Leprosy, which is also known as Hansen’s disease, is a disease known for causing severe deformities. It was misunderstood and there were misconceptions about its cause, method of transmission, and treatment. Leprosy is a form of bacterial infection involving the skin, nerves and other tissues.
It takes several years after the infection before the symptoms become visible. If unchecked it can lead to blindness, loss of sensation and local paralysis.
Throughout the middle ages, there were social and medical implications for the individual. Erection of leper houses at Verdun, Metz, Maestricht (seventh century), St. Gall (eighth century), and Canterbury (1096) provide evidence of the disease in Western Europe during the middle ages. Lepers were subjected to stringent regulations. They were excludes from the church by a funeral mass and symbolic burial. There is a rough estimate of 19000 leper-houses in Europe in the 12th century. Lepers who were not confined to these asylums were made to wear special clothing and carry a wooden clapper to warn their approach. They were forbidden to enter inns, churches, mills, bakeries, to touch healthy people, or eat with them.
As leprosy became more prevalent during the Middle Ages, lepers’ condition in the society became worse. Attitude of the general public changed from pity to anger. Idea of equating sin with uncleanliness came from the Church. People started associating lepers with sin and punishment. Civil leaders declared lepers legally dead to confiscate their belongings. The leper was considered a kind of Nazarite (warrior who takes special vows) to be protected by the church. The leper was given a set of garments and utensils that were blessed by the church before handing them over to the leper. Leper was made to stand in an open grave while the ritual was read out to him. Lepers were also called the ‘living dead’.
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