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.

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