Thank you, Stephanie Hopkins of Layered Pages for the chance to talk further about my novel, Martin of Gfenn.
A few months ago, I was honored to be named a B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree, and in connection with that, was asked to give an interview about my novel. I also was offered the opportunity to write about the historical background of my book.
This video above tells most of what I have to relate about the surprising facts around the Medieval Leper. Anyone who wants to know more might enjoy the (somewhat academic) essay below. I’ve added a list of sources for anyone who becomes so captivated that they need to know more!
The Historical Background of Martin of Gfenn
Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us. (Rilke, “The Dragon Princess”)
My entanglement with Medieval Switzerland is a long story that started when I read How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill — a book I bought because it was a joke! I learned how, in the 9th century, a couple of Irish monks had headed east across the channel from Scotland in small round boats, carrying books and Christianity. I learned how the patron saint of Switzerland is an Irishman (St. Gall). I was enchanted!
The thing is, I knew NOTHING about the middle ages. In grad school, I’d endured Chaucer such antediluvian irrelevancies only long enough to check off the requirements and move on to what really interested me. I had only been in Europe once, Zürich, in 1994, and I hadn’t liked it. I’d found it claustrophobic and old. But, after reading Cahill’s book, I wanted to return to Switzerland, find St. Gall and take a long look at everything I’d scorned in my ignorance. At the time, I believed I was Irish, majorly Irish, not the 30 cents to a dollar I truly am.
When I returned to Zürich in the winter of 1997 my friend’s mother told him to take me to see the little church at Gfenn, a village north of Zürich. In evening winter light, I saw the rough stone walls of true medieval church. It was closed, so we returned the next morning. I picked up the informative brochure and decoded the German to learn Gfenn had been a hospital of the Knights of St. Lazarus; a leper community. I was stung by destiny.
This is what I learned about the medieval leper while researching and writing my novel, Martin of Gfenn, about a young painter who contracts leprosy and goes to live at the Lazariterkirche im Gfenn. Where I could, I relied on primary sources — stories, songs and fables from the time. I was also very lucky to make friends with a Swiss Medievalist Historian — Rainer Hugener, then a grad student at the University of Zürich, whose specialization (and home town) was the tiny area north of Zürich where Martin of Gfenn is set.
The Backward Telescope of Time
Take a short trip in the Way-Back Machine, and imagine walking through the streets of Ghent, Paris or Zürich in, say 1240.
“The dark ages, right?”
Yeah at night. This world is very beautiful, and certainly mysterious, even to those living in it. Northern European cities such as Zürich, Brussels, Ghent, Paris, are in the midst of the expansion that will make them northern Europe’s urban centers of scholarship and trade.
On your way home from the public baths, you smell the scent of freshly cut wood, newly opened stone, boiling sausage, fresh bread. If you’re thinking, “Yeah, right, what about the awful sanitation?” your thought is reasonable, but not necessarily accurate. European cities that had been Roman settlements continued to use the Roman plumbing and baths until the 14th century when the population was so decimated by plague and war that there were no longer human resources to maintain much of anything.
You step back and watch artists perched on high scaffoldings paint the fresh clay and plaster walls of stone and half-timber buildings. If you wander inside and see more painting, here a drapery on the lower part of a wall beneath a frieze of roses; there a wall painted to resemble fur; here a scene from the street below — a vendor cooking sausage.
The cathedral is slow to rise. You know you’ll never see it finished. Your neighbor’s grandfather was one of the first stonemasons to work on it. Decorating a column, is a relief carving of this very man as a boy, himself learning to carve. Your friend’s father captured his son’s embarrassment. Now your neighbor is teaching his own son. One large window, set in a finished wall, tells the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Leper.
I’m always amused when I read that a medieval person lived to be 40 years old, and the historian adds the comment, “…well past the average lifespan.” Infant mortality rates were high as was the possibility of dying in battle. This is not known as the feudal age for nothing. Warfare was constant. Take these important factors into account and an “average” lifespan of 40 actually means that many people made it into old-age. Still, medieval people certainly had to sort out a perspective to help them accept death. In their world God, the saints, angels and Satan lived together with the human race in a vivid real-time allegory in which all people had a part, and lepers had a special role. Pariah or savior? Pariah AND savior.
The Dragon Princess — Courage and Faith
On the simple social level, lepers were separated from the rest of society; they were “the men who walked alone.” The Rite of Separation, documented in the thirteenth century by Alice the Leper, admonished the afflicted to, “…consider yourself dead to life, and separate yourself from the living. Your life is now with God and apart from man. Pray for humility with which to bear God’s will. May God have mercy on your soul.”
Part of this rite includes a symbolic burial. Reported customs range from lepers standing in their own open graves and being buried up to the neck, to simply having a shovel-full of dirt thrown on their shoes. The Rite states very clearly what lepers could and could not do in the ordinary social world of healthy people:
I forbid you to ever enter a church, a monastery, a fair, a mill, a market or an assembly of people… I forbid you to touch any common object, railing, or wall…You shall not drink from public fountains… Never look or speak directly at any person. You shall warn passersby of your approach by use of this clapper to give notice of your coming.
The leper’s clapper functioned both as a warning and as an advertisement saying, “Here comes someone who needs your charity.”
Some ecclesiastics considered leprosy a punishment for sins so foul and corrupt that God wanted these individuals to wear the sign of sin on their flesh for all to see. Most often the sins in question were lust, pride, greed and heresy. This idea was based on the story of Naaman, II Kings 5, in which Naaman, a leper but also a great general and good person, is cured of his leprosy by Elisha. In gratitude, Naaman offers Elisha a large reward which Elisha refuses, saying he does not need to be rewarded to help others and serve God. Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, however, follows Naaman down the road, stopping Naaman, saying his master, Elisha, has changed his mind. Gehazi hopes to keep the reward for himself. When Elisha hears of this, he punishes Gehazi for lying, greed and disobedience: “The leprosy therefore of Naaman shall cleave unto thee, and unto thy seed for ever. And he went out from his presence a leper [as white] as snow.” (2 Kings 5:26-27)
The Rite of Separation prohibited lepers from joining an “assembly of people.” This meant lepers could not go to church or participate in the sacraments, presenting an excruciating paradox for a leper since the sacraments, including confession, were necessary atonement for whatever sins had led to leprosy. Lepers attempted to establish their own churches, but many priests considered even this to be a violation of the Rite which stated specifically that a leper could not enter any church.
This was problem enough, and lepers had symbolic significance enough, that the Third Lateran Council in 1179 responded by saying, “Although the Apostles say that we should pay greater honour to our weaker members, certain ecclesiastics…do not allow lepers, who cannot dwell with the healthy or come to church with others to have their own churches and cemeteries or to be helped by the ministry of their own priests.”
Canon 23 allowed lepers to form their own communities, “…in accordance with apostolic charity, that wherever so many are gathered together under a common way of life that they are able to establish a church for themselves with a cemetery and rejoice in their own priest, they should be allowed to have them without contradiction” giving lepers a clearer ecclesiastical identity.
Many believed that God had chosen the leper to endure a “sort of purgatory on
earth.” (Marcombe 8) Leprosy was a test of faith that brought the leper closer to God. The leper’s model for enduring this physical/spiritual trial came from the story of Job, who faithfully accepted every hardship given him by God. Even knowing God had cursed him, he refused to abandon his faith,
“…as God liveth, who hath taken away my judgment and the Almighty who hath vexed my soul: All the while my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils; my lips shall not speak wickedness, nor my tongue utter deceit. God forbid that I should justify you: till I die I will not remove mine integrity from me. My righteousness I hold fast, and will not let it go; my heart shall not reproach me so long as I live…” Job 27:2-6
For medieval people, God was everywhere, miracles likely, and death imminent. This world was only a transit stop on the way to REAL life which began after death. That death is often coupled with suffering was a palpable reality and the promise of eternal life through Jesus equally real. Many Medieval stories and plays tell of miracles, some through the lives and experiences of saints, some through people helping strangers who turn out to be Christ, some through the lives of people who realize the futility of their earthly wealth and give it to the poor or the very ill.
The ancient Indian game of Snakes and Ladders is an excellent model for the medieval view of life. The challenge was to navigate their temporary, corporeal life without falling into Satan’s clever snares and losing their shot at Heaven. In this journey the leper was particularly fortunate because his condition set him apart from many of the temptations and evils into which “normal” people could fall. Lepers gave others the chance to transcend the world of the flesh and find salvation. Caring for a leper, washing a leper’s feet or kissing a leper said, “What is of this earth is irrelevant and unreal. The outward signs of disease are nothing more than the true nature of the fleshly life showing itself for what it is. This person is already dead, and so closer to God than I. Through my faith, I can relieve his suffering by caring for his comfort. Why should I fear death when death is the only path to God?”
The Biblical model for this is the story of the Rich Man and the leprous beggar, Lazarus for whom the Lazar Houses are named. It offers a clear and eloquent sermon against greed.
There was a certain rich man…clothed in purple and fine linen [who] fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at [the rich man’s] gate, full of sores…desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table…the dogs came and licked his sores…it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and…in hell he lifted up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom…He cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame…Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and…Lazarus evil things…now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. (Luke 16:19-25)
Many believed the leper’s revolting appearance represented the true nature of humanity, the soul turned inside out. Lepers were admonished to believe that though their lives were “apart from men” they were “with God.” God had CHOSEN to separate them from Earthly temptation so they could concentrate their attention more completely on Him.
Medieval people believed that any poor suffering person could be Christ in disguise. Many stories give gruesome details about the appearance of lepers to demonstrate how much faith and courage it takes to embrace the transience of human life, and for the story’s hero to touch, or kiss, a leper. A story of Queen Matilda, wife of Henry 1 of England, (1112 – 1165), who built a hospital for forty lepers, makes this point:
During his youth at the royal court, David [Queen Matilda’s brother] had been called one night by the queen to her own bedchamber, where he found her washing the feet of lepers, and even kissing them. The prince chided his sister, asking her, “My lady, what are you doing? Sure if the king knew of this, your mouth, soiled with the putrefaction of the lepers’ feet, would never be worthy to kiss his lips.” But Matilda replied, smiling, “Who does not know that the feet of the Eternal King are to be preferred to the lips of a king who must die?” (Peyroux 183)
Compassion toward lepers was shown by St. Martin and St. Francis and reported in Lives of the Saints. Jacques de Vitry (1160-1240) in his Sermones Vulgares included several stories in which lepers provided an opportunity for brave and charitable nobles to find salvation.
He begins one story by jogging the memories of his parishioners about the good acts of St. Martin, saying, “We have read how St. Martin kissed a leper who was then no longer a leper, and of Theobald of blessed memory, who was count of Champagne…” (de Vitry 43) who was…
…wont to bestow alms upon the poor with his own hand, as was in the habit of visiting a certain leper who lived outside of the town called Sezenna. Now the leper died, and some time after the Count returned to the town and went to visit the leper as usual, asking him how he was: he replied, “Well, by the Grace of God, never was I better.” Presently, some citizens…\asked the count’s servants where he was, and said that the leper had been dead a buried a month before. The Count was amazed when he heard this and returned to the leper’s hut but did not find him. The Lord, however, filled the air with an odour of great sweetness to show how pleasing to Him is pity. (de Vitry, Notes, 174)
Naturally, there is little written or dictated by REAL medieval lepers, but Alice of Schaerbreke (St. Alice the Leper) who died in 1250, dictated a journal of her physical and spiritual experiences. She believed that she had been “rewarded” with illness so that she would be closer to God during her Earthly life.
God…wished her to be thoroughly purged of all temporal din, all defilement from this secular world (Acts 9:15) what he did now, he did not in any vindictiveness, nor as if blaming her for some crime. He did it as might a Bridegroom, minded to pay his bride a visit and bring her a token of his perfect love for her. God longed that his bride be free, be at leisure for him alone; that she linger with him in the bedroom bridal chamber of her mind…And what did he do? He struck her a heavy blow, struck her down with a disease, an incurable disease, one few could wish for: leprosy itself! (Cawley)
Hartmann von Aue’s narrative miracle poem Der Arme Heinrich or Henry the Leper, written at the end of the 12th century, tells of a brave knight with fine lands and happy tenants; a handsome, goodhearted person — in all senses the medieval hero, “…most of all by the fame far- flown, of his great knightliness was he known.” But, as happens, his wealth and fame were not to last. The reality of life on earth, for medieval men and women, is described by von Aue as:
The torch that flames for men to see
And wasteth to ashes inwardly
Even with Earl Henry it was thus:
The curse that fell was heavy and deep—
…Full of foul sores, increasing fast,
Which grew into leprosy at last.
Henry does not accept his torment with the faith and acceptance of Job. When all who once worshiped and adored him shun him, he spends a fortune visiting various doctors. One promises a cure, the still-beating heart of a virgin. Resigned and hopeless, Henry returns to his lands where a peasant family, father, mother, and little daughter, takes him in. Hearing Henry tell his story, the little girl is so moved that she decides to sacrifice her life for Henry. Her reasoning demonstrates the two-part view of human life. If Henry lives, her family would be safe and secure in the temporal world. By giving her life for another — and a leper at that! — she would be assured a spot on the “Bosom of Abraham.” She tells her parents, who naturally object, but their arguments carry no weight. The young girl argues that temporal life is a terrible hardship, and its treasures and victories empty.
What booteth it him a long-drawn life
To have traversed in trouble and in strife,
…Therefore my lips give praise to God,
Who this great blessing hath bestow’d
On me,—by loss of body and limb
To have the life that lives with Him.
In her argument with her father, she focuses on the temporal advantages to her family her sacrifice will bring.
And you, from every troublous thing
That threateneth you, delivering.
He is good; he will not drive you away.
But if we now should let him die,
Our ruining hasteneth thereby.
Her mother responds that by sacrificing her life for Henry’s, the girl is disregarding God’s commandment to children to honor their father and mother. Instead of being a comfort to them in their old age, her parents must mourn and pray for her. Plus, her mother continues, Henry’s leprosy is God’s will. Who is this girl to defy that? Finally the mother alludes to the eternal torment that will await the little girl for taking her own life, “Yet oh! whate’er our ills may be, So much and more shall God do to thee.”
The girl understands her mother, but argues that such a sacrifice for the life of another is simply giving up the illusion and vanity of the temporal world for the permanence and glory of Heaven. She demands of her mother, “…is it thou wouldst grudge my soul its white robe and its aureole?”
In wonderment at the girl’s ability to express herself so well on behalf of her decision, her parents realize that God is speaking through her. Her father says, “Daughter, if God is in thine heart, Heed not our grieving, but depart.”
When the girl tells Henry of her decision, he protests that she is too young to know what she is saying. He tells her to go talk to her parents, but they tell him they agree with her. They dress her in beautiful clothes and set her upon a horse that will carry her and Henry to “…the place where the dead are.” The doctor is horrified at the sight of this child together with the leper, Henry, and takes her into a room alone and asks if she had been forced into her actions. She says it is her free decision. He tries to frighten her:
Bethink thee—…with sharp hurt and with grievous harm I cut from out thy breast the part
That is most alive—even thine heart.
Thou shalt feel worse than death’s worst sting
Ere thy heart be drawn forth quivering.
She does not back down, and says to Henry, and to the doctor:
The endless life shall be mine thereby… Sir, inasmuch as the work is hard,
So much the more is our great reward.”
Henry will return to the glory of his former life, her parents’ prosperity will be protected and she will reach eternal glory. Just before the blade is thrust into the girl, Henry wakes up to the reality that his pride and vanity led her to this sacrifice. He is struck with penitence and says,
Sith all then is as God ordereth,
Rest evermore in the hand of faith. …’Tis the ways
Of penitence lead unto grace.
He breaks open the door and stops the hand of the doctor, saying he would rather suffer the torment God has given him than see the little girl die for his sake. The girl is distraught to have Heaven so close and then taken away. Henry takes her home, knowing that he returns in shame, but he has humbly accepted God’s will. Here von Aue makes the connection between leprosy of the soul, which is pride, and leprosy of the body, saying:
Thus by the damsel’s help indeed
From a foul sickness he was freed,
Not from his body’s sore and smart,
But from hardness and stubbornness of heart. Then first was all that pride of his
Quite overthrown; a better bliss
…That looks to God through the tears of pain
Henry awakens the next morning, healed, and humbly thanks God. When she’s old enough, Henry marries the girl and they live happily ever after.
Popular stories, Biblical parables, and the Lives of the Saints all said the same thing; share with the poor — and who was poorer than a leper? — and salvation would be assured. The ruling of the Third Lateran Council allowing the establishment of leper churches opened a way for wealthy landowners to provide for their souls by donating land and income to leper communities, particularly to the Knights of St. Lazarus, the Leper Knights.
The Hospital of St. Lazarus in Jerusalem was located just outside the Leper Postern where it was believed Christ had healed a leper. There are a great many stories as to the origination of the Knights of St. Lazarus, but, as explained by David Marcombe in Leper Knights:
It would appear…that the order established itself in the 1130s on a site outside the St. Lazarus postern, though the first unambiguous reference is a grant by King Fulk in 1142 giving land in Jerusalem ‘to the church of St. Lazarus and the convent of the sick who are called miselli’ . (8-9)
During this time, the word “hospital” was closer in meaning to our word “hotel.” The Hospital of St. Lazarus was a hospital in a more contemporary sense. Any Templar, Hospitaller, or Teutonic knight in the Holy Land who contracted leprosy, would go to live at this hospital. A second hospital was built at Acre. These men became the legendary Leper Knights of Jerusalem.
There is something desperately romantic in the image of leprous men in chain mail charging Saracen hordes ahead of the other troops. It’s logical they would have fought. Leprosy develops slowly in otherwise healthy individuals. A leper knight might have a few good battles left, and certainly he would have had the will to fight. Death by sword, mace, spear, battle-axe, boiling oil, lance or arrow would certainly be preferable to the excruciating saga of leprosy.
The Knights of St. Lazarus are said to have participated in many raids and battles,“… wherever there was fighting between Christians and infidels, knights of the Order rallied to the support of the Holy Cross…They considered themselves the ‘living dead’, these ‘men who walked alone’; final death in the defense of the Faith held no terrors for them.” (Order of St. Lazarus) Leper knights are known to have participated are the Battle of La Forbie in 1244, the battle which marked the end of the Frankish Kingdom in Palestine. All eighteen leper knights were killed, as were most of the European forces. The Leper Knights were also present for the final siege of Acre in 1291.
Crusading knights who returned from Europe with leprosy, or who developed leprosy after their return could live in one of the communities of the Knights of St. Lazarus that were literally “springing up” all over Europe. They were built in lowlands to keep the lepers’ breath away from healthy people, and usually near cities, often with convenient alms boxes located near main roads. Followed the Rule of the Knights of St. Lazarus, based on the Rule of St. Augustine; not all residents were former knights, but all followed the Rule. It must have presented an interesting paradox when men whose souls were absolutely saved by fighting for the Cross ended up with a disease that was a badge of sin. Grand Masters, Preceptors, and Commanders of Lazarite communities were required to be lepers, a custom that vanished as leprosy vanished in the 14th century.
Endowing leper houses gave nobles a way to accomplish their temporal and spiritual goals. It helped protect their earthly fortunes and ensured them and their families a shorter stay in Purgatory, if not a place in Heaven itself. For a rich man to share his riches with “Lazarus” by donating land and buildings to military/religious orders was especially appealing as these groups had the power, training and arms to protect their lands. For example, in the Glatt Valley north of Zürich, a long-running border dispute between the Duke of Rapperswil and the Baron of Toggenburg was settled when Toggenburg and Rapperswil jointly gave a large piece of land to the Knights of St. John Hospitaller. Rapperswil also gave land to the Order of St. Lazarus. (Hugener) The two large properties created an immense buffer zone in a strategic, volatile Swiss valley.
[t]he Order of St. Lazarus built up a moderate landed estate scattered over a very considerable geographic area because of the benevolence of an extremely wide set of patrons…Benefactors included kings, noblemen and gentry, but it was the peasant farmers who made up the majority in terms of numbers of grants, if not in terms of the volume of property granted. (Marcombe 65)
Francois-Oliver Touati in Archives de la Lepre explains the urban localization of leper hospitals in France saying that wealthy donors wanted to have their compassionate generosity visible to others and close to home where it could be administered easily. Touati tells of the Viscomte of Saint-Florentine who, in 1184 had pledged a regular gift to the Dilo Abbey of 4 cents per year for the care of lepers to procure for him and his family a place in “the bosom of Abraham.” Touati goes on to explain that there were hundreds of acts of this kind, done by the same type of person to procure the same goals:
Un acte semblable a des centaines d’autres, de même type, de même objets, de même milieu aristocratique en faveur d’un monastère don’ le donateur attend en retour la prière pour son âme et celle des proches, une garantie pour l’éternité. Rien que de très ordinaire… (Touati 35)
“Yeah but, leprosy was an epidemic, right? Isn’t that why they were marginalized and persecuted?”
In a word, “No.” Nor were they necessarily “marginalized” or persecuted.
The rapid increase in the number of hospitals built for lepers during the late 12th and early 13th centuries (in Britain the number rose 80% from the 11th to the end of the 13th century, with similar statistics in France and the Holy Roman Empire) led historians to believe that leprosy was widespread during this period. Some historians argue that a rise in Europe’s population and crowding and poverty in the urban centers increased the incidence of leprosy. Other historians have contended that medieval doctors confused leprosy with other diseases.
Recent paleo-historical research shows that leprosy arrived in Europe in the 7th century and increased in the population very slowly, with a slight increase during the 300 years of the Crusades. The statistical ratio of lepers to the general population has not changed from the 12th century to today, roughly 1-2 to 10,000 people (WHO) Leprosy of the 12th and 13th century did not occur in the same populations in which we see leprosy today, that is, the very poor. Excavated cemeteries in England and France reveal that at any one time a typical Lazar Houses sheltered fewer than a dozen lepers. Certainly not ALL medieval lepers were housed in leprosaria, Lazar Houses, but excavations of other cemeteries have brought up very few leper skeletons. Clearly, there were never so many lepers in Europe that the average person was certain to see one. By the 14th century, leprosy had essentially vanished in Europe, returning to its pre-Crusade levels. Medieval doctors correctly identified leprosy.
Until a cure was found lepers were treated with rest, fresh air, cleanliness, and a healthy diet. 12th and 13th century men and women who gave their lives to the care of lepers provided their patients exactly this kind of care, in semi-monastic communities, regulated by the Rule of St. Augustine. Accepted and cared for rather than persecuted, the most stringent punishment a leper faced for breaking the rules of the Lazar House was expulsion. By the end of the 13th century very few lepers remained in northern Europe, and “Lazar House” began to describe a facility for housing the very poor.
The word “leper,” combined with the word “medieval,” still evokes the image of pitiful beggars in desperate need of a miraculous cure, wandering around with a disease horrifying in its ugliness and terrifying in its contagion. However, for people of the high middle ages, lepers were powerful allegorical expressions of the true nature of human life, bearing on their outer body the corruption all humankind carries within. The leper provided medieval men and women a test of faith and the opportunity to move closer to their own salvation if they found the courage to show compassion to the Dragon Princess.
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Brag Medallion Honorees