to allow them to rape Isolde as punishment for her infidelity. In The Quest of the Holy Grail, Perceval’s sister is bled to death by a hideous leper woman in need of virgin blood to treat her deformed face and body.  


There are resemblances here to historically marginalized people in other contexts. For example, the caste of Dalit, or Untouchables, in India are believed to be morally impure and bodily unclean due to their low births. They generally marry inside of their caste and endure prejudice from people outside their caste. In the eighteenth-century laundresses were ostracized, compared to prostitutes and nightsoilmen because they were female, often single, and worked elbow-deep in other people’s filth. People with syphilis, as Averill’s episode will show you, occupied a similar space in the Western world. Their misconduct was advertised on their skin as they suffered from sores, blindness, and insanity brought on by their sexual misconduct.

Marissa: But medieval lepers had quite a different status than these other examples. In the world of medieval Christendom, lepers’ suffering, by disease, poverty, and isolation, was often perceived as a positive quality. Roman Catholic culture was one that valued the persecuted and the suffering because their trials brought them closer to earning salvation.The figure of the leper was iconic in the medieval world, the ultimate symbol of Christ-like poverty. Several saints, including Francis of Assisi, Hugh of Lincoln, and Martin of Tours,were reported to have kissed lepers as acts of redemption in their hagiographies.

Peter of Poitiers, a 13th-century theologian, argued that lepers had, by their existence alone, earned a religious rank. He suggested that their status as God’s elect meant it was appropriate for them to live in religious cloisters in service to God. Leprosaria maintained strict religious itineraries designed to bring lepers into the fold of religious life. Frequent donations to leprosaria in the 12th and 13th centuries demonstrate that the prayers of cloistered lepers were believed to be particularly effective for lay people seeking salvation. Badass lady historian Anne-Marie Leander Touati argues that leper asylums are better understood as voluntary retreats where people with leprosy worked toward salvation rather than as sinister asylums to which they were committed against their will.

Rights in the Leprosaria

Elizabeth: Though leprosaria resembled hospitals and orphanages in some ways, residents had many more rights than inmates in these other institutions. In fact historians who study leper hospitals have gone so far as to call leprosaria “experiments in democracy.” Residents formed committees with authority to direct institutional finances and discharge priors and other authorities for incompetence. In contrast with mainstream medieval society, women had similar rights to the men inhabiting the leprosaria. Some leper hospitals had female priors.

This interpretation of leprosaria as religious houses seems even more likely since we know that Jews were excluded from them. There were certainly many Jews with leprosy but at the time, it was considered rare. Medieval surgeon Henri de Mondeville claimed that “because Jews seldom have intercourse during menstruation, few Jews are leprous.” This claim was based on old biblical conceptions of purity and pollution, many of which inform Jewish practice even today. Menstruation, like pork, was ritually unclean so the bodies of couples who had sex during menstruation were at risk of corruption from the inside out. In this vein, medieval medical scientists also tended to think that children conceived during menstruation would be born leprous.

Marissa: There is only one Jewish leprosarium that we know of and it dates to the 13th century in the city of Provins in France. The Provins leprosarium was not stable or long-lasting like most other leper hospitals but it appears to have been an abortive attempt at a Jewish version of the Christian leprosaria that dotted the European countryside. Jews may have cared for their own lepers privately within the home or used social capital within their communities to make private arrangements. Remember Elannius de Montel mentioned earlier in the show, who was relocated to a nearby castle after he was found to have leprosy. Elannius was lucky. Many ordinary Jews likely faced sad and lonely fates due to their systematic exclusion from leprosaria and a lack of resources.

Leper Scare

Though we no longer believe that lepers were locked away in asylums against their will, the stakes of a positive leprosy diagnosis for a medieval European were high. No event demonstrates this more clearly than the Leper Scare of 1321, which we mentioned at the top of the show. Really this story is so complicated and so wild that it deserves its own episode but I can give you the basics. In June 1321, King Philip V was residing in Poitiers when he received news that there was a disturbance in the upper Aquitaine region. Dozens of lepers have confessed to poisoning the wells with prepared powders in order to kill and/or turn leprous all of the healthy people in France and Germany. The accusations had begun in April of that year at Périgueux. Suspected lepers were arrested and tortured, their confessions taken and used to capture additional members of the plot. After their confessions, they were burnt at the stake.

Elizabeth: The plot grew (as per these tortured confession) to include all of the lepers, and Jews in France as well as the King of Granada and the Sultan of Babylon. King Philip took immediate action, first condoning the state’s response in Périgueux and subsequently issuing the following ordinance:

“public knowledge and the course of experience have shown that that the lepers have attempted to kill Christians by throwing poisonous potions into the waters, not only in France, but in all kingdoms subject to the faith of Christ.” The King decided on the following measures to ensure that all individuals implicated in the crime faced punishment:

(i) lepers who have confessed or who confess in the future are to be burnt alive

(ii) if they will not confess “spontaneously” then torture should be applied “so that the truth can be extracted

(iii) female lepers should be treated in the same way except those who were pregnant, who should be imprisoned until their infants are of sufficient age to “live and feed without their help” and then these women should be burnt
(iv) lepers who confess nothing, those who will be born in the future, and leper youths, both male and female, who were less than 14 years old, should be imprisoned in their places of origin

(v) lepers who have reached their majority, which was 14 years of age, and who confessed in the way set out above, were to be burnt

Marissa: The ordinance also declared their crimes to qualify as lèse-majesté (treason) which meant that the lepers had forfeited their property rights. Most citizens did not wait for the King’s ordinance to take action. By the time the ordinance reached the rest of the kingdom, many lords had already executed nearby lepers and confiscated their property. Bernard Gui writes, “In many places, in detestation of the horrible act, the lepers, both men and women, were shut up in their homes with all their things, fire having been applied, the were burnt by the people without any judgement.”

French Inquisition

The lepers in Tours may have been fortunate for this quick death. People with leprosy in most other French cities were arrested and tried by French Inquisitors. Being a subject of the Inquisition was a lose-lose situation. Most prisoners suffered horrific torture and eventually made confessions under duress. They were subsequently burned for their crimes. Others refused to confessed and were tortured to death or refused to confess and were burned for their crimes. Inquisitors reasoned that those who confessed were much better off because they received absolution for their sins prior to their deaths. There were, of course, many exceptions and much variation based on locale. Still, this was generally how the Inquisition worked.

Elizabeth: Our record of the specific events of the plot come from Inquisition records as well as from the chronicles of people who were present. Guillaume Agasse, head of the leper colony at Estang, turned state’s witness and explained that two lepers from his colony had obtained poisons from Toulouse the previous November in preparation for the event. Another leper, named Etienne de Vales, was charged with poisoning the well in Cahors. Eventually Agasse, presumably under duress, admitted to organizing the event on a warm summer evening in the hall of his own house. He addressed his fellow lepers with the following: “You see and hear how other healthy Christians hold us who are ill in shame and disrespect, and how they throw us from their meetings and gatherings and that they hold us in derision and censure and disrespect…”

Because of this, it was decided that all healthy Christians in the world should be poisoned so that they too became lepers, and then the present lepers would take “their administration and governance…. And to obtain and cause this, the preceptor said and announced that it had been decided and ordained among the leaders that they would have the King of Granada in their aid and defence, which king, . . . had already announced to other leaders of the malades that he was prepared to give his advice, help and aid in the matter…”

Marissa: After Agasse’s confession, the ditches of the springs in Estang were excavated by investigators and an infected “ball of dung” was recovered. Witnesses testified that it had been deposited there by a leper the year before to poison the springs. Bags of poison and infected matter were recovered from springs and wells from all over France. Eventually, participants began to implicate Muslims and their rulers in Spain and Palestine as having supported the uprising. According to Inquisition Records:

“The Muslim rulers demanded that the lepers “deny the faith of Christ and his Law”, and that they should receive the poison which the kings had ordered to be made. This was a mixture of the powdered remains of a consecrated host, “which the Christians call the body of Christ” and a concoction made from snakes, toads, lizards and bats, together with human excrement. If any of the commanders resisted these orders, then the man with the halberd would at once decapitate them.”

Leper Pogrom

Elizabeth: A pogrom also accompanied this anti-leper hysteria. The anonymous author of the Chroniques Parisiennes, for example, wrote “this devilry was done by the encouragement and the incitement of the Jews.” Another chronicler writes, “the Jews in some parts were burnt indiscriminately and especially in Aquitaine.” In Tours, 160 Jews were burnt to death in a large pit. Their wives were generally spared but in many cases the widowed women threw their sons into the burn pit to die with their fathers. They considered this fate to be preferable to the alternative which would surely involve their baptism and fosterage by the Christian nobles who had organized the pogrom. The richest Jews were kept alive until their debts were paid and then executed, their estates confiscated by the king. King Philip V confiscated an estimated 150,000 livres from the pogrom triggered by the Leper Scare of 1321.

Marissa: This could be an episode in and of itself but I wanted to at least cover the basics to show that yes, this was complicated. Lepers were not pariahs, they were sometimes saintly, but when there were social pressures- such as the Black Death, the Crusades, economic turmoil and political instability, lepers, like Jews and Muslims, were easy scapegoats for European anxieties. And this is really all because of the decriptitude of their faces and bodies. It was the disease’s visibility that made lepers these iconic and problematic figures in medieval Europe.

Show Notes

Barber, Malcom. 1981. “Lepers, Jews and Moslems: The Plot to Overthrow Christendom in 1321”. History. 66, no. 216: 1-17.

Bouras-Vallianatos, Petros. 2016. “Miraculous Fish Therapy for Leprosy (‘elephant Disease’) and Other Skin Diseases in Byzantium”. Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies.

Brenner, E. 2010. “Recent Perspectives on Leprosy in Medieval Western Europe”. HISTORY COMPASS. 8, no. 5: 388-406.

Brenner, Elma. Leprosy and Charity in Medieval Rouen. Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2015.

Dols, Michael W. 1979. “Leprosy in Medieval Arabic Medicine”. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences.

Gwen Robbins, V. Mushrif Tripathy, V. N. Misra, R. K. Mohanty, V. S. Shinde, Kelsey M. Gray, and Malcolm D. Schug. 2009. “Ancient Skeletal Evidence for Leprosy in India (2000 B.C.)”. PLOS ONE. 5.

H. D. Isaacs, ‘A Medieval Arab Medical Certificate’, Medical History, 35 (1991): 250–251, 253–257.

Leprosy in Premodern Medicine: A Malady of the Whole Body by Luke Demaitre

Catherine Peyroux’s article ‘The Leper’s Kiss

Miller, Timothy S., and John W. Nesbitt. Walking Corpses: Leprosy in Byzantium and the Medieval West. 2016.

Mark, Samuel E. 2002. “Alexander the Great, Seafaring, and the Spread of Leprosy”. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. 57, no. 3: 285-311.

Shoham-Steiner, Ephraim, and Haim Watzman. On the Margins of a Minority: Leprosy, Madness, and Disability Among the Jews of Medieval Europe. 2014.

Shoham-Steiner, Ephraim. 2003. “An Ultimate Pariah? Jewish Social Attitudes Toward Jewish Lepers in Medieval Western Europe”. Social Research. 70, no. 1: 237-268.

Stewart, Richard. Leper Priest of Moloka’i The Father Damien Story. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000.

1 Comment

timothy Miller · November 11, 2020 at 9:19 am

Amazing thtat no one has left any comments on this essay about medieval leprosy. I am one of the authors of which I wrote with John Nesbitt. We both thought that this book would be really popular in view of its relevance not only to medieval charitable institutions and medieval medical developments, but also for political reasons since we discovered that women lepers participated equally with men in governing leprosaria and their considerable properties. Women were even elected as masters(?) or superiors of leprosaria and had authority over men in these cases. Amazing we thought, but not a comment from anyone on this political side, not even from scholarly reviewers such as Petros Bouras-Avallianatos.

Timothy S. Miller

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