Walking Corpses

Walking Corpses: Leprosy in Byzantium and the Medieval West

Timothy S. Miller
John W. Nesbitt
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Cornell University Press
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt5hh06f
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Walking Corpses
    Book Description:

    Leprosy has afflicted humans for thousands of years. It wasn't until the twelfth century, however, that the dreaded disease entered the collective psyche of Western society, thanks to a frightening epidemic that ravaged Catholic Europe. The Church responded by constructing charitable institutions called leprosaria to treat the rapidly expanding number of victims. As important as these events were, Timothy Miller and John Nesbitt remind us that the history of leprosy in the West is incomplete without also considering the Byzantine Empire, which confronted leprosy and its effects well before the Latin West. In Walking Corpses, they offer the first account of medieval leprosy that integrates the history of East and West.

    In their informative and engaging account, Miller and Nesbitt challenge a number of misperceptions and myths about medieval attitudes toward leprosy (known today as Hansen's disease). They argue that ethical writings from the Byzantine world and from Catholic Europe never branded leprosy as punishment for sin; rather, theologians and moralists saw the disease as a mark of God's favor on those chosen for heaven. The stimulus to ban lepers from society and ultimately to persecute them came not from Christian influence but from Germanic customary law. Leprosaria were not prisons to punish lepers but were centers of care to offer them support; some even provided both male and female residents the opportunity to govern their own communities under a form of written constitution. Informed by recent bioarchaeological research that has vastly expanded knowledge of the disease and its treatment by medieval society, Walking Corpses also includes three key Greek texts regarding leprosy (one of which has never been translated into English before).

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-7077-6
    Subjects: History, Health Sciences, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-9)

    Leprosy occupies a special place in the history of contagious diseases. It is closely related to tuberculosis, yet people react far differently when they think of Margarite, the consumptive heroine ofThe Lady of the Camellias, coughing spasmodically, than they do when observing lepers bathing their oozing sores. The consumptive evokes pity, as Dumas intended in his romantic novel, but the image of lepers inspires fear and revulsion and in many a strong desire to flee from their presence. Medieval writers even described the victims of leprosy as the living dead. What image could inspire more terror?¹

    Leprosy triggers such...

  6. Chapter 1 The Ancient World
    (pp. 10-26)

    At some date in the early decades of the third century BC, Greek physicians at Alexandria were beginning to see cases of the malady they called “Elephant Disease.” After Alexander the Great’s conquests, this city had become the heart of Greek intellectual life and a major center for medical science. It is likely that these physicians had identified the most serious form of the disease, lepromatous leprosy. If they had also encountered instances of tuberculoid leprosy, they probably did not call it “Elephant Disease” because its symptoms were much less dramatic than lepromatous leprosy, and it was more likely to...

  7. Chapter 2 Leprosy in the Byzantine Empire
    (pp. 27-47)

    When Emperor Constantine was choosing a location for his new capital of Constantinople in the 320s, he ultimately settled on Byzantium, an ancient urban site on the European side of the Bosporos that the emperor converted into an impregnable fortress, surrounded on three sides by water and protected by massive landward walls. At the dedication of Constantinople in 330, however, the emperor was unprepared for the threat that soon would confront the city’s residents. Within a few years people from all classes in society began contracting a strange and disfiguring disease, the dreaded “Elephant Disease,” described by Aretaios. By the...

  8. Chapter 3 Byzantine Medicine
    (pp. 48-71)

    Mapping the relationship between Byzantine medical science and leprosy is a difficult task because at present so little is known about medieval Greek physicians and their profession, especially in the centuries after the Arab conquest of the Middle East. Over two thousand Byzantine manuscripts devoted to medical works survive in European libraries. A third of these contain works by a single author such as the second-century Galen of Pergamon; the remaining manuscripts have selections from different classical and Byzantine medical writers. In this second group of manuscripts, scattered among the selections culled from treatises by well-known physicians, are many anonymous...

  9. Chapter 4 Byzantine Leprosariums
    (pp. 72-95)

    The East Roman Empire first opened leprosariums during the fourth century when Church leaders perceived an increase in the number of those with elephantiasis.¹ From 400 to 1300, specialized institutions continued to care for lepers within Byzantine territory. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, however, no texts describe functioning leprosariums, but as we shall see, that does not mean that they ceased to exist, especially in view of the leper hospital founded by King Stephen Uroš III at the Dečani Monastery in Serbia.

    In this chapter we examine the origins of these leprosariums. We focus on when they first appeared...

  10. Chapter 5 Leprosy in the Latin West
    (pp. 96-117)

    On a visit to southern France in June 1321, King Philip V first heard about the leper plot, probably from the mayor of Periguieux. Records from that city reveal that in April the mayor had begun to arrest lepers accused of planning to poison the wells of the town. Some lepers had already been burned at the stake for their alleged involvement in the conspiracy. As a result of what he heard, King Philip issued an order on June 21, 1321, that defined participation in this poisoning plot as an attack on the king’s majesty and therefore subject to the...

  11. Chapter 6 Leprosariums in the Latin West
    (pp. 118-138)

    Medical historians and medievalists have long known that leprosariums became common in Western Europe during the High Middle Ages. However, when, and why, Latin Christians founded so many of them has given rise to controversies. Some scholars have claimed that leper hospitals suddenly appeared in the early twelfth century as soldiers returned from the First Crusade; others have argued that such institutions had existed since Merovingian times. Another group of researchers has claimed that Church authorities first established leprosariums, but still others have maintained that they emerged spontaneously from the desire of lepers to live together and support one another....

  12. Chapter 7 The Knights of Lazarus
    (pp. 139-154)

    During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries a new Western order of fighting “monks” gradually took shape in Crusader Jerusalem, an order known as the “Knights of Saint Lazarus” (or the “Lazarites”). This organization apparently began as a group of ascetic men who served the victims of Elephant Disease in a leprosarium outside the walls of Jerusalem, but less than one hundred years later these ascetics had taken their place alongside the more famous Templar and Hospitaller warriors in battles against the forces of Islam.¹

    No institution of Western Catholicism was more alien to the orthodox Byzantine worldview than the military...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 155-162)

    When Pope Clement IV issued his order in 1265 to enclose all of Europe’s lepers in leprosariums under the control of the order of Saint Lazarus, he envisioned a far-reaching campaign to remove those sick with Elephant Disease from contact with healthy society. As we stressed in the previous chapter, he justified his efforts with the statement of Leviticus 13:46, that those with leprosy should “live outside the camp.”¹ Pope Clement’s decree is evidence to support what Roy Porter maintains in his history of medicine “[Lepers] were segregated in special houses outside towns—following the injunction in Leviticus that the...

  14. Appendix 1 Aretaios of Cappadocia, On Acute and Chronic Diseases (Books IV.13 and VIII.13)
    (pp. 163-172)
  15. Appendix 2 Gregory of Nyssa’s Oration, Regarding the Words “As much as you have done for one of these, you have done for me” (Matt. 25:40)
    (pp. 173-185)
  16. Appendix 3 Selection from The Funeral Oration in Praise of Saint John Chrysostom (Chapters 60.17 to 67.1)
    (pp. 186-192)
  17. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 193-194)
  18. Notes
    (pp. 195-220)
  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 221-238)
  20. Index
    (pp. 239-244)