Drawing of leper with bell in the margins of a text of a fourteenth century manuscript.

Leper with a bell in the margins in the text of a fourteenth century manuscript.


The official disease, leprosy, produced by Mycobacterium leprae, was not scientifically identified until 1874, and the cause for the disease was not proven until the 1960s. It is difficult to diagnose even today; therefore, there must have been much confusion surrounding the disease in the Middle Ages. Those classified with leprosy, especially during the Middle Ages, did not necessarily exhibit any of the common symptoms. The classification "leper" was given to many social deviants. Consequently, for purposes of studying lepers in the Middle Ages, we will define lepers as R.I. Moore does in Formation of a Persecuting Society, as "those who were called lepers and treated as such.".

The general characteristics of the disease include, but are not limited to:

--loss of sensation at the nerve ends
--destroyed blood vessels, ligaments and skin tissues
--eroded bones


Treatment of lepers in Christian and Islamic Societies:

Although lepers were isolated and treated differently than other members of society in both religious cultures, the medieval treatment of lepers in Islamic society seemed to be less harsh than in Christian societies. There are common religious interpretations in both Christian and Islamic societies regarding leprosy, but the effect of such interpretation appeared to be less " marginalizing" in Islamic societies. In Islamic society, there was little evidence of lepers being required to wear distinctive clothing. The association of lepers with the "unclean" is seen in the popularity of baths as a treatment for leprosy, but this occurred mostly in areas of Christian influence, such as the Crusader states.

The Living Dead--a Quasi Religious Status?

There are several interpretations regarding the thirteenth century Mass of Separation, and the Church's view towards the leper. According to Father Martinus Cawley, civil leaders declared lepers legally dead so that they could confiscate the leper's goods; the church expected the spouse to honor the sacramental bond and serve the leper until his/her death. The leper was considered a kind of Nazarite (from the Hebrew Bible, a warrior who has taken special vows), who must be protected by the church. There was a list of garments and utensils that the leper must be given, and each was blessed before the leper received it, much like was done at clerical ordinations. The religious texts in Martene's De Antiquis Ecclesiae Ritubus clearly forbid the incorporation of funeral liturgy. Yet according to R.I. Moore, Lateran III's ritual of separation was clearly modeled on the ritual of the dead, and in many places, the leper was actually required to stand in an open grave while the ritual was read to the accused.

A leper and a cripple.
Note the portrayal of the leper with
a clapper and a begging bowl.
Rich vs. Poor:

The issue of a person's wealth was important when they became known as a leper. Rich lepers were treated very differently than poor ones. The stories of Alice the Leper and Baldwin IV (see Annotated Bibliography) show that if people were leprous but rich, they were depicted as heroes. Alice was shown as a martyr, and Baldwin still ruled his kingdom in his leprous state. It was not their fault that they were lepers, whereas it was thought that most people contracted leprosy as a punishment from God for their sins. Lepers that were poor had to carry begging bowls, as seen in the pictures above and to the right. Societies considered them burdens because they could not work. The poor leper seems to have been relegated to the the margins.

The Sin of the Leper:

As "leprosy" grew more prevalent during the Middle Ages, the status of lepers changed. Far from being pitied, lepers became increasingly more reviled by the populace. The vocabulary linking sin with leprosy increased in frequency. This idea may have been most aided by the expanding power of the church. The church rhetoric of equating uncleanliness with sin was used by all levels of the population. This association led to the equivalence between lepers, sin and punishment.

Rhetoric Common With Other Groups:


The Becket Mazar, a begging bowl with the ring of St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the bottom. Canterbury was a popular pilgramage destination for those thought to be infected with lepersy.


Bible Verses.
Testament of St. Francis.
El Cid See Book IX for the story of St. Lazarus, the patron saint of lepers.
Excerpts from Alice the Leper, a nun who became a leprous martyr.


A Medieval Diagnostic of Leprosy
Essay about Medieval Jewish Perspectives on Lepers


Painting of St. Louis with Leprous Monk--A Link to the Bibliotheque Nationale.
Painting of A Miracle of St. Nicholas. An image, from the National Gallery of Art, of lepers visiting the shrine of St. Nicholas in an attempt to cure their leprosy.

Other Links

Basic facts regarding leprosy.
More facts about lepers.
History of lepers.
An abstract of a dissertation on leper hospitals.
More on St. Francis.
For additional sources not on the Internet, see Annotated Bibliography.
An extended non-annotated Bibliography.

--This page designed and written by Jessica Edwards, Lindsay Irvin, and Kara McClurken

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