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the relief of divers persons smitten with this sickness and
destitute and walking at large within the realm.” 1
On the outskirts of a town seven hundred years ago, the eye of the traveller would have been caught by a well-known landmark—a group of cottages with an adjoining chapel, clustering round a green enclosure. At a glance he would recognise it as the lazar-house, and would prepare to throw an alms to the crippled and disfigured representative of the community.
It is a
startling fact that there
is documentary evidence for the existence of over 200 such institutions
more than a small proportion of those suffering from the disease. The rest flocked to the highroads, and exposed their distorted limbs and sores, and sought by attracting the notice of travellers to gain alms for their support.”
Speaking broadly, one may say that leprosy raged from the eleventh to the middle of the thirteenth century, when it abated ; that it was inconsiderable after the middle of the fourteenth ; that, though not extinct, it became rare in the fifteenth ; and had practically died out by the sixteenth century, save in the extreme south-west of England.
It is commonly supposed that leprosy was introduced into this country by returning crusaders. “The leprosy was one epidemical infection which tainted the pilgrims coming thither,” says Fuller ; “hence was it brought over into England—never before known in this island—and many lazar-houses erected.” Voltaire makes this satirical epigram :— “All that we gained in the end by engaging in the Crusades, was the leprosy ; and of all that we had taken, that was the only thing that remained with us.” This theory, however, is no longer accepted, and Dr. C. Creighton expresses an opinion that it is absurd to suppose that leprosy could be “introduced” in any such way. Geoffrey de Vinsauf, the chronicler who accompanied Richard I, says, indeed, that many perished from sickness of a dropsical nature. He was an eyewitness of the famine which led to the consumption of abominable food, but there is little proof that these retched conditions engendered leprosy among the pilgrim-warriors. Only once is a leper mentioned in his Itinerary, and then it is no less a personage than Baldwin IV, the young prince who became seventh King of Jerusalem and victor over
Saladin. It is, moreover, an undeniable fact that
there were lepers in Saxon and early Norman England.
The Anglo-Saxon equivalent is found in the
vocabulary attributed to Aelfric. Roger
of Hoveden tells the story of a poor leper whom Edward the Confessor
instrumental in curing. Aelfward, Saxon
(a) Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries
rampant during the
Norman period. By a happy providence,
charity was quickened simultaneously by the religious movement which
illuminated a dark age, so that the need was met. Two leper-houses were
in point of antiquity, namely
(b) Fourteenth Century (1300 – 1350)
During the first part of the fourteenth century, leprosy was widespread, but by no means as common as formerly. Directly or indirectly, testimony is borne to the fact of its prevalence by national law, by hospital authorities and by the charitable public.
In the first
place there is the
witness of external legislation, which is two-fold.
Schemes of taxation refer constantly to
lepers (Rolls of Parliament, 1307 –
1324). Measures are repeatedly taken for
their expulsion from towns. An ordinance
was made in the Parliament of Lincoln (1315) commanding that houses
the infirm and lepers would be devoted to their use.
The admission of other persons was now
refused, as for example, at St. Giles’,
phraseology of contemporary leper-house statutes, e.g. those drawn up
Abbot of St Alban’s (1344), and by the Bishop of London for Ilford
(1346). Here it is right to note a case
inmates were already in a minority. A summary of the history of St. Nicolas’,
Thirdly, it is
evident from the
gifts of charitable persons that there were still many outcasts in need
assistance. Bishop Bitton of
cally all the
wills of the period
allude to the presence of lepers in the neighbourhood.
Although there already existed two asylums
“If it happe anie man or woman of the cittie of Rouchester to be uisited with lepre, or other suche diseases that longe to impotence, with unpower of pouertie, there sholde be receaued.”
were empty, the
fact is largely accounted for by the mismanagement and poverty of
institutions at that period. This aspect
of the subject has never received adequate attention.
Destitute persons were ousted to make way for
paying inmates. One thirteenth-century
master of St. Nicholas’, York, admitted thirty-six brethren and
whom four were received pro Deo,
because they were lepers, but the rest for money. This
practice was sadly common, and notorious
instances might be cited from Lincoln (Holy Innocents’),
probably not be anxious for admission, because at this time, when
were barely able to supply the necessaries of life, it meant
without the corresponding comfort which sometimes made it welcome. It is related that in 1315, the lepers of
there.” About the year 1350 the chronicler of St. Alban’s states that at St. Julian’s hospital “in general there are now not above three, sometimes only two, and occasionally one.” Possibly they had rebelled against the strict life enforced ; in 1353 the master and lepers were made semi-independent by grant of the abbot and convent.5
In truth, hospitals were in great straits during this distressful century, and retrenchment was necessary. Leper-houses in particular were seldom on a sound financial basis. Even if they possessed certain endowments in kind there was rarely money to spend on the fabric, and buildings became dilapidated. Experience teaches the difficulty of maintaining old-established charities. Much of the early enthusiasm had passed away, and charity was at a low ebb.
It was indeed a poverty-stricken period. Heavy taxation drained the country’s resources. War, famine and pestilence were like the locust, palmerworm and caterpillar devastating the land. These were cruel times for the poor, and also for houses of charity. The medieval tale of St. Amiloun shows that, so long as the land had plenty, the leper-knight and his companion fared well, but that when corn waxed dear, they were driven by hunger from town to town, and could barely keep themselves alive.
A few instances
will show how
charity suffered. At the Harbledown
Leper-house (1276), voluntary offerings were so diminished that inmates
come to great want, and it was feared the sick would be compelled to
leave. In 1301 the authorities of the
said to be accustomed to receive lepers with good and chattels, but they were not bound to support them, and the prior himself had been driven away by destitutions. St. Giles’, Hexham, was suffering from the Scotch wars. An inquiry ordered by the archbishop (1320) showed that the numbers were reduced, that none were admitted without payment, and that they had to work hard. The allowance of bread and beer from the priory was diminished, oxen were borrowed for ploughing, and there was scarcely enough corn to sow the land. 6 Wayfaring lepers had ceased to frequent St. Mary Magdalene’s, Ripon (where they used to receive food and shelter), because applicants went away empty–handed (1317) ; and a later inquiry showed that none came there “because it was fallen down.” In 1327, the Huntingdon lepers had barely sufficient to maintain their present company, admittance being refused to applicants solely on that account, and they were excused taxation in 1340 because if payment were made, they would have to diminish the number of inmates and disperse them to seek their food. Civil and ecclesiastical registers alike, in issuing protections and briefs for leprous men collecting alms for hospitals, tell a tale of utter destitution.
(c) Fourteenth Century (1350 – 1400)
Having discussed that portion of the century which preceded the fateful year 1349, we now inquire to what extent leprosy existed during the fifty years that followed. It is no longer mentioned in legislation, and there are indications that it had come to be regarded chiefly as a question for local government ; the Letter Books of the
The gifts and
bequests of this
period testify to the fact that although there were lepers—notably in
vicinity of towns—yet the institutions provided for them were small in
comparison with former asylums. A new
lazar-house was built at
For a time, the
1349 [when the black plague swept through
have been fourteen—it had originally been forty—but the authorities complained that they could not maintain even the reduced number, for their lands lay uncultivated “by reason of the horrible mortality.” St. James’ hospital—which used to support fourteen—was empty, save for the sole survivor of the scourge who remained as caretaker, nor dies it appear to have been reorganized as a leper-asylum.
in numbers may be
attributed to various causes. An
increase of medical knowledge with improved diagnosis, together with
examination which now preceded expulsion, doubtless prevented the
of some who would formerly have been injudiciously classed as lazars. Possibly, too, the disease now took a milder
form, as it is apt to do in course of time. Again,
the Black Death (1349) had not merely impoverished
leper-hospitals, but must surely have been an important factor in the
of leprosy itself. If it reduced the
population by two-thirds, or even by one-half, as is computed, it also
off the weakest members of society, those most prone to disease. When the plague reached a lazar-house, it
found ready victims, and left it without inhabitant.
The same may be said of the terrible though
lesser pestilences which followed (1361 – 76). The
attempt to purify towns by sanitary measures
contributed to the
improvement of public health. In Bartholomew’s De
Proprietatibus Rerum (circa
1360) it is declared, among divers causes of leprosy that :— “sometime
cometh . . . of
infete and corrupte ayre.” Steps were
(d) Fifteenth Century
that leprosy was
steadily declining, so that by the year 1400 it was rare, we are not
to echo the statement that its disappearance “may be taken as absolute.” Certain lazar-houses were, indeed,
appropriated to other uses, as at Alkmonton (1406), Sherburn (1434),
certainly lurked here and
there. The testimony of wills may not be
considered wholly trustworthy evidence, yet they show that the pubic
recognized a need. In 1426 a testator
left money for four lepers to receive four marks yearly for ten years. Bequests were made to lepers of
for over twenty
In 1464 when
Innocents’, Lincoln, to Burton lazars, Edward IV renewed Henry VI’s
that three leprous retainers should still be supported :— “to fynde and
there yerely for ever, certain Lepurs of oure menialx Seruantez and of
Heires & Successours, yf eny suche be founde.”
The king relinquished some property near
Holoway (Middlesex), in order to provide a retreat for infected persons. In the year 1480 there were a few lepers at
Lydd, who were allowed to share in the festivities when the quarrels
Edward VI and Louis XI came to an end. The
ships of the
(e) Sixteenth Century
Cases of true
leprosy were now of
rare occurrence. Probably leper
hospitals were in the main only nominally such, as a testator hints in
bequeathing a legacy “to every Alms House called Lepars in the Shire of
Kent.” But although the social condition
of the country improved during the Tudor period, they were still low
continually to engender pestilence. When
utilized for the sufferers. The plague having lately raged in Newcastle, it was recorded in the Chantry Certificate of St. Mary Magdalene’s (1546) that it was once used for lepers, but “syns that kynde of sickeness is abated it is used for the comforte and helpe of the poore folks that chaunceth to fall sycke in tyme of pestilence.”
“for the releff of powre lazar-people, whereof grete number with that diseas be now infectid in that partis, to the grete daunger of infection of moche people . . . for lacke of conueayent houses in the county of Devonshire for them.”
Even in 1580,
none were admitted
to St. Mary Madalene’s,
A few of the old hospitals were kept up in different parts. In the first year of Edward IV (1547) it was enacted that all “leprouse and poore beddred creatures” who were inmates of charitable houses should continue in the places appointed, and be permitted to have proctors to gather alms for them. The Corporation MSS. of Hereford include a notification that year of the appointment of collectors for “the house of leprous persons founded in the worship of St. Anne and St. Loye.” Strype records similar licenses granted to Beccles and Bury ; and he also cites 10 “A protection to beg, granted to
the poor lazars
of the house of
our Saviour Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, at Mile-end (in Stepney),
Mills appointed their proctor” (1551). The
sixteenth-century seal of this Domus
Dei et S. Marie Magd. de Myle End (figured below) shows a crippled
and an infirm woman of the hospital. In
1553, £60 was given to the
It has here been attempted to bring together some notes touching the extent and duration of leprosy during the Middle Ages, as affecting the provision and maintenance of leper-hospitals. In the nature of disease itself we have not endeavored to inquire, that being a scientific rather than an historic study. Those who would go further into the subject just gain access to the writings of Sir James Simpson, Dr. C Creighton, Dr. George Newman and others.
Seal of the
Lazar-house, Mile End.]
1. Patent 12 Ed. IV, pt. II, m. 6.
-end chapter four-
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