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Influence of the Leprosy in Medieval Europe: Analytical Essay

Influence of the Leprosy in Medieval Europe

Leprosy is one of the most disabling and deforming infectious disease, had companioned with human being since as early as 600 B.C..Medieval Europe started its long torture from leprosy. Leprosy is like a nuclear bomb, not only people are physically infected, but also their minds, which this great influence could be found in artform and literature including religious and literary works. “Amis and Amile” is a medieval French romance based on an older and widespread legend of friendship and sacrifice. In the story, Amis was infected by leprosy and later saved by sacrifice of his friend Amile under guidance of the Angle Raphael. Leprosy provide a gap for reader to observe the impact of the disease toward whole society, Christianity, people’ thoughts and understanding of human body, disease itself as well as treatment.

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Leprosy presents its far-reaching influence in Christianity and later developed in social perception. The influence had already shown as early as the time that the Bible was written. Many of the social responses to people with the disease were based on biblical teachings as well. The Bible includes around 50 reference to the leprosy (Mac Arthur. 1953). In the Book of Job, Job respected the God, made offerings to the God, and was happy with everything until God decided to test him and allow Satan to bring him misfortunes and suffering: all his wealth vanished, all his children died, himself was infected by leprosy and abandoned on a dung heap where patients branded by malediction await death (Terrien). Job’s faith supported him, and God sent his blessing upon Job in the end. Beside considered as test, the infection of leprosy might also indicate that people were untrustworthy, wrathful, unclean, hopeless, and suspicious in different biblical perceptions. For instance, in the Leviticus 13: 44-46 states, “Now whosoever shall be defiled with the leprosy, and is separated by the judgement of the priest, 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.

All the time that he is infected and unclean, he shall dwell alone without the camp.” Communities during the Middle ages blamed the people with leprosy for social and economic calamities. Authorities scapegoated them more out of their concern of them being a public nuisance than their role in spreading the disease. For example, facing a major famine, the French King France King Philip V accused them of having poisoned wells across France. Philip’s 1318 order was, “Let us collect in one place all of the people with leprosy and burn them, and so often as more appear. Let us burn them also until the idease is eradicated” (Haggard, 1932:15). The most common social perception about leprosy had been that people should be feared (Dols. 1983); most people during the Middle Ages assumed leprosy was highly contagious (Jacquart & Thomasett. 1988) while some medical opinions differed and physicians did not always believe leprosy was highly contagious. Medieval citizens worried that they might get leprosy from associating with people with the disease and some communities passed laws to restrict the personal freedoms of people who were infected. For example, 1276 assizes of proclaimed that people with leprosy could not reside in the city (Clay, 1909). Various restrictions were created on people who had infected by communities during medieval times, and most of the restrictions limited the freedom of the infected people without consulting them, which was unfair and unequal in a way.

However, in contrast to efforts to limit and restrict the freedom of infected people, medieval communities sometimes were compassionate for those people with disease. In the 12th century, at least in , there was a strong sense of charity for people with leprosy (Mac Arthur, 1953). For instance, Queen Matilda the spouse of Henry I was known widely for ther charitable acts toward the people with leprosy (Rubin, 1974). The English King John (1204) allowed people with leprosy to have a portion of all flour sold at market. In 1163, the Bishop of Exeter allowed them to enter the markets to collect food and gave them special privileges.

Leprosy showed up in the “Amis and Amile” as a setting of Amis which reflected the common reaction of healthy people toward infected people. In the story of Amis and Amile, “Now Amis abode with his wife, but by the permission of God he became a leper, and his sickness was so heavy upon him that he could not leave his bed, for who God loveth him He chasteneth. His wife – who was named Obias – for this cause hated him sorely and sought his death many a time in shameful fashion. When Amis perceived her malice he called to him two of his men-at-arms, Azonem and Horatus, and said to them – Deliver me from the hands of this wicked woman, and take with you may cup secretly, and bear us to the tower of Bericain.”

The author of “Amis and Amile” used the phrase “permission of God” specially to state that Amis was not an unclean person, his infection of leprosy was a test from God, just like Job. Later, Obias, the wife of Amis, wanted to kill Amis because his infection. Obias’s expression toward his infected husband was understandable: people of the Middle ages did realize that leprosy was an infectious disease and tend to isolate the infected from uninfected people. Obviously, people would feel alone and helpless when they were infected and been isolated. Therefore, uninfected people usually felt frightened and probably hateful toward infected, on the contrast, infected people usually felt lonely, sad, and also probably hateful toward uninfected. Not like his god-like husband, she was just a normal person who feared diseases so much, especially the deadly, powerful, and infectious leprosy.

Secondly, leprosy was considered as an critical and incurable disease, and since it was also commonly believed to highly contagious, isolating the people who had already infected was a correct and smart way to prevent further infection; obviously, under the great terror of leprosy, Obias chose the most extreme option among other options of isolation, killing Amis, which would definitely displease her husband. Limiting one’s freedom was common restriction for infected people, even though the infected people was not pleased by the restrictions. At last, Obias was killed for her attempt of killing Amis. The author of “Amis and Amile” supported the side which the infected people should be helped and treated equally instead of isolating them. The society was separated into two opposite part: one supported that people with leprosy should be isolated, and restricted, the other supported that people with leprosy should be helped an own part of rights of healthy people. For those who were against infected people, they made a rational yet inhumane choice; for those who support infected people, they made a relatively unnational yet humane choice.

Beside fear, people also curious about leprosy including the cause of leprosy and potential treatment. Medieval medical authorities suggested several causes for leprosy, such as sexual transmission, simple association, bites of venomous worms, eating rotten fish, drinking unclean wine, and eating rotten or melancholic meat (Carmichael, 1993; Richards, 1977; Skinsnes, 1964). Following the Galenic tradition, some medieval physicians attributed the disease to the overabundance of black bile or melancholic humor in the individual’s body. People started the journey of understanding their body. Potential treatments of leprosy were created, although those treatments did not cure the disease. Some authorities suggested that taking measures such as carrying religious relics and using herbs could ward off the disease. Doctors of the Middle ages tries herbal and chemical cures such as Chaulmoogra (hydnocarpus) oil that they would apply to the bodies of patients. Since authorities made the connection between disease and humoral theory, they often treated the perceived overabundance of black bile by bleeding patients (Pouchelle, 1990). They also instructed patients to eat fresh, clean food and bath often. The famous 12th century Benedictine abbess recommended using the white lily as treatment of leprosy and even believed that the soil of ant-hills had curative powers for the disease. Usually, treatment for leprosy were a combination of physical treatment and spiritual interventions. Christians viewed religious relics as effective treatments for leprosy, such as the bones of Saint Milburga.

However, on contrast to efforts to limit and restrict the freedom of infected people, medieval communities sometimes were compassionate for those people with disease. In the 12th century, at least in , there was a strong sense of charity for people with leprosy (Mac Arthur, 1953). For instance, Queen Matilda the spouse of Henry I, was known widely for ther charitable acts toward the people with leprosy (Rubin, 1974). The English King John (1204) allowed people with leprosy to have a portion of all flour sold at market. In 1163, the Bishop of Exeter allowed them to enter the markets to collect food and gave them special privileges.

In the story Amis and Amile, after Amis had leprosy, Raphael, God’s angle, was sent to Amis and provided Amis a potential treatment:

“‘Thou hast well spoken, for thou art the companion of the citizens of Heaven, and like Job and Tobit hast suffered all things meekly and with patience. I am Raphael, an angel of our Lord, who am come to show thee medicine for thy healing, for God hath heard thy prayers. Thou must bid Amile, thy comrade, to slay his two children with the sword, and wash thee in their blood, that thus thy body may become clean.’

The Amis replied – ‘This be far from me, that my comrade be blood-guilty for my health.

But the angle said – ‘It is meet that he should do this thing’.”

In this section, Raphael, an angel from Christian world, offered a treatment that could completely cured Amis’s leprosy, but the cost was the lives of two children of Amile. The merciful offering from the God fit the experience of Job, which he received the blessing from the God. In the previous section of the story, Amis was described as if he was Job, therefore the God sent his blessing by letting his angel Raphael tell Amis a treatment. This was an interesting and unusually offer: in the Bible, it had been recorded that Jesus cured a leper successfully. However, Raphael or the God did not cure Amis directly, but offer a treatment to Amis which the treatment could cured Amis completely. It was quite easy to notice that god’s responsibility had transferred from direct curing disease to offer ways to cure disease, which implies that, either people did not believe in god as they used to do under great despair, or this is another challenge or test for Amis and Amile. In people’s minds, the God was responsible for not only healing people directly, but also providing the ways/methods to cure people. The treatment mentioned that to cure the leprosy of Amis, he should bath in the blood of the two children of Amile. The great sacrifice was shown in the treatment. In the Bible, Jesus sacrificed himself to save his believers. This sacrifice of the God to save people also presented in the story of Amis and Amile, for the children of Amile had to be killed in order to cure Amis. Children were usually considered to be another version of the God. Therefore, the author was implying that the God would still bring hope and save his people. Amis hesitated about the treatment while Raphael the angel insisted him to do so, which indicated that the sacrifice was considered to necessary to treat a deadly disease. Disease, especially leprosy, created tons of fear within society and influence the affection between people and their believe in Christianity/region(god).

Leprosy is one of the most interesting disease of all the times. Many myths and misperceptions about disease have shaped social perceptions and reactions to people with leprosy. The very nature of the disease, with its prolonged incubation period and wide array of symptoms only fueled publics misunderstanding. People during medieval ages feared the person with leprosy out of uncertainly, misinformation, self-preservation, and limitation. Leprosy was not only a warning, but also a test provided by the God. The medieval literary works such as “Amis and Amile” reflected a lot of aspects of the society, people’s thoughts and understanding of human body, disease itself as well as treatment. Under the impact of leprosy, people started to have new understanding toward disease and human body continuously and keep living.


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