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Leprosaria

Leper asylums, or leprosaria, were charitable institutions built to house people suffering from leprosy. As this was considered an ‘unclean’ disease, leprosaria were usually outside of their communities of origin. In the 1100s and 1200s, hundreds of leprosaria were built throughout Europe. By 1225 there were around 19,000. Of the 1100 hospitals that existed in medieval England, at least 345 were wholly or in part for lepers. Most tended to be a small collection of lodgings, offering food rather than treatment. Some, however, offered palliative treatment as it was understood at the time. This included bathing, herbal remedies, music, diet and exercise. Leprosaria were usually built on the outskirts of towns. Though isolated by location, lepers were permitted out of leprosaria to beg and visit friends.

As the incidence of leprosy declined, leprosaria were put to other uses. Many housed people suspected of carrying infectious diseases, individuals with mental illnesses and even the indigent. Holy Innocents, a leprosarium in Lincoln, was refounded in 1461 as an almshouse. Some became hospitals, such as the Hôpital des Petits Maisons near the monastery of St Germain des Pres outside Paris, which commenced as a leprosarium, and was later used for indigent syphilitics and sick pilgrims. St Giles, Holborn, west of the walls of London, was originally a leprosarium with accommodation for 40 lepers. During several outbreaks of plague in the 1300s, many became the first plague hospitals, also known as pesthouses or lazarettos. Other famous pesthouses were built at Dubrovnik (1377), Marseilles (1383) and Venice (1423).

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Bibliography

C Rawcliffe, Leprosy in Medieval England (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006)

Glossary:

Leprosy

A chronic disease that affects the skin, mucous membrane and nerves. It is now confined mainly to the tropics and is transmitted by direct contact. Previously a widely feared disease, leprosy is not highly infectious.

Syphilis

A sexually transmitted infection resulting in the formation of lesions throughout the body.

Plague

An acute contagious fever with high levels of mortality. Both the 'Black Death' that swept Europe in the 1340s and the Great Plague of London in 1665 are believed to have been bubonic plague.