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Leprosy and identity in medieval Rouen

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Leprosy (Hansen’s disease) has been described as the disease of the Middle Ages, and my research examines the impact that it had on the society of Rouen, one of the leading cities of medieval Western Europe. This paper will approach leprosy and its sufferers through the concept of identity, from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries. Firstly, it will consider how the identity of lepers themselves was affected by their affliction. The social identity of individual lepers prior to contracting the disease undoubtedly played an important part in shaping their fate, since those who had financial backing entered monastic leper hospitals, while poorer lepers were left to beg. However, the language used to describe lepers suggested that their social status was transformed by the disease. Lepers were labelled as ‘leprosus’, ‘infirmus’, ‘pauper Christi’, ‘ladre’, ‘mesel’ and, for those lepers who begged, ‘leprosus extraneus’ or ‘lépreux forain’. In addition, lepers’ physical appearance, particularly their facial features, degenerated as a result of their disease. Since a person’s facial appearance is understood to reflect their individual personality, what impact did this have on the perception of lepers by others? Was their physical decay understood to reflect the sinfulness of their souls? The second part of the paper will examine the identity of the disease. Clerics and, in the later Middle Ages, physicians and surgeons, were called upon to diagnose suspected cases of leprosy. Sometimes cases were misdiagnosed, but recent archaeological work at a leper hospital cemetery near Rouen has revealed that the vast majority of residents indeed suffered from Hansen’s disease. The cemetery also contains skeletons exhibiting signs of other conditions such as polio. The paper will consider whether leprosy was linked to other illnesses that resulted in disability and physical degeneration, and the extent to which it was viewed by contemporaries as the disease afflicting their society.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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