We envision lepers wandering in dark, medieval forests, calling out, “Unclean! Unclean!” begging alms from terrified healthy people. These medieval lepers are horrible to look at, their oozing faces wrapped in pus-soaked bandages that stick to the cavity that was once a nose. They are angry, demented, crippled, fingerless, foul smelling and – some say – sex crazed. This “medieval leper” comes to us not from the Middle Ages, but from imaginative fiction written over the intervening centuries. In fact, lepers of the 12th and 13th centuries in Europe limped a curious line between pariah and savior – listing most often toward savior and performed a real service to their world.
Lepers were considered dead and often given the “Rites of Separation,” including the Rite of Extreme Unction. Documented in the thirteenth century by Alice the Leper, the Rite of Separation told the afflicted to, “…consider yourself dead to life, and separate yourself from the living. Your life is now with God and apart from man…” Often, lepers were symbolically buried. They had to change the way they breathed, drank, ate and spoke to others, to wear different clothing, and to call out their condition vocally or with a clapper or bell in warning to others.
Many lived in isolation with their families. Others went to Lazar Houses run by the famous Leper Knights of Jerusalem in monastic, quasi-military communities following Rule of the Knights of St. Lazarus. The Order was named for the beggar Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), who was thought to have been a leper. He stood outside the rich man’s door asking for the crumbs from his table. To avoid the rich man’s fate, wealthy nobles and burghers all over Europe endowed leper hospitals hoping to move a little closer to Heaven. These hospitals did not only promote the salvation of their benefactors, they provided lepers safe havens, a place in the community and medical care. The alms box beside the road gave passersby an easy way to buy a few rungs on Jacob’s ladder. At the same time, the communities provided defensible buffer zones between the donors and their enemies. It is not called the “feudal period” for nothing.
People in medieval Europe believed that life in this world was only a transit stop on the way to REAL life that began after death. The challenge was navigating this earthly life without falling into Satan’s snares. Most believed that after death they would spend some time in Purgatory atoning for their sins. They hoped to shorten, if not avoid, the pains of Purgatory by pursuing redemption during their physical lives. The “Living Dead,” their flesh already decomposing, lepers had a head start on the road to salvation and were that much closer to God. Earth was their purgatory. Lepers also performed a useful spiritual service by providing others the chance to demonstrate compassion in imitation of Christ. The stories told of St. Martin of Tours and St. Francis of Assisi show how having the courage to “kiss the dragon” leads to salvation.
Such is the interesting identity of the medieval leper, more savior than pariah, but outsider still, living in a realm not quite of this world and not quite of the next.