Leprosy and Leprosy Hospitals in Medieval Ireland – College of Charleston

Dr. Rachel Scott – from Arizona State.

The preconceived idea of the disease is that of a disfigured person or an outcast.  We use it in conversations today.

Dr. Scott is interested in why some diseases attract a social stigma.  She has focused on leprosy.

Leprosy:  Mycobacterium Leprae is a primarily human disease related to TB.  Armadillos were infected by researchers and now it found in their general population.  It is droplet transmitted – just like the common cold.  However the attack rate is only 5 to 10% with an incubation of 3 to 6 years.  The symptoms affect the face, hands and feet the most. The face because it is a droplet transfer and your nasal cavity is the first area to house and incubate the bacteria. There is a whole spectrum of the disease.  The Tuberculoid is the least affected by the bacteria.  They loose sensation in their extremities and their face. It often looks like a stroke.   On the other end of the spectrum is the Lepromatus.  Their “immune system” is weaker than the Tuberculoids.    The lepromatus victim displays through nodules on the face. The bacteria eats through the nasal septum, the pallet, and the anterior nasal bone.  It changes not just how they look in the face but their voice’s pitch and tone.  They also loose their eyesight.  The loss of sensation is exacerbated by the reabsorption of the paralyzed bones. Secondarily injuries aren’t notice.  The disabilities are disfiguring but not fatal.

It is one of the few diseases that can be tracked archaeologically.  Leprosy leaves marks on the skeleton where the bacteria have eaten the bones.  The widening of the nasal cavity, jaw bones receding so teeth fall out and the anterior nasal bone loss.

The historical record begins in ancient medical literature of India (BC 600) and China (BC 250).  The Greeks and Romans begin writing about it in the first century BC.  However skeletal remains have been found in India (BC 2000), Egypt (BC 200) and  England (4th century AD)

In a survey of skeletons in North/West Europe:

Roman/Britons     400AD      1480 (skeletons)   2 (affected)     .14%

Anglo/Saxon         700AD      2031                         18                      .89%

Late Medieval       1300AD    4742                         108                   2.28%  (peak)

Religious Text and Medical Fact and Rethinking Leprosy

  • Old Testament (1500BC)   Leviticus 13:44-46 – 44 Now whosoever shall be defiled with the leprosy, and is separated by the judgment of the priest: 45 Shall have his clothes hanging loose, his head bare, his mouth covered with a cloth: and he shall cry out that he is defiled and unclean. 46 All the time that he is a leper and unclean he shall dwell alone without the camp.
    • In this passage, the word translated “leprosy” – zara’ath or tsara’at = ritual impurity.
    • The Septuegent translated it to the Greek word for “lepra.”
    • The Latin Vulgate kept it as “lepra” as well.
  • Medical Texts
    • Hippocrates in the fifth century BC used “lepra” to mean dry flaky skin.
    • Greek and Roman texts refer to leprosy by the term elephantiasis graecorum
  • The jump in the Medieval period
    • Constantinus Africanus translated Arabic medical texts to Latin in the 11th century.
    • He used the term lepra in his texts.
  • The doctrine of purgatory was created in the 12th century.
    • Leprosy was considered a punishment for sins.
    • However leprosy victims were considered to be living in purgatory in the mortal world.
    • It was an expression of faith for a patron to found a hospital for these atoning victims.
  • The “hospitals”
    • Not the traditional “hospital” idea.
    • Housed 8 to 12 people on average.
    • Looked over by people of holy orders.
    • The “inmates” followed monastic disciplines and schedules
    • The “inmates” had to vote to allow someone else to come into the “hospital”
    • The “inmates” could leave and go to the market days or go beg on the highways.
Ireland had 54 leper hospitals in the medieval period.
  • pre 1100 there were 6
  • 1200 there were 12
  • 1300 there were 54
  • 1400 there were 54
  • 1500 there were 2
  • 1600 there was 5
The interesting thing is that the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland happened during the 12th century.  When a map of the hospitals is overlaid over the map of Anglo-Norman conquest town,  the hospitals are located just outside of these towns.  The benefactors of these hospitals are primarily Anglo-Norman.  Perhaps more significantly, in the Gailic texts of that time and later, no mention of “Leprosy” or “Hospitals” is made.
Of the 54, Dr. Scott was able to find 34.  27 are under modern development and can not be excavated. 7 are able to have surveys and possibly digs.  Dr. Scott is working to document the history of the leper colonies.
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