A life apart: leper hospitals

St Mary Magdalen, Stourbridge [October 2010: New evidence of a late Saxon leper hospital in Winchester.] The first independent hospitals in England were built by Archbishop Lanfranc soon after the Norman conquest. He created St John's Hospital for the infirm in Canterbury and a leper hospital outside it. Soon others were following Lanfranc's lead. Leper hospitals sprang up on the outskirts of towns all over the country. One such was the Hospital of St Mary Magdalen at Stourbridge, outside Cambridge. There we have a building almost frozen in time. Its Romanesque chapel would surely be recognised by the lepers who prayed there, if they could return today.

But where did the lepers live? Leprosaria were long thought to be different from other hospitals of the time. Survivals are few and contemporary descriptions even fewer. So historians seized upon the account by Eadmer, a monk of Canterbury, of Lanfranc's foundation at Harbledown.

In a more remote place to the north of the west gate of the city, he built wooden houses on the downward slope of the hill and assigned them for the use of lepers - some for men and separate ones for a company of women.

Almshouses at East Reach, Taunton, formerly the leper hospital of St Margaret (Somerset Record Office)It was easy to assume that a cluster of timber-built cottages around a detached chapel was the standard pattern for these communities. Yet where we have evidence on the ground of leprosaria, it seems they had communal infirmaries like other medieval hospitals. The hall of the leper hospital at Taunton was later divided into almshouses, but the original form is clear enough. At York the lost site of the leper hospital of St Nicholas has been rediscovered by the York Archaeological Trust. Excavations revealed a twelfth-century aisled hall.

So were the wooden houses at Harbledown just temporary structures erected to meet an urgent need, while plans were afoot for a stone-built hospital? Could it be that what we see as the nave of the chapel at Stourbridge was actually the infirmary? That would fit the most common pattern for medieval hospitals - an infirmary with a chapel at its east end. In recent years twelfth-century leper chapels at Norwich (now the Lazar House Library) and Dunwich have been reinterpreted along similar lines.

Most leprosaria were founded in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, so leprosy must have been widespread then. The growth of towns would help spread the disease. Leprosy thrives on close human contact. Whether or not this was fully understood, the Church acted to isolate lepers. In 1175 the English Church Council ordered that lepers should not live among the healthy. In 1179 the Lateran Council at Rome decreed that leper communities should have their own priests, churches and cemeteries.

Leper with bell (British Library)This dreadful disease produced a 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. It was widely seen as a divine punishment for sin. However, the more compassionate felt that such suffering must bring lepers closer to God and revered those with the courage to care for them. 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, particularly where physicians were not involved, but there is evidence of considerable caution in diagnosis. This is understandable. Committal to a lazar house was a death sentence.

At St Mary Magdalene in Gloucester the rules decreed that the lepers should observe the disciplines of obedience, patience and charity, and hold all their property in common - the principles of monasticism. Meat could be eaten on three days of the week and feast days, but not on other days. Men and women were to be strictly segregated in and outside the house. At Exeter the lepers were expected to live chaste and honest lives and they were not to enter the city without the permission of the warden. Probably life was similar for lepers in other hospitals (such as St Mary Magdalen outside Bath.)

Continue to Sheltering the needy.