Most of us are familiar with leprosy from Sunday School (or Ben Hur!), and we know how serious it was to be diagnosed with the disease in the premodern world. Leviticus spells out the quarantine procedure for the infected that influenced later medieval attitudes toward the disease: ‘he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp’ (Lev 13:46).
But life as a medieval leper wasn’t always so alienating.
I came across a 6th century man from a cemetery in Beckford (UK) today who had a crippling case of leprosy (Hansen’s Disease). The chronic infection was very advanced; all his fingers and toes had been eaten off. His legs were also damaged, and walking must have been very difficult and painful. He was 30 when he died.
But his body wasn’t roughly bundled into the ground like an unclean thing. He was laid out carefully and given a knife and a toiletry kit so he could continue to care for his body. He was also buried with a yew bucket, a feasting vessel made out of a poisonous wood that seems to have held magical or ritual significance.
But most important is his spear. Spears were given to men to affirm their place in early medieval society. And this man wasn’t just buried with a spear beside him: the people who arranged him carefully wrapped his fingerless hands around the spear’s shaft, as though daring anyone to suggest that his crippled body was not still a full, valued, and loved part of their community.
Their decision not to shun him may have cost them a lot – at least one other person in the small community was also infected. But community mattered, and that second victim was also lovingly buried with a spear.
Evison, V. & P. Hill. 1996. Two Anglo-Saxon cemeteries at Beckford, Hereford and Worcester. CBA Research Report 103. Council for British Archaeology.
Cover image: Medieval leper bell. Photo taken by Cnyborg at the museum Ribes Vikinger, Ribe, Denmark, May 2005. Wikimedia Commons.