By Elma Brenner
Paper given at the King’s College London Medieval Postgraduate Reading Group (2011)
Introduction: Leprosy (Hansen’s disease) has been described as the disease of the Middle Ages, and my research examines the impact that it had on the society of Rouen, the chief city of Normandy in France and also one of the leading cities of medieval Western Europe. This paper will approach leprosy and its sufferers, from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, through the concept of identity. Firstly, it will consider how the identity of lepers themselves was affected by their affliction. The social identity of individual lepers prior to contracting the disease undoubtedly played an important part in shaping their fate, since those who had financial backing entered monastic leper hospitals, while poorer lepers were left to beg. However, the language used to describe lepers nonetheless suggests that their social status was transformed by the disease. The second part of the paper will examine the identity of leprosy itself. Clerics and, from the thirteenth century, physicians and surgeons, were called upon to diagnose suspected cases of leprosy. Sometimes cases were misdiagnosed, but recent archaeological work suggests that many of the residents of leper hospitals indeed suffered from Hansen’s disease. Suspected lepers were still being examined in Rouen in the sixteenth century, when the disease was in decline and its definition was becoming increasingly elastic. To us today, leprosy, like the plague, is undoubtedly symbolic of the Middle Ages – but this paper will conclude by considering the extent to which leprosy was viewed by contemporaries as the disease afflicting their society.
Leprosy is an infectious bacterial disease. The leprosy bacterium, Mycobacterium leprae, was identified in 1873 by the Norwegian physician G. H. Armauer Hansen, and the disease is now technically known as ‘Hansen’s disease’. However, since both humans and diseases change biologically over time, it is difficult to know whether medieval leprosy took exactly the same form as the modern strain of the disease. Hansen’s disease takes two forms: lepromatous leprosy and tuberculoid leprosy. While tuberculoid leprosy often ‘burns out’, the lepromatous form is ‘relentlessly progressive’. Lepromatous leprosy is manifested in large, disfiguring skin sores, and, ultimately, degeneration of the facial features, particularly the nose, and destruction of the nerves at the extremities of the body, such as the fingers and toes, resulting in loss of sensation and thus damage to these areas. Leprosy can also result in blindness and the voice becoming very hoarse. The disease is thus highly disfiguring, especially to the face, and very disabling.