27 October 2008

Medieval Lepers

Although the term "leper" is used as a metaphor for the ultimate in social exclusion and it has been argued that defining someone as a leper in medieval times was as much a form of social control and exercise of power as a medical diagnosis, it does appear from skeletons found in cemeteries attached to leprosaria such as the chapel of St. Giles (the patron saint of lepers) frequently visited by Cadfael that in a majority of cases the diagnosis was correct: the inmates were suffering from leprosy. As time went by after the First Crusade, with greater exposure to leprosy and to the more experienced Muslim doctors, the diagnosis does seem to have become more accurate instead of being applied to any skin ailment. (public domain picture from wikicommons)

A general introduction to medieval leper hospitals can be found at Jean Manco's buildinghistory.org, while a description of the excavations at particular leper hospitals in Winchester and High Wycombe can be found online. See Medieval and Renaissance Material Culture for a directory of medieval pictures of lepers and associated objects.

Other online resources include an article arguing against the social control view of medieval leprosy, while for those with Google accounts, Google Books has previews of Carole Rawcliffe's "Leprosy in Medieval England".

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