Horsing Around

I read an article this morning that said medieval horses were “not much bigger than modern day ponies.”

I can’t believe that this had to be researched by zooarcheologists. All anyone had to do was look at Icelandic horses, the direct, unadulterated horses brought to Iceland by Vikings in the 10th century throughout the medieval era. They are little horses. They’re great, but they’re little. And anyone who’s looked at an armory in a museum can see how small people were — not just in medieval times, but even at the turn of the 20th century. Whenever I’ve looked at medieval or early modern armor I’ve thought, “Those were fierce little guys.” I’m 5’1″. Much of that old armor is for men smaller than I am, and certainly smaller around though I’m not especially heavy. It was a different scale of human. How would a 4’8″ human in full armor get on and off a Friesian the way he would have to in battle? That and for those people horses were transportation; they had to be convenient, intelligent, responsive. Not one trick ponies, but companions.

We have such fragmented views of the past. I thought about this listening to a friend tell me about his boss. My friend was sure the guy had been in Viet Nam because he had photos of airplanes on his walls, looks to be in his 60s, etc. Turned out, no. The guy’s hobby is photography AND he’s too young for “Nam.” “I just made all that up!” said my friend. It wasn’t an illogical story, but minus some readily available facts.

Back in undergraduate school I took astronomy which I loved. For our final project, we were assigned a star. My star was E-Ori or the middle star in Orion’s belt. It’s a very interesting star actually more than one star. I had to do spectroscopy on the star and various other things and write a ten page paper about my star. Well, I couldn’t find ten pages worth of material about E-Ori (I should have tried harder, I admit it) so I wrote a fable purportedly from an ancient culture that believed the stars were the souls of the dead.

When I got my final project back, I got an A on the lab report and a mixed grade on the fable. My professor gave me an A; the lab teacher an F. “This isn’t science,” the lab teacher wrote. “Good story,” wrote the professor. And other things that boiled down to his belief that literature and history had something to tell science. His point was that IF the fable had truly been from an ancient culture, we could have learned where Orion was in the sky and where the people had lived, among other things, including that these people were very aware of the position of constellations. Those are pretty cool bits of information — were they navigators? Did they live by water? Did they live in the desert? Had the star positions changed in the intervening millennia? All kind of questions could emerge from a story like that, questions that could help scientists thought, admittedly, they wouldn’t say much about the chemical nature of the star. He tried to persuade the lab teacher to soften her position on the grade but to no avail. The question is there any such thing as “pure” science, “pure” art, “pure” history? I don’t think so.

My professor’s words really struck me. Maybe science and history are not exclusively this or that. Supposedly I’m an artist, but the more I’ve learned about the chemical composition of my paints, the more interested I am in being an artist. In the process of writing Martin of Gfenn I learned a lot about how paints were made in medieval times and THAT interested me in the whole chemistry of fresco painting. The world — human life — itself is not so neatly compartmentalized. Anyway, just my wandering thoughts this morning.

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.

Just another Mafioso

One of the first castles I ever saw was referred to by my friends as Castello Erasmo and it’s in Predjama, Slovenja. The story that brought me there is long and probably incredibly interesting in tabloid news style, but I’m not writing it here (maybe no where). The original structure (long gone) was built in 1274. The castle has since been rebuilt many times. Its protective palisade is the mouth of a cave. The castle butts up against a rock face.

I had not become a Swiss Medievalist Historian yet. It was my first trip to Europe — 1994 — and the trip was fraught, plain and simply fraught, but being born is NEVER easy and being born as an adult into a new life is REALLY not easy.

The guy for whom the castle is named was a robber baron who got into trouble with the Hapsburgs (pretty easy to do, I think, since they were everywhere). Legend has it that he met his demise (always wanted to write that) when he was hit by a cannon ball while sitting on the toilet. The coolest thing about the castle is that there is a way out the back that leads to the top of the cliff, pretty handy in times of siege especially as there was water up there.

“Wow. I didn’t even know Erasmus was in Slovenia.” I remembered reading In Praise of Folly in college. It was an interesting if fairly inaccessible satire for me at 18.

I did not know that Erasmus was a common name back then. In fact, I didn’t know anything. I got home from Europe and found myself reading Erasmus (the famous one, the one who wasn’t a mafioso). I struggled with the Latin (never been one to take the easy or sensible or even POSSIBLE route) then gave up and read the words on the facing page (English). Sigh.

Live and learn.

I have a lot of respect for ignorance. THAT benighted journey took me to the Reformation, not Slovenia. OK.

You never know where ignorance will take you — ignorance + curiosity have taken me a lot of places I never imagined I would go. There’s something cool about being a self-taught kind of person, I don’t mean the person who ignores science and believes what they “learn” on Youtube about the Corona virus, I mean the person who wants to find out more about something and does real work, real research to find out. It’s different from school which goes in arbitrary stages — grades, exams, finals, finishes, OK, kid, you got this — but that doesn’t stop. As a teacher I really didn’t think I “taught” anyone anything. I just put the stuff in front of them and showed them something about how to do it and how they would know if they succeeded. I couldn’t “teach” them if they didn’t want to do the work needed to learn it. It was really ON them. At best I showed, facilitated and guided. The best thing I could do — I thought — was inspire in them the desire to learn it, to help them become open to a new experience (writing). Sometimes the magic worked and sometimes it didn’t.

One thing I learned about school in my later years is that it gives you skills you can use your whole life to learn things.

There are other castles built against cliff faces. I wanted to write about a castle like this and found one in Switzerland. I wanted to go see the ruins during one of my trips to Switzerland, but it turned out to be impossible for a lot of reasons — weather, family illness, time… It’s in the Canton of Solothurn, Ruine Balmfluh. It’s built against a cliff in the Jura Mountains.

It’s true what Europeans say about Americans, that we like castles. 🤪 Oh, and the word “palisade?” It is a pretty word, but not such a pretty thing. Some of them were pretty sinister.

Time, Time, Time

History is like science in the sense that it is very difficult to get to the ultimate, absolute, bottom-of, truth about something. Even personal history is layered in emotion and the fallibility of memory. I began to really understand this when I was researching leprosy in medieval times for Martin of Gfenn.

Most people still have the image of hordes of lepers wandering around Europe ringing their bell or rattling their rattle rasping out “Unclean!” as they begged for food. Probably there were a few lepers out there doing this, but in reality there were never many lepers in Europe. Most of them were crusaders returning from the Holy Land where leprosy was endemic. So where did people get this idea? Sir Walter Scott AND the fact that there are a LOT of medieval buildings that were built as leper hospitals scattered across the countryside. I went into this in depth in my gripping four part series on the Medieval Leper which, to my amazement has barely been read by anybody. Go figure! 🙂

The other thing about history is the further back one looks, the less one sees. At the museum in Del Norte, to which I’m somewhat attached, the director — Louise — is always happy to have “provenance,” that is real honest to god factual information about a thing. But even ancient history is getting some of that thanks to science, Carbon 14 dating and even more exciting, DNA. Almost every day I learn something new about something old that paleo anthropologists have discovered from a couple of molars found buried in a cave in an obscure part of the world. And then, there’s this amazing thing, the reconstruction of heads based on DNA and skeletal fragments.

Oscar D Nilsson

The first time I saw this amazing process realized was when I went to the San Diego Museum of Man to see Ötzi, the Iceman. I fell in love with Ötzi the moment he was discovered and was really happy to discover that my DNA Haplogroup is the same as his. It doesn’t matter AT ALL other than adding to the mythology that short mountain dwelling people with arthritis are an ancient band. Ötzi was comparably easy to reconstruct into a 3-D image of himself because he was frozen in a glacier and had most of his parts and his last meal intact, even after 5300 years. His entire being told a library of stories — with provenance.


“Oh yeah? I gave up more than YOU did!!!!”

“Don’t be such a martyr.” I used to hear that around my house a LOT. I got the impression that a martyr was a person who sacrificed his/her own interests for the interests of others, and then wanted accolades for doing that, basically, a blue ribbon for cooperation. As time passed, it took on another meaning which was a person who would give up what they wanted for the well-being of others, BUT then wore a veil of suffering and sacrifice the whole time. Not a lot of difference between those two explanations; it’s more a matter of nuance and motive. That’s how martyrdom played out in my family.

Then I became immersed in the Middle Ages and learned what martyrdom meant to those people. It was a carrot on a stick. It appears that self-sacrificing actions — even small ones — need to be rewarded. Lives of the Saints is full of the stories of martyrs, naturally. Martyrdom is a short road to sainthood and dying for the Holy Cross was the one sure road to Heaven. But not all of the actions of saints required the ultimate sacrifice. Sometimes it was just about giving your coat to a poor man on the road or kissing a leper — simply an appeal to people to be kind to others. It seems people have always needed an incentive for that.

In Milan 20 years ago, before 9/11 when a lot of the art was put away for safety, I was able to wander around the Castello Sforza for days. There were paintings of martyrs. I was able to see the changes in the rendition of the lives of the early Christian martyrs, and, more importantly, their death. St. Sebastian was, to me, the most surreal. In some paintings his arrow-pierced body stood calmly with total equanimity and little blood flow as if every day of his life, Sebastian went out, got shot with numerous arrows, and then went home for dinner. The point of that — I though later — was to give the sense that sacrificing the earthly life for a Heavenly life was no big deal and people shouldn’t resist the opportunity.

An important thing about the early Christians who became martyrs is they didn’t sacrifice their lives in order to get recognition for their suffering or even to get into Heaven. They ended up martyrs out of their sense of conviction. There were 1200 years between St. Sebastian’s day with arrows and the paintings of him.

The early Christian martyrs became propaganda tools. The future — the Middle Ages — used them to turn people into willing martyrs. Any young man who died on Crusade was guaranteed salvation. This is the same idea behind Islamic death cults that, in our lifetimes, have turned young men into bombs, or, in WW II, turned some Japanese pilots into Kamikaze fighters, ready to die for the emperor — the idea that there is glory in death and great rewards beyond.

I could probably write about this all day, but, sigh, I must shoulder my burden and go pick up dog shit.

P.S. In looking for the image of St. Sebastian I wanted for this post, I found this article.

Worried about the Coronavirus? Pray to St. Sebastian Apparently he was the saint to which people prayed during the great plague of the 14th century which killed at least 30% of the population of Europe. I can see that. The plague buboes would have looked like arrow piercings in a way. But I’m not sure about our plague…


The Truth About the Medieval Leper, Part IV

Leper Knights

The Hospital of St. Lazarus in Jerusalem was located just outside the Leper Postern where it was believed Christ had healed a leper. There are a great many stories as to the origination of the Knights of St. Lazarus, but, as explained by David Marcombe in Leper Knights:

It would appear…that the order established itself in the 1130s on a site outside the St. Lazarus postern, though the first unambiguous reference is a grant by King Fulk in 1142 giving land in Jerusalem ‘to the church of St. Lazarus and the convent of the sick who are called miselli’ . (8-9)

During this time, the word “hospital” was closer in meaning to our word “hotel” than our word “hospital.” The Hospital of St. Lazarus was a hospital in a more contemporary sense. Any Templar, Hospitaller, or Teutonic knight in the Holy Land who contracted leprosy, would go to live at this hospital. A second hospital was built at Acre. These men became the legendary Leper Knights of Jerusalem.

There is something desperately romantic in the image of leprous men in chain mail charging Saracen hordes ahead of the other troops. It’s logical they would have fought. Leprosy develops slowly in otherwise healthy individuals. A leper knight might have a few good battles left, and certainly he would have had the will to fight. Death by sword, mace, spear, battle-axe, boiling oil, lance or arrow would certainly be preferable to the excruciating saga of leprosy.

The Knights of St. Lazarus are said to have participated in many raids and battles,“… wherever there was fighting between Christians and infidels, knights of the Order rallied to the support of the Holy Cross…They considered themselves the ‘living dead’, these ‘men who walked alone’; final death in the defense of the Faith held no terrors for them.” (Order of St. Lazarus) Leper knights are known to have participated are the Battle of La Forbie in 1244, the battle which marked the end of the Frankish Kingdom in Palestine. All eighteen leper knights were killed, as were most of the European forces. The Leper Knights were also present for the final siege of Acre in 1291.

Crusading knights who returned from Europe with leprosy, or who developed leprosy after their return could live in one of the communities of the Knights of St. Lazarus that were literally “springing up” all over Europe. They were built in lowlands to keep the lepers’ breath away from healthy people, and usually near cities, often with convenient alms boxes located near main roads. Followed the Rule of the Knights of St. Lazarus, based on the Rule of St. Augustine; not all residents were former knights, but all followed the Rule. It must have presented an interesting paradox when men whose souls were absolutely saved by fighting for the Cross ended up with a disease that was a badge of sin. Grand Masters, Preceptors, and Commanders of Lazarite communities were required to be lepers, a custom that vanished as leprosy vanished in the 14th century.

Endowing leper houses gave nobles a way to accomplish their temporal and spiritual goals. It helped protect their earthly fortunes and ensured them and their families a shorter stay in Purgatory, if not a place in Heaven itself. For a rich man to share his riches with “Lazarus” by donating land and buildings to military/religious orders was especially appealing as these groups had the power, training and arms to protect their lands. For example, in the Glatt Valley north of Zürich, a long-running border dispute between the Duke of Rapperswil and the Baron of Toggenburg was settled when Toggenburg and Rapperswil jointly gave a large piece of land to the Knights of St. John Hospitaller. Rapperswil also gave land to the Order of St. Lazarus. (Hugener) The two large properties created an immense buffer zone in a strategic, volatile Swiss valley.

In England:

[t]he Order of St. Lazarus built up a moderate landed estate scattered over a very considerable geographic area because of the benevolence of an extremely wide set of patrons…Benefactors included kings, noblemen and gentry, but it was the peasant farmers who made up the majority in terms of numbers of grants, if not in terms of the volume of property granted. (Marcombe 65)

Francois-Oliver Touati in Archives de la Lepre explains the urban localization of leper hospitals in France saying that wealthy donors wanted to have their compassionate generosity visible to others and close to home where it could be administered easily. Touati tells of the Viscomte of Saint-Florentine who, in 1184 had pledged a regular gift to the Dilo Abbey of 4 cents per year for the care of lepers to procure for him and his family a place in “the bosom of Abraham.” Touati goes on to explain that there were hundreds of acts of this kind, done by the same type of person to procure the same goals:

Un acte semblable a des centaines d’autres, de même type, de même objets, de même milieu aristocratique en faveur d’un monastère don’ le donateur attend en retour la prière pour son âme et celle des proches, une garantie pour l’éternité. Rien que de très ordinaire… (Touati 35) (Basically that for aristocrats, endowing a leper hospital was a guarantee to the donor that he/she will go to Heaven; such actions were very common)

“Yeah but, leprosy was an epidemic, right? Isn’t that why they were marginalized and persecuted?” 

In a word, “No.”

Nor were they necessarily “marginalized” or persecuted.

The rapid increase in the number of hospitals built for lepers during the late 12th and early 13th centuries (in Britain the number rose 80% from the 11th to the end of the 13th century, with similar statistics in France and the Holy Roman Empire) led historians to believe that leprosy was widespread during this period. Some historians argue that a rise in Europe’s population and crowding and poverty in the urban centers increased the incidence of leprosy. Other historians have contended that medieval doctors confused leprosy with other diseases.

Recent paleo-historical research shows that leprosy arrived in Europe in the 7th century and increased in the population very slowly, with a slight increase during the 300 years of the Crusades. The statistical ratio of lepers to the general population has not changed from the 12th century to today, roughly 1-2 to 10,000 people (WHO) Leprosy of the 12th and 13th century did not occur in the same populations in which we see leprosy today, that is, the very poor. Excavated cemeteries in England and France reveal that at any one time a typical Lazar Houses sheltered fewer than a dozen lepers. Certainly not ALL medieval lepers were housed in leprosaria, Lazar Houses, but excavations of other cemeteries have brought up very few leper skeletons. Clearly, there were never so many lepers in Europe that the average person was certain to see one. By the 14th century, leprosy had essentially vanished in Europe, returning to its pre- Crusade levels. Medieval doctors correctly identified leprosy.

Until a cure was found lepers were treated with rest, fresh air, cleanliness, and a healthy diet. 12th and 13th century men and women who gave their lives to the care of lepers provided their patients exactly this kind of care, in semi-monastic communities, regulated by the Rule of St. Augustine. Accepted and cared for rather than persecuted, the most stringent punishment a leper faced for breaking the rules of the Lazar House was expulsion. By the end of the 13th century very few lepers remained in northern Europe, and “Lazar House” began to describe a facility for housing the very poor.

The word “leper” combined with the word “medieval” still evokes the image of pitiful people in desperate need of a miraculous cure, wandering around with a disease horrifying in its ugliness and terrifying in its contagion, begging for help. However, for people of the high middle ages, lepers were powerful allegorical expressions of the true nature of human life, bearing on their outer body the corruption all humankind carries within. The leper provided medieval men and women a test of faith and the opportunity to move closer to their own salvation if they found the courage to show compassion to the Dragon Princess.

In Other Leper Stories….

Aue, Hartmann von. Henry the Leper: a Swabian Miracle-Rhyme. Trans. Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Boas, Adrian J. Jerusalem in the Time of the Crusades. London: Routledge, 2001. Bruehlmeier, Markus and Michale Thomaschett.

Commandery of the Order of St. John at Bubikon. Bubikon: Ritterhauscesellschaft. 1999.

Cawley, Father Martinus, trans. The Life of Alice the Leper. Lafayette: Guadelupe Translations, 1994. 12 December 2007

Druck, Walter and Hans Rutishauser. Die Lazariterkirche Gfenn bei Dubendorf. Bern:Gesellschaft fur Schweizerischen Kunstgeschichte. 1992

Goetz, Hans-Werner. Life in the Middle Ages from the Seventh to the Thirteenth Century. American Edition. Trans. Albert Wimmer. Ed. Steven Rowan. Notre Dame:Notre Dame Press. 1993.

Hugener, Rainer. “Die Gründung des Lazariterhauses im Gfenn.” Heimatbuch Dubendorf 2004. Dubendorf. 2005

“The Leper Hospital, Winchester, 25 March 2001.” Channel 4 Time Team. 25 Mar. 2001. 3 Jan. 2008

Enders, Howard and Carlos M. Morel. “Disease Watch: Leprosy.” The UNICEF-World Bank-WHO Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases.

“History.” The Ritterhaus in Bubikon. For the Young and the Young at Heart. Ritterhaus Bubikon 2012. Web. 27 Dec. 2012.

Lee, Frances and John Magilton.”The Cemetary of the hospital of St. James and St Mary Magdalen Chichester – a case study.” World Archeology. Vol. 21, No. 2 Archeology of Pubic Health. October 1989. 273-282.

Manchester, Keith and Charlotte Roberts.”The Paleopathology of Leprosy in Britain: A Review.” World Archeology. Vol. 21, No. 2 Archeology of Pubic Health. October 1989. 265-272.

Marcombe, David. Leper Knights. Woodbridge:The Boydell Press. 2003

Moore, R.I. The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Medieval Europe 950-1250. London:Blackwell. 2007

Peyroux, Catherine. “The Leper’s Kiss.” Monks & Nuns, Saints & Outcasts. Ed. Sharon Farmer and Barbara H. Rosenwein. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 2000 pp. 172-188.

Rawcliffe, Carole. Leprosy in Medieval England. Woodbridge:Boydell Press. 2006.

Richards, Peter. The Medieval Leper. New York:Barnes & Noble. 1977.

Seward, Desmond. The Monks of War; the Military Religious Orders. London: Penguin. 1995

St. Suplitius Serverus. St. Martin of Tours. http://www.catholicapologetics.info/library/onlinelibrary/Tours.htm 01 December 2007

De Vitry, Jacques. The Exempla, or Stories from the Sermones Vulgares. Elibrion Classics: facsimile London: David Nutt. 1890

Touati, Francois-Olivier. Archives De La Lepre: Atlas Des Leproseries Entre Loire Et Marne AuMoyen Age. Paris: Comite Des Travaux Historiques Et Scientifiques:Memoires Et Document D’Histoire Medievale Et De Philologie, 1996.

Tuchman, Barbara. A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century. New York:Alfred Knopf. 1978

The Truth about the Medieval Leper, Part III

How Medieval People Probably Saw Leprosy as Reflected in the Stories they Wrote and Performed

The ancient Indian game of Snakes and Ladders is an excellent model for the medieval view of life. The challenge was to navigate their temporary, corporeal life without falling into Satan’s clever snares and losing eternal life. In this journey the leper was particularly fortunate because his condition set him apart from many of the temptations and evils into which “normal” people could fall. Lepers gave others the chance to transcend the world of the flesh and find salvation. Caring for a leper, washing a leper’s feet or kissing a leper said, “What is of this earth is irrelevant and unreal. The outward signs of disease are nothing more than the true nature of the fleshly life showing itself for what it is. This person is already dead, and so closer to God than I. Through my faith, I can relieve his suffering by caring for his comfort. Why should I fear death when death is the only path to God?”

The Biblical model for this is the story of the Rich Man and the leprous beggar, Lazarus for whom the Lazar Houses are named. It offers a clear and eloquent sermon against greed.

There was a certain rich man…clothed in purple and fine linen [who] fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at [the rich man’s] gate, full of sores…desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table…the dogs came and licked his sores…it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and…in hell he lifted up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom…He cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame…Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and…Lazarus evil things…now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. (Luke 16:19-25)

Many believed the leper’s revolting appearance represented the true nature of humanity, the soul turned inside out. Lepers were admonished to believe that though their lives were “apart from men” they were “with God.” God had CHOSEN to separate them from Earthly temptation so they could concentrate their attention more completely on Him.

Medieval people believed that any poor suffering person could be Christ in disguise. Many stories give gruesome details about the appearance of lepers to demonstrate how much faith and courage it takes to embrace the transience of human life, and for the story’s hero to touch, or kiss, a leper. A story of Queen Matilda, wife of Henry 1 of England, (1112 – 1165), who built a hospital for forty lepers, makes this point:

During his youth at the royal court, David [Queen Matilda’s brother] had been called one night by the queen to her own bedchamber, where he found her washing the feet of lepers, and even kissing them. The prince chided his sister, asking her, “My lady, what are you doing? Sure if the king knew of this, your mouth, soiled with the putrefaction of the lepers’ feet, would never be worthy to kiss his lips.” But Matilda replied, smiling, “Who does not know that the feet of the Eternal King are to be preferred to the lips of a king who must die?” (Peyroux 183)

Compassion toward lepers was shown by St. Martin and St. Francis and reported in Lives of the Saints. Jacques de Vitry (1160-1240) in his Sermones Vulgares included several stories in which lepers provided an opportunity for brave and charitable nobles to find salvation.

He begins one story by jogging the memories of his parishioners about the good acts of St. Martin, saying, “We have read how St. Martin kissed a leper who was then no longer a leper, and of Theobald of blessed memory, who was count of Champagne…” (de Vitry 43) who was…

…wont to bestow alms upon the poor with his own hand, as was in the habit of visiting a certain leper who lived outside of the town called Sezenna. Now the leper died, and some time after the Count returned to the town and went to visit the leper as usual, asking him how he was: he replied, “Well, by the Grace of God, never was I better.” Presently, some citizens…\asked the count’s servants where he was, and said that the leper had been dead a buried a month before. The Count was amazed when he heard this and returned to the leper’s hut but did not find him. The Lord, however, filled the air with an odour of great sweetness to show how pleasing to Him is pity. (de Vitry, Notes, 174)

Naturally, there is little written or dictated by REAL medieval lepers, but Alice of Schaerbreke (St. Alice the Leper) who died in 1250, dictated a journal of her physical and spiritual experiences. She believed that she had been “rewarded” with illness so that she would be closer to God during her Earthly life.

God…wished her to be thoroughly purged of all temporal din, all defilement from this secular world (Acts 9:15) what he did now, he did not in any vindictiveness, nor as if blaming her for some crime. He did it as might a Bridegroom, minded to pay his bride a visit and bring her a token of his perfect love for her. God longed that his bride be free, be at leisure for him alone; that she linger with him in the bedroom bridal chamber of her mind…And what did he do? He struck her a heavy blow, struck her down with a disease, an incurable disease, one few could wish for: leprosy itself! (Cawley)

Hartmann von Aue’s narrative miracle poem Der Arme Heinrich or Henry the Leper, written at the end of the 12th century, tells of a brave knight with fine lands and happy tenants; a handsome, goodhearted person — in all senses the medieval hero, “…most of all by the fame far- flown, of his great knightliness was he known.” But, as happens, his wealth and fame were not to last. The reality of life on earth, for medieval men and women, is described by von Aue as:

The torch that flames for men to see
And wasteth to ashes inwardly
Even with Earl Henry it was thus:
The curse that fell was heavy and deep— .
..Full of foul sores, increasing fast,
Which grew into leprosy at last.

Henry does not accept his torment with the faith and acceptance of Job. When all who once worshipped and adored him shun him, he spends a fortune visiting various doctors. One promises a cure, the still-beating heart of a virgin. Resigned and hopeless, Henry returns to his lands where a peasant family, father, mother, and little daughter, takes him in. Hearing Henry tell his story, the little girl is so moved that she decides to sacrifice her life for Henry. Her reasoning demonstrates the two-part view of human life. If Henry lives, her family would be safe and secure in the temporal world. By giving her life for another — and a leper at that! — she would be assured a spot on the “Bosom of Abraham.” She tells her parents, who naturally object, but their arguments carry no weight. The young girl argues that temporal life is a terrible hardship, and its treasures and victories empty.

What booteth it him a long-drawn life
To have traversed in trouble and in strife,
…Therefore my lips give praise to God, Who this great blessing hath bestow’d On me,—by loss of body and limb
To have the life that lives with Him.

In her argument with her father, she focuses on the temporal advantages to her family her sacrifice will bring.

And you, from every troublous thing That threateneth you, delivering.
…He is good; he will not drive you away. But if we now should let him die,

Our ruining hasteneth thereby.

Her mother responds that by sacrificing her life for Henry’s, the girl is disregarding God’s commandment to children to honor their father and mother. Instead of being a comfort to them in their old age, her parents must mourn and pray for her. Plus, her mother continues, Henry’s leprosy is God’s will. Who is this girl to defy that? Finally the mother alludes to the eternal torment that will await the little girl for taking her own life, “Yet oh! whate’er our ills may be, So much and more shall God do to thee.”

The girl understands her mother, but argues that such a sacrifice for the life of another is simply giving up the illusion and vanity of the temporal world for the permanence and glory of Heaven. She demands of her mother, “…is it thou wouldst grudge my soul its white robe and its aureole?”

In wonderment at the girl’s ability to express herself so well on behalf of her decision, her parents realize that God is speaking through her. Her father says, “Daughter, if God is in thine heart, Heed not our grieving, but depart.”

When the girl tells Henry of her decision, he protests that she is too young to know what she is saying. He tells her to go talk to her parents, but they tell him they agree with her. They dress her in beautiful clothes and set her upon a horse that will carry her and Henry to “…the place where the dead are.” The doctor is horrified at the sight of this child together with the leper, Henry, and takes her into a room alone and asks if she had been forced into her actions. She says it is her free decision. He tries to frighten her:

Bethink thee—…with sharp hurt and with grievous harm I cut from out thy breast the part
That is most alive—even thine heart.
Thou shalt feel worse than death’s worst sting

Ere thy heart be drawn forth quivering.
She does not back down, and says to Henry, and to the doctor:

The endless life shall be mine thereby… Sir, inasmuch as the work is hard,
So much the more is our great reward.”

Henry will return to the glory of his former life, her parents’ prosperity will be protected and she will reach eternal glory. Just before the blade is thrust into the girl, Henry wakes up to the reality that his pride and vanity led her to this sacrifice. He is struck with penitence and says, 

Sith all then is as God ordereth, 
Rest evermore in the hand of faith. …’Tis the ways 
Of penitence lead unto grace.

He breaks open the door and stops the hand of the doctor, saying he would rather suffer the torment God has given him than see the little girl die for his sake. The girl is distraught to have Heaven so close and then taken away. Henry takes her home, knowing that he returns in shame, but he has humbly accepted God’s will. Here von Aue makes the connection between leprosy of the soul, which is pride, and leprosy of the body, saying:

Thus by the damsel’s help indeed
From a foul sickness he was freed,
Not from his body’s sore and smart,
But from hardness and stubbornness of heart. Then first was all that pride of his

Quite overthrown; a better bliss
…That looks to God through the tears of pain

Henry awakens the next morning, healed, and humbly thanks God. When she’s old enough, Henry marries the girl and they live happily ever after.

Popular stories, Biblical parables, and the Lives of the Saints all said the same thing; share with the poor — and who was poorer than a leper? — and salvation would be assured. The ruling of the Third Lateran Council allowing the establishment of leper churches opened a way for wealthy landowners to provide for their souls by donating land and income to leper communities, particularly to the Knights of St. Lazarus, the Leper Knights.

The Truth about the Medieval Leper, Part I

“The Dragon Princess” — the European Leper in the 12th and 13th Centuries
A presentation for the annual conference of the Society for the Independent Study of Social Imagery (SISSI) 2013, Martha Kennedy

Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us. (Rilke, “The Dragon Princess”)

My entanglement with Medieval Switzerland is a long story that started when I read How the Irish Saved Civilization — a book I bought because it was a joke! I learned how, in the 9th century, a couple of Irish monks had headed east across the channel from Scotland in small round boats, carrying books and Christianity. I learned how the patron saint of Switzerland is an Irishman (St. Gall). I was enchanted! 

The thing is, I knew NOTHING about the middle ages. In grad school, I’d endured Chaucer such antediluvian irrelevancies only long enough to check off the requirements and move on to what really interested me. I had only been in Europe once, Zürich, in 1994, and I hadn’t liked it. I’d found it claustrophobic and old. After reading Cahill’s book, I wanted to return to Switzerland, find St. Gall and take a long look at everything I’d scorned in my ignorance. At the time, I believed I was Irish, majorly Irish, not the 30 cents to a dollar I truly am.

When I returned to Zürich in the winter of 1997 my friend’s mother told him to take me to see the little church at Gfenn, a village north of Zürich. In evening winter light, I saw the rough stone walls of true medieval church. It was closed, so we returned the next morning. I picked up the informative brochure and decoded the German to learn Gfenn had been a hospital of the Knights of St. Lazarus; a leper community. I was stung by destiny. 

This is what I learned about the medieval leper while researching and writing my novel, Martin of Gfenn, about a young painter who contracts leprosy and goes to live at the Lazariterkirche im Gfenn. Where I could, I relied on primary sources — stories, songs and fables from the time. I was also very lucky to make friends with a Swiss Medievalist Historian — Rainer Hugener, then a grad student at the University of Zürich, whose specialization (and home town) was the tiny area north of Zürich where Martin of Gfenn is set.

The Backward Telescope of Time

Take a short trip in the Way-Back Machine, and imagine walking through the streets of Ghent, Paris or Zürich in, say 1240. 

“The dark ages, right?” 

Yeah at night. This world is very beautiful, and certainly mysterious, even to those living in it. Northern European cities such as Zürich, Brussels, Ghent, Paris, are in the midst of the expansion that will make them northern Europe’s urban centers of scholarship and trade. 

On your way home from the public baths, you smell the scent of freshly cut wood, newly opened stone, boiling sausage, fresh bread. If you’re thinking, “Yeah, right, what about the awful sanitation?” your thought is reasonable, but not necessarily accurate. European cities that had been Roman settlements continued to use the Roman plumbing and baths until the 14th century when the population was so decimated by plague and war that there were no longer human resources to maintain much of anything.

You step back and watch artists perched on high scaffoldings paint the fresh clay and plaster walls of stone and half-timber buildings. If you wander inside and see more painting, here a drapery on the lower part of a wall beneath a frieze of roses; there a wall painted to resemble fur; here a scene from the street below — a vendor cooking sausage.

Wall Paintings, Stein am Rhein

The cathedral is slow to rise. You know you’ll never see it finished. Your neighbor’s grandfather was one of the first stonemasons to work on it. Decorating a column, is a relief carving of this very man as a boy, himself learning to carve. Your friend’s father captured his son’s embarrassment. Now your neighbor is teaching his own son. One large window, set in a finished wall, tells the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Leper.

Average Lifespan?

I’m always amused when I read that a medieval person lived to be 40 years old, and the historian adds the comment, “…well past the average lifespan.” Infant mortality rates were high as was the possibility of dying in battle. This is not known as the feudal age for nothing.

Warfare was constant. Once these important factors are taken into account and an “average” lifespan of 40 actually means that many people made it into old-age. Still, medieval people certainly had to sort out a perspective to help them accept death. In their world God, the saints, angels and Satan lived together with the human race in a vivid real-time allegory in which all people had a part, and lepers had a special role. Pariah or savior? Pariah AND savior.

Three more parts. Hold onto your hats!!!! 🙂

The Best Library of My Life — St. Gallen Stiftsbibliothek

On a winter’s day in a deep and dark December in 1997 I opened a door way that led into a gaudy rococo structure that housing thousands of books I could never read.

It was the Library at the Abbey of St. Gall in St. Gallen, Switzerland. I had just dipped a toe into my personal medieval period. I’d recently read How the Irish Saved Civilization (which I’d bought because I thought it would be funny…) by Thomas Cahill, and I was excited to learn that a couple of Irish monks — Columbanus and Gall — had crossed the channel in little round boats and carried the Bible (and other books) up the Rhine. Gall got pneumonia at what is now St. Gallen and left Columbanus on his own to journey to Italy. Apparently Columbanus was a irritated with Gall for being such a sissy, but pneumonia is no joke…

Columbanus and Gall on Lake Constanz (dem Bodensee)

Gall set up a hermitage and a small library with a few books and he gathered followers and saved souls. He is the patron Saint of Switzerland. His animal friend is a bear. The story is:

… that once he was travelling in the woods of what is now Switzerland. One evening he was sitting down warming his hands at a fire. A bear emerged from the woods and charged. The holy man rebuked the bear, so awed by his presence it stopped its attack and slunk off to the trees. There it gathered firewood before returning to share the heat of the fire with St Gall. The legend says that for the rest of his days St Gall was followed around by his companion the bear.

At first, the library itself disappointed me. I guess I wanted to open the door and enter the 8th century or something. The current library was built in the 18th century. I find it very difficult to see anything in a baroque room, and the Abbey Library is one step beyond baroque — it’s rococo. It’s so full of embellishments and ornaments that my mind becomes confused.

Main hall of the Library of the Abbey of St. Gall

But once I got used to it — and librarian came to talk to us (we were the only people there) — I stopped trying to see through the gold and stucco and began to see and understand where I was. He showed me a medieval map of the world.

8th or 9th century CE map of the world

You can see that it’s oriented (ha ha) to the East, the rising sun — Christ. All the three continents are surrounded by sea. The map is less for navigating physical space as it is for navigating spiritual space. This is a somewhat unusual medieval map of the world because it doesn’t SAY Jerusalem is the center, but it is. I saw a couple other maps on which cities were drawn, and Jerusalem was always depicted as the largest city and had tall, shining towers. Although I didn’t understand at that moment, having only at that point dipped one toe into the medieval world, that the physical and spiritual worlds overlaid each other and that the physical world was but a metaphor for spiritual space.

Of all the amazing things this man explained about the books in the glass cases, other books on the library’s locked shelves, and books too old and fragile to be touched at all was that there are some written in languages people don’t know any more. Apparently researchers are working on that, but I thought at the time that it is incredibly sad. Here are words written in very difficult circumstances, with oak-gall ink on parchment with quill pens, stories, ideas, beliefs, philosophies, knowledge and experiences that their writers were desperate to transmit to the future. And there the three of us stood — my friend, the librarian and I — discussing how no one could read them.

He took us into a hallway behind the main room — it was modern, gray and white — with doors along it. “All these rooms have people working on this problem.” Just then a young woman wearing white cotton gloves came out of one of the doors and greeted the librarian. I got a vision of busy young people in white gloves behind all those doors struggling to decode old words. I wondered what they would find.

Of all the wonders in the library, though, for me one of the most wonderful was the inscription written in Greek over the entrance which, thanks to Michael J. Preston, I could read on my own.

Medicine Chest for the Soul

I continued to pursue St. Gall in various places in Switzerland that winter, including a trip to Basel to see the Gallus Portal at the cathedral. I learned a lot — not the least of which that ignorance is a wonderful wonderful wonderful thing because once curiosity is awakened, and you chase knowledge, you will get more than you possibly could have imagined.

I didn’t know HALF of what I was looking at that winter, but on my second to last day, my friend’s mom told him to take me to visit a little medieval church near where they lived. The church is in the village of Gfenn, outside Dubendorf, both north of Zürich. And the rest? It’s historical fiction. ❤

Lazariter Kirche im Gfenn


One Man’s Curse is another Man’s Blessing

Last night I watched the Netflix movie about Robert the Bruce. It was great as far as medieval battle was concerned and the costumes! They were good, too. There wasn’t a lot of real acting because of all the fighting and, in some respects it took off from Braveheart. We didn’t see William Wallace’s blue face, just what appeared to be his arm and shoulder nailed to a post in a village square. My favorite scene in the film was when a peasant was taking a cart filled with apples down the road at the exact moment The Bruce’ army was about to be engaged by Edward I army.

“You’d best go home,” said The Bruce. Later we saw a body, a cart and an apple strewn road. I’m still most interested in the ordinary people trying to hold their shit together in the maelstrom.

History is all about the wars, the kings and the dates, the battles for territories. It makes sense as that’s most of what’s been written down and for centuries we’ve measured the development of culture by its writing.

Of course I had to do some research because the movie dragged on so long and I wanted to know what happened.

Doing research, I found the BIG debate is “Did Robert the Bruce have leprosy?” And, once again, as I read about The Bruce, I saw the old saws about the Medieval leper.

A famed Scottish warrior king has had his legacy restored, thanks to research at Western University.

Robert the Bruce, long believed to have suffered from leprosy, did not have the disease that in the 1300s carried a heavy stigma, the work concluded.

“In those days, if you wanted to come up with the worst thing you could say to someone, it was, ‘You leper,’” Western anthropology Prof. Andrew Nelson aid.

“With just that word, you could besmirch a person and his legacy.”

The suggestion their national hero may have had the disfiguring, contagious disease has long been a burr in Scotland’s thistle.

But in the first examination authorized by the Bruce family descendants, Nelson has determined King Robert I did not show the telltale suite of signs of the disease.


Damn that pisses me off. Politics? Climate change? Kids caged at the Mexican border? Crime? Ha. The REAL problem in this world is this consistent misconception over the reality of life as a leper in medieval times.

As for Robert the Bruce’s death, it’s false that he died from leprosy. At the time of his death in 1329, he had been gravely ill intermittently for many years. The nature of his ailment is not certain – possibilities include motor neuron disease, syphilis and muscular sclerosis. It is perfectly possible that he suffered from different conditions at different times, but we can rule out leprosy. However much of a hero he might have been, as a leper he would have been quarantined just as strictly as anyone else. It was a disease that was all-too-familiar to medieval society and quite impossible to disguise.


Lepers were not “quarantined” during this period of time. That treatment happened much, much later. In medieval times Leprosaria were established largely as a way for rich people to endow something for the good of their immortal soul. Sure, lepers lived there, but they were not forced to stay.

The Crusades in the Holy Land effectively ended in 1244 with the disastrous (to the Christians) Battle of La Forbie. By the end of the 14th century, leprosy had all but disappeared completely from northern Europe. How do we know this? Leper hospitals were converted to housing for the poor. The evidence exists — among other places — in the bones of people buried in the attached cemeteries. It’s also clear from records of the time. Stupid knowledge-resistant, prejudiced historians. Makes me furious. They should jump down from their astral plane and dig a little deeper.

Still, you’d think I’d have set the whole world straight on this point by now. People just aren’t paying attention, selfishly caught up in their own damned time. Good grief. People still think there were thousands of lepers wandering the European countryside, scaring the shit out of people, and cursing wells.

No. There was never a “leprosy epidemic.” Leprosy remained rare in Northern Europe with a slight “blip” brought by crusaders returning from the Holy Land where leprosy was endemic.

In 2016, historians examined a cast of The Bruce’ skull and found clear signs in his bone of leprosy, a particular and characteristic deformation in the nose cavity, for one thing. Some amateur in the ways of Medieval leprosy wrote, “It’s impossible! He wouldn’t have been able to drink from wells or do half the things he needed to do to lead the Scots!”

No. Leprosy in the REAL Middle Ages wasn’t always — or even usually — regarded as a divine curse. It was more often regarded as a divine blessing with the victim being able to pay his debt to Heaven before he even died! Helping a leper was a sure way to gather points ensuring entry to Heaven. Leprosy is not — and never was — very contagious. Jesus was really nice to lepers and medieval people were really all about “What would Jesus do?” It wasn’t until AFTER the waves of plague which hit Britain in the mid 14th century, that the leper became a pariah. And, by then, leprosy had all but vanished from Europe. How were terrified Europeans to KNOW (in the beginning) the difference between one ailment and the other? As for that, leprosy was very accurately diagnosed in the High Middle Ages. I have the sources from paleoarcheologial research to prove this, dammit.

But, by 2017, The Bruce no longer had had leprosy. Whew. Just syphilis. What a relief. But, in 2019 Bruce’ leprosy reappeared only to be “cured” by science, once again. Bruce died in 1329, nearly two decades before the plague ravaged Britain. The perspective people would have had during Bruce’ life is vastly different from the mythological stigma created by Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe.

A short-cut to some of this research can be found on this excellent blog by a Mortuary Archeologist, Kate Meyers Emery Among other great things you will find there is this, “As discussed earlier, each of these forms of study has their limitations in determining the presence of what the medieval people perceived as leprosy. I propose that by accepting a multidisciplinary viewpoint, these limitations can not only be minimized, but that we can produce a more holistic understanding of the United Kingdom in the Middles Ages.”

Yes. People in the Middle Ages wrote about themselves. We can read FROM THEIR WORDS how they regarded the few lepers they encountered. Why not let them speak?

As I read all this stuff about The Bruce I wondered at people. We CAN’T possibly know even what our parents’ young reality was like. In reality, leprosy could have enhanced The Bruce’ ability to lead the Scots. The courage of the Leper Knights — The Knights of St. Lazarus — was legendary in medieval times. They often led the charge during the Crusades.

Featured image from https://www.ljmu.ac.uk/about-us/news/articles/2016/12/8/robert-the-bruce