Completely Irrelevant Post about an English Woman with Leprosy Living in 13th century York, England

The other evening I watched a program — Medieval Dead — which is about disease in medieval times. It features recent discoveries in archeology and paleobiology. The episode I watched was “Pestilence and Disease” which looked at a dead person who’s interested me since I learned of her; a woman who was found during construction on Dixon Lane in York, England. I know, I know, it’s a little odd but the woman had leprosy and as you may or may not know I’m an amateur expert on the reality of the medieval leper. In fact, I don’t even think the term “medieval leper” should exist but I don’t think “homeless” should be a noun because it makes homelessness a social institution.

Yes, I’m a weirdo.

The show did pretty OK for a 45 minute show on medieval disease. What they got right is that during medieval times, people with leprosy weren’t sent to remote islands, but had a role in society. BUt…

Some things bothered me. One was the portrayal and assumption that people in the Middle Ages were miserable because they didn’t live like we do. That drives me nuts. First, they lived like THEY did; their world was their world and they lived in it as it was. I’m pretty sure they were as happy as we are in our world. Their world was normal for them — fraught with danger though it was — they had been born into it and didn’t know about any other world. I am 100% sure that if humanity survives another 1000 years, they are likely to look at us with the same pity and condescension the show looked at the lives of people in the 13th century.

Second, because this was (allegedly) a science driven program the literature of the era played no part in the narrative. Medieval literature says just about everything about medieval times, including the attitude toward lepers. I will never understand why science has such a repulsion to the “softer” arts (and vice versa). It’s nuts if you’re going to look at people in the past and their lives. Just like us they wrote and spoke of themselves and described the salient philosophical features and assumptions of their times from the inside. We can learn about the diet of this York woman from the dense calculus on her teeth, but her beliefs? Not at all.

Third, the term “Dark Ages.” I really really really hate that. “Well, little Johnny, mom and dad are sorry you had to be born into these dark ages. There will be light ages, but we’re in the dark ages.” First, they were actually filled with colors, faith, travel, poetry, theater, music, painted buildings (outside and inside). Darkness inside their houses? Probably but that’s what they knew. We feel sorry for Abraham Lincoln learning to read by the firelight but that’s what HE knew. Poor Abe? No. JUST Abe living in his time and place. My mom and her sisters didn’t have electricity in their house, either, and it was the 20th century.

Fourth, dirt. The Middle Ages have an undeserved reputation for being dirty. They were far less dirty than the Renaissance. Anywhere the Romans had been, their public baths were left behind and, in the medieval cities I know, were used by people until the Black Plague hit them hard. The effect of the plague on European life was drastic and profound. It changed European life forever and, IMO, dispelled the universal allegory and paved part of the road that led to the Reformation. The high Middle Ages (12th and 13th centuries) were, except for the feuding, a pretty well cultured and comparatively hygienic time.

And lepers… In the persistently allegorical world of Europe in the high Middle Ages, lepers had a place, a real place and a kind of status that led to the building of numerous leper churches and hospitals. Helping a leper was a short road to salvation after death. St. Francis was hugely influential on the minds of his time and one of his kind gestures was kissing/helping a leper. And then there was Christ healing lepers on one of the gates of Jerusalem known as the Leper’s Gate. And the program never mentioned the inalterable fact that leprosy is not very contagious.

And the life expectancy myth. Lots of people lived long lives in medieval times. They didn’t die at 40 (the median age). MOST babies died and many women died in childbirth, skewing the life expectancy down quite a ways. I know who my medieval ancestors were and they all lived into their 80s. Most of their children, however, didn’t make it to 10 years old. 80 + 10 divided by 2 is 45.

I mention all this because it’s totally irrelevant to our times (or is it?) and also because if I could learn all of this (which is factual) without having a degree in history or the mastery of any European language (though I can read French and Italian pretty well), how come this program takes the dim route? Is it their belief that they would shock their audience? Some very fine historians have already explicated this — or how would I know it? And yet science thinks it’s discovering something? Or is it that we get off on feeling we’ve progressed as human beings, so far beyond the sorrowful meager lives of people in the Dark Ages? After all the time I spent “in” the Middle Ages I like those people. I admire their struggles and their world view has something to recommend it. How can we learn from history if we cloak it in the idea that our world is superior? How can we even know what it is if we do that? To look at people from the past is like visiting a foreign country with its own values, laws, assumptions, beliefs and culture.

Thanks for listening.

10 thoughts on “Completely Irrelevant Post about an English Woman with Leprosy Living in 13th century York, England

    • Right? They’ll have their bits and pieces and make a grand judgment and label us. I wonder how. 😦 “They had everything they needed to create a peaceful world with the needs of most of the people met and more, but they kept fighting each other instead and destroyed the planet in the process.” They’ll be writing from Mars where it will be very hard to build a new “earth” and they will have learned to work together. Maybe.

  1. Every generation like to congratulate itself on being so much better than the last one and ends up making the same mistakes. Every age likes to look back in the past with pity because it makes us feel superior. Very similar in thinking that humans are more advanced in evolution than all the other animals that evolved with us.

    • Exactly how I see it and maybe part of the reason we make such slow progress in the really important things. What if we looked at medieval people and asked, “What did they do that made them happy? What gave them joy?” I’ve asked that question and found many beautiful things worth admiring and emulating. And animals? We wouldn’t have 800k dead from Covid in this country if we looked for 15 minutes at the determination animals have to ensure their own survival. We’d be GLAD to have a vaccine, wear masks, social distance, etc. We’d say, “Damn we’re lucky to be able to choose this!”

      • Instead I hear this relentless drumbeat of negativity and not celebrating the things we have that make life relatively painless. Most of us don’t need to worry about famine, or nobles making war on our back yard. We are free people and not tied to the land or slaves to an owner. We can fight a plague rather than helplessly die en masse. Nobody is burning witches that I see. I am just a working class doofus and I live in luxury undreamt of by ancient kings and have all the knowledge of mankind at my finger tips.

        Yet I don’t think we are one iota happier than our ancestors. It is because we don’t accept that we haven’t fundamentally changed since we chased wildebeest – and big cats chased us – around the plains of the Serengeti. And they may have been happier than we. I think that maybe too much affluence is bad for us. This generation would not have put down the terrors of smallpox or polio.

        • The thing is, people in the 14th, 15th, 16th centuries fought the plague with everything they had and had figured out. They accepted that life was fraught with illness and death but they didn’t like it or we wouldn’t be here now — I wouldn’t have made it to 1 year old in medieval times. We are so arrogant and so ignorant. I’m ashamed of us in front of our ancestors. I can see them shaking their heads and saying, “We tried so hard and you don’t understand?”

          I was thinking today that education should be rebranded from a privilege to a duty. You owe it to your country to be as well educated as you can be. That’s your duty as a citizen. Not donning the war clothes and going to some benighted sad little country that’s been the pawn of the world since the beginning, but putting on your clean clothes and going to school. I might write a post on that rant I mean topic.

  2. I love that you have a different point of view than “entertainment science”. I agree about living in a time or a place – people who have never known differently still enjoy life. And it is still true today. Also true that people repeat mistakes and either don’t know differently or don’t care!

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