Leprosy In Medieval And Islamic Societies: Different Cultures’ Responses To The Same Disease Essay, Research Paper
Notes: This was written by Noah Feinberg for history 139A at UC Davis with Prof. Findlen It recieved an ‘A’ even though
I wrote it in a few hours. Hope it comes in handy, it possibly might be used for a religious studies class as well.
Secular medicine and its attitudes towards leprosy in medieval Christian and Islamic communities were
influenced by social and religious traditions. Lack of real medical knowledge allowed these influences to affect the
understanding and treatment of disease, as well as the status of the leper in society. Medieval views of leprosy in
Christian and Islamic societies illustrated these ideas. Despite their different cultures and religions, there were some
similar and analogous trains of thought in the understanding of this disease, but different attitudes prevailed as well.
Treatment and understanding of leprosy in European society reflected many Christian ideas. Fear of contagion
and the unpleasant sight of the disease’s symptoms led to the practice of separating the leper from the rest of society
(Palmer, p.80). This practice also reflected the biblical idea of the leper found in Leviticus, which calls for the “unclean”
leper to be cut off completely from society. In some areas priests performed Levitical rituals of separating the leper from
society (Palmer, p.81). Lepers had their own special hospitals and churches outside of town and city walls, and had to
dress in special garb identifying their affliction. Leper hospitals were under civic control, but religious influence
manifested itself in these institutions. At a hospital in Verona, Italy, statutes required incoming patients confess to the
hospital chaplain to gain admission (Palmer, p.85). Lepers could lose legal rights in some areas; being considered already
dead, their wives could remarry and they could lose control of their will (Palmer, p.81).
Ideas as to the cause and treatment differed, but there were two main conflicting themes regarding the cause
found in medieval Christian society. One idea of the cause of leprosy was sin. Sin in this case especially meant lechery.
Many physicians accepted the idea that leprosy was God’s punishment for sexual excess, and described lepers as sexually
depraved. Leprosy was though to be spread venereally (Palmer, p.82). However, another idea of leprosy conflicted with
the sinner scenario. The other idea regarded lepers as being singled out by God to suffer in their earthly life, redeeming
their sins for the afterlife (Palmer, p.84). Again, biblical precedent explained this view with the story of Lazarus and the
rich man: Sufferings in this world were compensated for in the next. (Luke 16: 19-25, as reprinted in Palmer, p.84). The
treatment lepers obtained often depended largely on their faith either in medicine or religion. The Christian church
advocated righteous living including vows, pilgrimages, processions, and charity work to prevent acquiring the disease.
This emphasized the importance the church placed on healing the soul over the body (Siraisi, p.8). For those already
afflicted, praying for forgiveness and acts of piety offered possibility of a cure. The most popular religious treatment
involved praying to certain saints, along with pilgrimages to their shrines with the hope that the saint would intercede
with God on their behalf. Lepers would eat and sleep outside the saints tomb, waiting to be cured (Palmer, p.87). If a
leper sought treatment from a physician, it would usually consist of phlebotomy, drug, and regimen therapy to rid bad
humors from the system.
Medieval Islamic society differed from European ideas, but parallel themes were evident. Islamic society dealt
with leprosy in many similar ways as Christian society did. Avoiding contact with lepers was one such way. Mohammed
the Prophet stated the Muslims should flee from a leper as they would flee from a lion. Another tradition stated that the
healthy should not be around lepers for long periods of time, and “should keep a spear’s distance from them.” (Dols,
p.895). Another parallel theme was the idea that leprosy was God’s punishment for immorality, but this idea was not
nearly as widespread and influential as it was in Christian Europe. Lepers in Islamic society also had their legal rights
limited in similar ways as European lepers. Despite these similar themes, there were many fundamental differences in
their place in society, treatment, and understanding of the disease.
Unlike Christian society, lepers did not always face total exile from the community, although in some areas
lepers were segregated in leprosaria (Dols, p.898). Lepers did not face stigmatization to the extent that European lepers
did. The Koran did not have any passages comparable to Leviticus, so Muslims did not have a religious reason to create a
special group for lepers and totally exile the afflicted as the Christians did (Dols, pp.913-914). Islamic society’s lack of
concrete social strata and need of belonging to groups as found in Christian society also helps explain why lepers did not
face such extreme persecution in Islamic society. Mild cases of leprosy could be treated in the home, reflecting the sense
of familial responsibility in Islamic society dating to antiquity (Dols, pp. 914-915). The medical treatment of leprosy was
different in Islamic society. Unlike most Christians in Europe, Muslims favored hot spring therapy for the disease.
However, many of these hot springs were shrines associated with religious deities, reflecting the hope of divine
intervention to cure the ailing leper in Islamic as well as in Christian societies (Palmer, pp. 903-905).
In conclusion, treatment and understanding of leprosy varied considerably in Christian and Islamic societies.
Christian Europe adopted Levitical law in dealing with lepers, influencing physicians as well as citizens with the idea that
lepers must be expelled from society. Lepers in Europe were encouraged by the church to pray and repent in hope of a
divine cure. Pilgrimages to various shrines of different saints also reflected this idea. Islamic societies did not have such
religious zeal in their dealings with the disease, and their lack of highly defined social groups allowed the leper more
freedom in society. Islamic society’s traditions also placed more emphasis on the responsibility of the family in caring for
the afflicted. Pilgrimages to hot springs associated with religious beings played a large part in the treatment of Islamic
lepers. Lastly, this was analogous to pilgrimages to religious shrines in Christian Europe.
R. Palmer, “The Church, Leprosy and Plague in Medieval and Early Modern Europe,” Studies In Church History, 19
M.W. Dols, “The Leper in Medieval Islamic Society,” Speculum 58 (1983): 891-916
Siraisi, Nancy G. Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine: An Introduction to Knowledge and Practice. Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press, 1990