Once seen as remote institutions for the forcible segregation and confinement of social pariahs, the medieval leper hospital has undergone a striking change of image, as a result of research conducted by historians and archaeologists over the last three decades. On the one hand, these largely suburban foundations represented a statement of communal pride, while also expressing in bricks and mortar the hard lesson to be learned from the New Testament parable of Dives and Lazarus: anyone lacking compassion for men and women whose sufferings seemed akin to those of Christ would receive short shrift in the next life. On the other hand, they offered donors and patrons, such as Queen Matilda, the founder of St Giles Hospital in c.1117/18, an opportunity to enlist the intercessionary prayers offered by cloistered lepers, which were deemed to be especially effective. It was only during the fourteenth century that leprosaria began to serve a more strictly medical purpose, as (unfounded) fears of infection were aggravated by frequent outbreaks of plague; and even then, admission was far from compulsory. Through a study of London's eight or more leper hospitals, we can appreciate the complexity of responses to a challenging disease that was understood as much in religious as scientific terms.
Carole Rawcliffe is Professor Emerita of Medieval History in the School of History, University of East Anglia, and author of Leprosy in medieval England (Boydell Press, 2006; pbk 2016).
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