WHAT WAS LEPROSY? We are inclined, as were early and medieval Christians, to assume that leprosy in our world is equivalent to the disease translated as “leprosy” in modern Bibles (sara’ath in Hebrew). Though biblical leprosy was also some type of skin disease, it is not at all clear that it was the same disfiguring disease which began to be described as “lepra” or “elephantiasis” by Greek and Roman physicians in the first and second centuries.
“Experts” have also told us that, as with biblical leprosy, medieval lepers were completely segregated from and despised by the rest of society. True, leprosy was often used as a metaphor for individual and communal sin, but the sin was seen as the much deeper problem. As historian Carole Rawcliffe comments, “There were, in fact, many leprosies: of bodies and souls, of saints and sinners, of men and metals, of animals and plants.” And though such famous figures as Francis of Assisi were terrified of lepers, the response of the church as a whole was not to cast these sufferers “outside the gates,” but rather to elevate them to special spiritual status.
During the Middle Ages, lepers came to be seen as called by God to a life of meritorious suffering and prayer. Most people did believe that lepers were being punished for their sins (especially sins of the flesh), but they were not viewed as being beyond redemption or cut off from the life of the non-leprous. In fact, the purification they achieved through their suffering was seen as redeeming not only their own sins but also the sins of others, both living and dead. This was one reason wealthy people founded leper houses, since the inhabitants of the houses would be expected to pray for the founders’ souls. Francis, once he had recovered from his initial fear, came to love lepers and in fact started to live among them with his early followers, as a special way to be closer to God.
Jesus Christ was believed to be especially concerned for lepers, and a tradition that associated leprosy with the stories of his friends Lazarus and Mary Magdalene reinforced this. Medieval theologians emphasized that Christ had rejected Old Testament law, including the many restrictions placed on Old Testament lepers. Furthermore, Christ himself was considered to be quasi leprosus, “like a leper,” in his torments and crucifixion. This frequent metaphor derived from Jerome’s use of “leper” in translating Isaiah 53:4, as a way of emphasizing the severity of Christ’s beating and wounding: “...and we took him for a leper, stricken by God and humiliated.” Or, as Gregory the Great commented in a homily, “What can be more abject in the flesh of man than the flesh of the leper, harrowed by swollen sores and suffused with nauseous exhalations? But see that He has appeared in the aspect of a leper; and He who is revered above all has not scorned to appear despised beneath all.”
This meant that when Christians served lepers, they were serving Christ, and refusals to show compassion were refusals to recognize Christ. Stories, sermons, and devotional poems repeatedly encouraged the faithful to care for lepers, especially to wash them—as Mary Magdalene had washed the feet of Christ with her tears—and to kiss them. As a biography of St. Hugh of Lincoln put it, on so doing, the smell of decay and death which accompanied leprosy would be transformed in the believing heart into the “sweet perfume of Christ.”