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Carole Rawcliffe

Many current assumptions about health provision in medieval English cities derive not from the surviving archival or archaeological evidence but from the pronouncements of Victorian sanitary reformers whose belief in scientific progress made them dismissive of earlier attempts to ameliorate the quality of urban life. Our own tendency to judge historical responses to disease by the exacting standards of modern biomedicine reflects the same anachronistic attitude, while a widespread conviction that England lagged centuries behind Italy in matters of health and hygiene seems to reinforce presumptions of ‘backwardness’ and ‘ignorance’. By contrast, this paper argues that a systematic exploration of primary source material reveals a very different approach to collective health, marked by direct intervention on the part of the crown and central government and the active involvement of urban communities, especially after the Black Death of 1348-49. A plethora of regulations for the elimination of recognized hazards was then accompanied by major schemes for environmental improvement, such as the introduction of piped water systems and arrangements for refuse collection.

Bulletin of the John Rylands Library
Intercession and integration in the medieval English leper hospital
Carole Rawcliffe

Much has been written about the attractions of lepers as agents of redemption in the Middle Ages. They were, above all, regarded as representatives of the tormented Christ, whose appearance quasi leprosus during his Passion became a theme in art and literature. Assumptions about their special status were further encouraged by the belief that they belonged among the fortunate few who would be ‘purified’ of sin on earth through physical suffering, bypassing purgatory and ascending ‘straightway into heaven’. Less attention has been paid to how these ideas influenced responses to leprosy, both before and after the Black Death. This chapter explores the intercessionary role undertaken by hospitalised lepers and their priests in medieval England, and the extent to which it fostered the social and spiritual integration of leprosy sufferers. Adherence to a prayer regimen was facilitated by the availability of a church or chapel, which gave structure to the religious round, but was also necessary for the celebration of Mass. Noting the ubiquity of wayside chapels attached to suburban leper houses, we turn to the spiritual services offered there by sick men and women. Yet funding was precarious, and few leper hospitals survived the upheavals of the fourteenth century unscathed. A decline in the number of functioning institutions undermined the idea of leprosy as a religious calling, and from the 1340s patrons were preoccupied with the sanitary imperatives that prioritised the segregation of lepers. At the same time, other charitable enterprises began to offer competition for financial support.

in Leprosy and identity in the Middle Ages