Caring for the outcast

AIDS victims are today's untouchables. Leprosy produced a similar welter of emotions in the medieval mind. Pity vied with horror. Those ravaged by leprosy were shunned not only through fear of contagion, but because they were so hideously disfigured. This dreadful disease was seen as a divine punishment for sin. The more compassionate felt that such suffering must bring lepers closer to God, but caring for them was the choice of few.

Archbishop Lanfranc (d.1089) founded the first English leper hospital at Harbledown near Canterbury. At the time the idea of The Chapel of St Mary Magdalen, Holloway, in 1723 by Stukeleycaring for the sick in a special building was a novelty in this country, but there was an obvious need to separate lepers from the healthy and soon others were following Lanfranc's lead. Leper hospitals sprang up on the outskirts of towns all over the country, generally run by monks.

In the 1170s Elias, a leprous monk of Reading, came to Bath in search of a cure. He bathed in the hot waters for 40 days, but where would he have stayed? What provision was there for Bath's own lepers and those drawn by the waters? Around 1100 Walter Hussey gave his house in Holloway with the adjoining chapel of St Mary Magdalen to Bishop John of Tours and his new cathedral priory at Bath. Bishop John had been a physician and one can imagine him seizing the opportunity to create a refuge for lepers. The isolation of the house - across the river from the city - would have made it ideal for the purpose. The first mention of the house of lepers in the suburb of Bath comes in the draft will of the Bishop of Lincoln in 1212. Then in 1256 royal protection was issued to the master and brethren of the hospital of lepers of St Mary Magdalen outside Bath.

It has often been said that other ailments were confused with leprosy in the Middle Ages. Certainly the disease can be hard to recognise in the early stages. However, medieval physicians were well versed in the works of Galen, who gave clear and precise descriptions of leprosy. No doubt mistakes were made, but there is evidence of considerable caution in diagnosis. This is understandable. Committal to a lazar-house was a sentence of living death. Lepers underwent a symbolic funeral on admission, in which they were declared dead to the world, born again to God. It was as much a prison as a hospice.

Medieval hospitals were generally one long hall with beds down either side and a chapel at one end, but for lepers the range might be divided up into individual cells. The hospital of St Mary Magdalen has been rebuilt several times, so we can only guess at its original form. Lepers could own no property, so their wills were carried out immediately. A bequest to the hospital would help to ensure their future comfort, but most would have little to give. St Mary Magdalen had the land that Walter Hussey had granted with the house and other property given to it at various times, including houses in Bath, but the income from rents would only have supported a few lepers. It was never a wealthy foundation.

Under monastic rule the spiritual welfare of the inmates took priority. There was a constant round of prayer, with special thanks to benefactors. In 1263 Brother Nicholas, Master of St Mary Madgalen promised prayers to a couple who had granted property to the hospital. Nicholas would have been a monk who was also ordained and so able to serve the chapel. Nursing, cooking and cleaning in medieval hospitals was usually left to lay sisters and servants. Another 13th-century grant to St Mary Magdalen mentions the brothers and sisters serving God there.

By the end of the 14th century, leprosy was dying out in England. The leper hospitals gradually emptied. It was not difficult to find a new use for them. The elderly infirm always needed care. However, the Bath waters were still attracting lepers in the 16th century. Although leprosy was no longer prevalent, those few who contracted it might be expected to congregate in Bath. John Cantlow, Prior of Bath, perhaps had this in mind when he petitioned the Pope in 1486 to unite the hospital of St Mary Magdalen to Bath Priory. The hospital was ruinous, impoverished and in debt. No brothers were living there and only two or three poor people.

Prior Cantlow promised that he would repair its buildings and he was as good as his word, as a verse inscription records:

This chapel flourished with foremost spectable
In the honour of Mary Magdalen Prior Cantlow hath edified
Desiring you to pray for him with your prayers delectable
That such will inhabit him in heaven there ever to abide.

Plan of the Hot Bath in the late 17th century

Plan of the Hot Bath in the late 17th century with the Lazar's Bath attached and the tiny hostel beside it known as the Leper Hospital.

Bath Priory was dissolved in 1539 and the hospital fell on evil days. The Master, Simon Sheppard, took the revenues and provided no support. An investigation into these abuses in 1559 noted that lepers had lived at St Mary Magdalen 'from time immemorial'. Things must have been set right, for in 1560 there was a bequest to the poor lazar people of St Mary Madgalen.

Two years later Dr William Turner was urging the better use of the Bath waters, including the segregation of bathers with infectious skin diseases. This prompted the addition of the Lazars Bath to the Hot Bath. In 1575-6 John de Feckenham, former Abbot of Westminster, built a leper hospital beside this new bath. It was highly unusual for lepers to be permitted to stay within a city, but if they were strictly confined to their own bath and hospital, there would actually be less risk of contagion than if they were constantly moving in and out of the city to take the waters. This tiny timber-framed building was demolished in the 18th century, by which time St Mary Madgalen itself had become a home for the mentally handicapped. One of the most feared of diseases had at long last retreated.

First published in Bath City Life January 1996.

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