"A Mighty Force in the Ranks of Christ's Army": Intercession and Integration in the Medieval English Leper Hospital

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)


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.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationLeprosy and identity in the Middle Ages
Subtitle of host publicationFrom England to the Mediterranean
EditorsElma Brenner, François-Olivier Touati
Place of PublicationManchester, UK
PublisherManchester University Press
ISBN (Electronic)9781526127426
Publication statusPublished - 13 Apr 2021

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