Leprosy and identity in the Middle Ages

From England to the Mediterranean

The chapters in this volume, by established scholars and early-career researchers in history and archaeology, shed new light on the identities and experiences of people affected by leprosy (Hansen’s disease) in medieval western Europe. Building on recent research that challenges the view that people with leprosy were excluded and stigmatised, the book demonstrates the complex and varying status of the illness and its sufferers. The authors provide case studies from Italy, Germany, France and England between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries, with some chapters adding a broader global perspective. The source material includes archival documents, archaeological data, hagiography and artworks. The book makes a new contribution to our understanding of social provision for people with leprosy, with chapters exploring how leprosy hospitals sat at the boundary between integration and segregation. It also describes how some sufferers lived outside institutional settings. The central question of identity enables consideration of how people with leprosy related to each other, and the extent to which their lives were transformed by the disease. While leprosy had a significant impact on social, professional and religious identities, people retained aspects of their previous identities after developing the condition. Furthermore, the collective identity of leprosy sufferers was shared by individuals who were labelled ‘lepers’ but did not have the illness. The book reveals the cultural and social significance of leprosy, a disease with deep metaphorical and spiritual associations. It also demonstrates how people with leprosy exerted their agency, although their perspectives are usually absent from the sources.

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