The Truth about the Medieval Leper, Part II

The Dragon Princess — Courage and Faith

On the simple social level, lepers were separated from the rest of society; they were “the men who walked alone.” The Rite of Separation, documented in the thirteenth century by Alice the Leper, admonished the afflicted to, “…consider yourself dead to life, and separate yourself from the living. Your life is now with God and apart from man. Pray for humility with which to bear God’s will. May God have mercy on your soul.”

Part of this rite includes a symbolic burial. Reported customs range from lepers standing in their own open graves and being buried up to the neck, to simply having a shovel-full of dirt thrown on their shoes. The Rite states very clearly what lepers could and could not do in the ordinary social world of healthy people:

I forbid you to ever enter a church, a monastery, a fair, a mill, a market or an assembly of people… I forbid you to touch any common object, railing, or wall…You shall not drink from public fountains… Never look or speak directly at any person. You shall warn passersby of your approach by use of this clapper to give notice of your coming.

The leper’s clapper functioned both as a warning and as an advertisement saying, “Here comes someone who needs your charity.”

Some ecclesiastics considered leprosy a punishment for sins so foul and corrupt that God wanted these individuals to wear the sign of sin on their flesh for all to see. Most often the sins in question were lust, pride, greed and heresy. This idea was based on the story of Naaman, II Kings 5, in which Naaman, a leper but also a great general and good person, is cured of his leprosy by Elisha. In gratitude, Naaman offers Elisha a large reward which Elisha refuses, saying he does not need to be rewarded to help others and serve God. Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, however, follows Naaman down the road, stopping Naaman, saying his master, Elisha, has changed his mind. Gehazi hopes to keep the reward for himself. When Elisha hears of this, he punishes Gehazi for lying, greed and disobedience: “The leprosy therefore of Naaman shall cleave unto thee, and unto thy seed for ever. And he went out from his presence a leper [as white] as snow.” (2 Kings 5:26-27)

The Rite of Separation prohibited lepers from joining an “assembly of people.” This meant lepers could not go to church or participate in the sacraments, presenting an excruciating paradox for a leper since the sacraments, including confession, were necessary atonement for whatever sins had led to leprosy. Lepers attempted to establish their own churches, but many priests considered even this to be a violation of the Rite which stated specifically that a leper could not enter any church.

This was problem enough, and lepers had symbolic significance enough, that the Third Lateran Council in 1179 responded by saying, “Although the Apostles say that we should pay greater honour to our weaker members, certain ecclesiastics…do not allow lepers, who cannot dwell with the healthy or come to church with others to have their own churches and cemeteries or to be helped by the ministry of their own priests.”

Canon 23 allowed lepers to form their own communities, “…in accordance with apostolic charity, that wherever so many are gathered together under a common way of life that they are able to establish a church for themselves with a cemetery and rejoice in their own priest, they should be allowed to have them without contradiction” giving lepers a clearer ecclesiastical identity.

Many believed that God had chosen the leper to endure a “sort of purgatory on earth.” (Marcombe 8) Leprosy was a test of faith that brought the leper closer to God. The leper’s model for enduring this physical/spiritual trial came from the story of Job, who faithfully accepted every hardship given him by God. Even knowing God had cursed him, he refused to abandon his faith,

“…as God liveth, who hath taken away my judgment and the Almighty who hath vexed my soul: All the while my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils; my lips shall not speak wickedness, nor my tongue utter deceit. God forbid that I should justify you: till I die I will not remove mine integrity from me. My righteousness I hold fast, and will not let it go; my heart shall not reproach me so long as I live…” Job 27:2-6

For medieval people, God was everywhere, miracles likely, and death imminent. This world was only a transit stop on the way to REAL life which began after death. That death is often coupled with suffering was a palpable reality and the promise of eternal life through Jesus equally real. Many Medieval stories and plays tell of miracles, some through the lives and experiences of saints, some through people helping strangers who turn out to be Christ, some through the lives of people who realize the futility of their earthly wealth and give it to the poor or the very ill.

St. Francis Gives his Coat to a Leper/Beggar/Stranger

9 thoughts on “The Truth about the Medieval Leper, Part II

  1. Fascinating! I am feeling a bit like a leper during this virus pandemic. It pains me to think of how hard it was for them back then…

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