Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/The leper


In every age life has two leading phases. It has its busy phase, and it is with this phase that we are most intimately acquainted. Indeed this is the only form of life which we, for the most part, care to read about, or to think of. It comprehends all the great men of history, all those active natures that in some way or other acquire a wide and sensible influence in their day and generation. These were the most eminent spirits of their times. They won great battles, and arranged empires; they wrote great works, and changed the face of literature; they preached great sermons, and moulded the multitude to their will. In some substantial effect or another they impressed their names upon the history of their times. The other leading phase of life is very different from this one. It is the quiet phase; of it we know little or nothing. When we think of the past, we think only of its mighty men, its giants and demi-gods. They stand out in bold relief, and we forget to look at the lesser figures of the great tableau which the great sculptor Time has carved for us.

As in their own day these figures were of no high repute in the world at large, perhaps it is no great wonder that we take little account of them. Certainly the insignificance of them when they lived, reduced them below the historian’s notice. Unfortunately for their fame, they lived very ordinary lives; they performed, we may suppose, the ordinary functions of nature, drinking and eating, and rearing children, as heartily as any person of eminence; but they never distinguished themselves in war, or in literature, or as great reformers; and so nobody thought it worth his while to raise a lasting monument to them. It is a particular sample of this quiet life, which we now wish to place before our readers. A very curious sample: and, in its title at least, not specially attractive. In spite of that, however, it is a sample full of interest. We wish our readers to picture to themselves the life that lepers used to lead. Farewell for a while to busy towns and crowded thoroughfares. Our path conducts us outside of the city, to hamlets and to hospitals all alone by the roadside, or on the bank of the river. This is the quiet life, par excellence. As quiet as the monastery before the hour of Prime. This is the life of the shunned—of men whom society casts from her, lest she be tainted by contact with them—of men that are excluded from the enjoyments, and the ambitions, and the excitements that make up the sum of life, as we value it. This is death in life—civil death and legal death, with mere animal life surviving.

But, before we proceed to a more particular consideration of the life and the status of the leper in the Middle Ages, it may be as well to say something of the history of his disease. Leprosy is supposed,—whether on sufficient grounds or not, we do not take upon ourselves to pronounce,—to have had its origin in Egypt. From Egypt, it may be, it passed into Palestine, crossing the Red Sea perhaps in the company of the Israelites, that day the waters divided and formed bright solid walls on either side of the favoured host. We all remember how, at a later stage in that Exodus, it overshadowed for a brief space Miriam’s countenance, and how at the entreaty of Moses the hideous visitant was recalled. In Palestine, doubtless, it prevailed widely. Several allusions to it in the writings of the Old Testament occur at once to every mind. There is the story of Gehazi for instance. Reluctant to allow the restored Syrian to depart without paying his fee, he practised an ingenious imposition on him, and drew his master’s curse upon his own head. And then there is the story of those four lepers, desperate from their sufferings, stealing in the twilight towards Benhadad’s outposts, leaving behind them the beleaguered city, where famine had by that time vanquished maternal love even. They stood at the entering in of the gate, we are told, when that despairing conference was held which ended in their adventurous expedition. The Syrian army probably had driven them from their usual dwellings, to take shelter close to the city walls. Let us hope that the great service they conferred upon starving Samaria by discovering the enemy’s flight was not unrewarded—that there was granted them some slight mitigation of the rigour with which men in their unhappy condition were treated.

But we must pass on to later times. The Levitical law will furnish those who wish for them with particulars about the Jewish leper. Let us look at the history of leprosy subsequently to the Christian era.

It is very commonly believed that this malady was unknown in Europe before the time of the Crusades; but this opinion and the facts of the case are far from agreeing. Some centuries ere Peter the Hermit roused the chivalrous piety of the West against the encroaching infidel of the East, there are records of the existence of leprosy in the southern parts of our continent. In the seventh century we find Rhotaris, King of the Lombards, making stringent enactments with regard to the treatment of it. The leper was regarded as dead in law. He was forbidden to approach sound persons without giving them due warning; and for this purpose he was to be supplied with a wooden clapper. Already, at this time, lazarhouses were common throughout all Italy. In the eighth century, we read of the institution of these hospitals in Germany, under the superintendence of St. Othman, and in France, under St. Nicholas de Corbie. In the year of our salvation 757, King Pepin published edicts acknowledging leprosy as a plea of divorce, and excluding it from all intercourse with health and soundness; and these decrees were confirmed in 789 by Charles the Great. But, not to spend too much time on this question, it is sufficiently clear that this disease was extensively prevalent in Europe long before the eleventh century. There can be no doubt, however, that from the end of the first Crusade, down to the sixteenth century, it afflicted Europe with much greater severity than either before or after that period. Indeed one of the leading results of the Crusades was the introduction into the West of all manner of violent and (in the then state of medical science) irremediable distempers.

“The Crusaders,” says Michaud—he is writing of the conclusion of the sixth Crusade, but his remarks admit of a general application,—“The Crusaders, who were fortunate enough to revisit their homes, brought back nothing with them but the remembrance of most shameful disorders. A great number of them had nothing to show their compatriots but the chains of their captivity; nothing to communicate but the contagious maladies of the East. The historians we have followed are silent as to the ravages of the leprosy among the nations of the West; but the testament of Louis the Eighth, an historical monument of that period, attests the existence of two thousand Léproseries (hospitals for lepers) in the kingdom of France alone. This horrible sight,” he proceeds to observe, “must have been a subject of terror to the most fervent Christians, and was sufficient to disenchant in their eyes those regions of the East, where till that time their imagination had seen nothing but prodigies and marvels.” In another passage, discussing the benefits Europe derived from its contact with western Asia, he remarks that “it may be safely said that during the Crusades we received from the East many more serious diseases than true instruction in medicine. We know that there were numerous lazarhouses established in Europe at the time of the Crusades.” Leprosy then prevailed most extensively after the Crusades. It became the curse of every country. There was scarcely a town it did not visit. Its white scaly presence was known and dreaded everywhere. It walked the earth at its grim pleasure, and laid its desolating hand wheresoever it would. Family peace was dissolved before it. Some loved member, a father, it may be, was rudely torn by it, under the law’s approval, from the society of those dearest to him. Between them and him an insurmountable barrier was raised. His prospects of domestic happiness were blighted, and in the stead of them a life of isolation appointed him.

The leper, we are informed, was treated like a dead body. He was looked upon as a mortuum caput. The curse of social death fell upon him simultaneously with that other curse. So soon as the horrible symptoms manifested themselves in his person, he was legally and civilly extinct. The ceremonies of burial were performed over him. He heard his own obsequies celebrated, being yet in full strength and vigour. So Charles the Fifth, ex-Emperor of Germany, according to the old story, lay and listened to the chanting of his own requiem. Mass was duly said for the benefit of the leper’s soul, after this his formal interment, and those rites which separated the dead from the living completed, he proceeded to his appointed place. If the unsparing charity of the period had built and endowed a house for him and his fellow-sufferers, he was conducted to it at once. If no such institution existed, he was escorted by the priest and by his friends to a hut prepared for him outside the city walls. Arrived at his destination, he bade a long farewell to the train that had accompanied him, and in parting from them he parted from mankind. Henceforth his only associates were those upon whom had been passed a like sentence of excommunication. The busy, bustling world had cast him off. It had driven him out of the precincts of its sympathy and care.

Imagine the leper, in his little hut, when his position presented itself to his mind in full force. The melancholy procession has returned to the city, and those who formed it are re-united to life and to humanity. They are dispersed, each one to his own sphere of action, and the tide of energy and business is pulsing in their veins after its wont. But he, whom they followed to his tomb to-day, and resigned to despair and misery, sits in his cell, even as that novice described by the Roman satirist sits on the nether river’s bank, and shivers at the destiny before him. What remembrances crowd upon him! What pictures of days irrevocably past and gone! How his heart softens as he pourtrays to himself certain beloved ones weeping for him at this moment in his old house. He remembers the happy years—how short they seem to have been!—that he passed with those same, and how he hoped and prayed that he might end his days amongst them, and breathe his last words in their loving ears. The whole of his past history rushes across his memory in a tremendous vision. There is that horrible hour when the hand of leprosy first touched him; and there are the succeeding hours, throughout which he hoped against hope; and there is that last hour, in which he tore his hair for anguish, and cursed the day of his birth, and then, made horribly conscious of his utter helplessness, bowed his head and submitted him to the priestly offices. All these scenes rushed, it may be, across his memory, as he lay on the floor of his but, after his friends had departed.

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The hut was of very small dimensions. It was furnished with bed and bedding, with a vessel for water, a chest, a table, a chair, a lamp, and a few other necessaries. Its inmate’s wardrobe consisted of a cowl, two shirts, a tunic, and a robe called housse. He was further presented with a little cask, a rattle, a knife, a stick, and a girdle of copper; and this list completes the description of his hut and its appurtenances. As to wardrobe, we may mention that Chaucer assigns the leper a mantle and a beaver hat. Possibly no absolute uniformity of custom existed. As to the rattle, there is a question whether its object was to warn all sound and healthy persons of the leper’s approach, or merely to attract attention in soliciting alms from the passers-by. It is mentioned in the mediæval Latin under the names of fusus, tabulæ, and scandellæ. It was a wooden instrument, with two or three flappers attached to it. When, in the “Testament of Creseide,” Cynthia pronounces her heavy curse upon the unfaithful maiden, she says:—

Where thou comest, eche man shall flie ye place;
Thus shalt thou go begging fro hous to hous,
With cuppe and clappier, like a Lazarous.

The cup was for the reception of alms.

Where this disease was especially dominant, the charity of the neighbourhood frequently erected a hospital, or lazarhouse, and in it, after the observation of the usual forms, the unfortunate being was located. We may state, at this point, that during the time of which we are now speaking, the term leprosy was used in a very comprehensive sense. It seems to have comprised all the disorders of the skin, and thus the Lazarus of Our Lord’s parable—the beggar that lay at Dives’ door, his body covered with sores—was regarded as a sufferer from it; and hence this Lazarus was adopted to be the leper’s patron saint, and the lepers’ hospital was termed a lazar-house. The order of St. Lazarus, which, having existed at Jerusalem from an early period of the Christian era, was revived at the time of the crusades, consisted of knights devoted to the leper’s service. It is St. Lazarus who occasionally in the legends appears personally to thank those that have befriended the leper.

The number of the lazarhouses in Europe about the time of the thirteenth century, was almost beyond calculation. In our own country it was very great. Were the history of them minutely investigated, many curious facts respecting the leper’s life might be brought to light. There were six of these hospitals in London alone. There were five in Norwich—one at each gate of the city. The most extensive one was in Leicestershire, at Burton-Lazars—the name, it may be noticed, appropriating the place to the leper’s saint. The heads of all the other English leper hospitals were under the authority of the head of Burton-Lazars. The precise date of its foundation is uncertain. It owed its endowments chiefly to Roger de Mowbray, a native of Burton. A copy of his deed of gift is still in preservation. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost he greets all his kinsmen and friends, both in England and France, and entreats them to take note that by this his document he bestows upon God and St. Mary and the lepers of St. Lazarus of Jerusalem, two carucates of land in Burton, and one messuage hard by the river of the same town, and the site on which stands a certain mill, with a view to the salvation of his soul and his father’s soul and his mother’s soul and his ancestors’ souls; and that these his presents are to be employed for charitable uses, free from any secular service.

Sir Roger’s biography would be worth the perusal had we leisure for it. But to return to the lazarhouses. There were hospitals at Plymouth, Cambridge, Bodmin, Launceston, Carlisle, Derby, Gloucester, Southampton, Hereford, Baldock, Canterbury, Chatham, Dover, Rochester, Lancaster, Peterborough, Taunton, Bristol, Warwick, Ipswich, Pontefract, and very many other places. Hutchinson, the historian of the county of Durham, informs us that at one period half the existing hospitals of the county were for the benefit of the lepers.

The lepers had, therefore, no ground for complaining of eleemosynary neglect. On this point Michaud aptly observes that “the spirit of devotion richly endowed lepers without doing anything for their cure. Isolation appears to have been the only curative or preservative means known for their malady.”

Some few other privileges were granted them. By the Council of Lateran, in 1179, it is ordained, that “whereas numbers of people were gathered together in community, they shall be permitted to enjoy to themselves a church, a churchyard, and a priest of their own; but they must take care that this be no way injurious or prejudicial to the rights of parish churches; yet shall not the leprous or lazarhouses be compelled to pay tithes for the increase of their own proper cattle.”

They seem, moreover, to have been allowed at two seasons of the year to enter the town or city, outside the gates of which stood their huts or hospital (as the case might be), namely, during the fifteen days immediately preceding Good-Friday, and the eight days preceding Christmas.

The other restrictions to which they were subjected, remained for a long period in force. They were disabled from suing in any action, real or personal. “It is meet,” says an old jurist, “that the right of legal action should be denied in the case of leprosy: for instance, if the plaintiff is a leper, and so unsightly as to deserve exclusion from all communion with the world: for such a disease excludes the suitor from suing.”

There can be no doubt, that, in spite of the many hospitals established for him, the leper was regarded with eyes of aversion. He was an abject and odious spectacle, and for the most part the charity of that day could not abide him in its sight. He represented humanity in its most fallen and revolting state. The primeval curse wrought in him in its extremest virulence. It was believed that no power of pharmacy could heal him, that his distemper baffled mortal skill, that there was a divine judgment in it. Possibly this belief cast a passing shadow over the stricken man’s character; and Gehazi’s livery may have been, insensibly, associated with Gehazi’s guilt. At any rate, lepers do not seem to have been held-in any very high estimation. On one occasion, for example, we find a very hideous charge preferred against them: “And in this same yere,” writes Capgrave, in his Chronicle of England, meaning the year 1318, “the mysseles (i. e. lepers) thorow oute Cristendam were slaundered that thei had mad covenaunt with Sarasines for to poison alle Cristen men, to put venym in wellis, and alle maner vesseles that long to mannes use; of which malice mony of hem were convicte and brent, and many Jews that gave hem councel and coumfort.”

With regard to the word myssel used in this passage, it may be stated that it is identical with the word mezellus, which in medieval Latin is synonymous with leprosus, being but another form of misellus, and denoting, therefore, how hopeless and miserable the leper’s life was deemed to be. “In his tyme,” writes Capgrave, in another place, referring to Heraclius, Emperor of the East, a.d. 610, “were sevene Popes. The first hite Deus Dedit [Deodatus is the Pontiff here alluded to], III. yere. He kissed a mysel, and sodeynly the mysel was hol.”

Certainly on one score the chroniclers of the middle ages, and indeed the whole Roman Catholic Church, were under immense obligation to these outcasts. The leper afforded a handy and tractable material for the saint to illustrate the power of his sanctity upon. There are countless instances recorded of this use of him. We have already quoted one, in which a healing influence proceeds from papal lips. Whoever wishes for others will find it profitable to peruse that immortal compilation the “Acta Sanctorum.” He will read there of many occasions on which the leper’s infirmity added lustre to the saint’s renown. It must have been very convenient to be thus supplied with vile bodies for experimental purposes. Those saints were fine and noble institutions. The medical men of the period must have eyed them with intense jealousy.

To take the leper to one’s own house, to wash his poor afflicted body, to wait upon his every want, and to lie by his side upon the same couch, were, we need scarcely say, acts beyond the self-denial and humility of ordinary men. They were reserved for those whose lives embodied the religious ideal of their time—men who regarded the body as given to man but to be tortured, and who deemed a moment’s carnal ease a sinful and damnable thing, only to be atoned for by years of penance and self-laceration. No doubt in the spectacle of these men there is something infinitely great and ennobling. We cannot but admire the unflinching patience with which they bore their crosses, the unconquerable will with which they worked out the life imposed, as they believed, upon them, the unrepining resignation with which they accepted their life with all its thorns and misery. But there is another face to the medal that excites very different feelings—feelings of deep melancholy and commiseration. We are thankful it is not our province to give judgment upon the men of those days. But we are at present concerned only with the deeds of kindness and charity that these great disciples of the ascetic creed performed to the poor leper, so illustrating those lines of Rabanus Maurus, according to the contemporary belief:—

Natu Dei felix homo collatatur fratribus,
Misellinis et pupillis et egenis et orphanis,
In his susceperunt viri celsi Dominum.

The birth of God taught happy man to feel
A gladsome sympathy with all his kind,
With lepers, orphans, and with those in need;
By helping such, great souls have put on Christ.

Mapes—the same Mapes who, in his memorable drinking-song, declares that his heart is set on “dying in a tavern”—gives us a long account of how Count Theobald devoted his life and zeal to the service of the miserable and the destitute, and of the leprous especially, “because,” says the author of the De Nugis Curialium, “as these were held most eminently despicable and most abjectly depraved, he hoped, by succouring them, to render himself especially well-pleasing in the sight of God.” So he would wash the feet of these outcast disciples, and wipe them with his own hands, in spite of the “lethalis fætor et amaritudo corrumpens et sanies ulcerosa,” that constituted the symptoms of his patients’ malady. He provided them with complete accommodation of every sort in his own house. Mapes proceeds to inform us how High Heaven rewarded his good deeds. A certain leper, to whose comfort and sustenance the Count had been particularly attentive, one day revealed himself to his benefactor. “The sweetest odour of fragrance” filled the cell; a few brief words passed between the Count and his leper; then the one vanished, and the other joyed in the consciousness that he had seen Christ.

Somewhat similar is the story of the Cid and the leper, preserved in one of those Spanish ballads which Mr. Lockhart has translated. Don Rodrigo is on his way to Compostella, with a view to performing a vow he had made:

And there, in middle of the path, a leper did appear;
In a deep slough the leper lay; to help would none come near,
Though earnestly he thence did cry, “For God our Saviour’s sake,
From out this fearful jeopardy a Christian brother take.”

When Roderick heard that piteous word, he from his horse came down;
For all they said, no stay he made, that noble champioun;
He reach’d his hand to pluck him forth, of fear was no account,
Then mounted on his steed of worth, and made the leper mount.

Behind him rode the leprous man; when to their hostelrie
They came, he made him eat with him at table cheerfully;
While all the rest from that poor guest with loathing shrunk away,
To his own bed the wretch he led, beside him there he lay.

The leper was St. Lazarus himself. During the night he made himself known, and promised the Cid a happy recompense for his charity.

We might quote many more cases in which men, in entertaining lepers, entertained angels unawares; and many more still, in which the generous deed was followed by no such dénouement, and the humble thanks of the recipient were the only acknowledgment of it. Thus, even the curse of leprosy oft-times produced a good and happy result. Some men, at least, it inspired with a generous pity, a holy charity, a divine sympathy; and in them these celestial instincts thus awakened brought forth good fruit, acceptable to God, and a source of hope to all who study human nature,—being as it were a light shining brightly in times else dark and disconsolate.

It would be a not uninteresting task—though a somewhat laborious one, as the notices of this disease are, for the most part, of a scattered and fragmentary description—to trace the gradual decline of leprosy in Europe. The great cause of its disappearance is undoubtedly the vast progress that has been made in sanitary matters. Our Europe is not the Europe of three centuries ago. The uncultivated and marshy era is past, with its humid and miasmatous atmosphere, its squalid and unwholesome dwellings. Those cachectic days are gone by for ever, and the leprosy is gone by with them. If it is lawful to personify it, can we not imagine him tearing his white hair in agony at this his discomfiture? He wanders, beyond controversy, on this side the Styx, having no obol, or prospect of one, in his purse. His mind is distraught when he thinks of the dominion that has been wrested away from him, and he curses drains and good food and soap and-water. Where now is his long scaly retinue? Where his innumerable palaces? Where his faithful allies? And St. Lazarus and his Order, where are they? Ah me, Leprosy! things are strangely altered.