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Recent Perspectives on Leprosy in Medieval Western Europe



Responses to leprosy in medieval Western Europe were complex and often contradictory. Recent scholarship has challenged the predominant earlier view that lepers were excluded and stigmatized, suggesting instead that lepers were believed to have been chosen by God to be redeemed, and were thus the objects of sympathy and compassion. Research in the fields of history, archaeology and literature has addressed the social and religious status of lepers, the clinical identity and prevalence of medieval leprosy, and the medieval medical understanding of the disease. Much research has also focused on the endowment and functioning of leper hospitals (leprosaria). Although these institutions were situated outside towns and cities, they were still connected to mainstream society as a key focus of charity. The study of leprosy in the Middle Ages has been a vibrant field of scholarship in recent years – yet much still remains to be discovered about medieval lepers, leprosy and leprosaria. The field would benefit from studies comparing the situation of lepers in different regions, and from greater consideration of leprosy in its broader cultural, political, iconographic and ethical context. Such work would contribute not only to our understanding of leprosy, but also to the wider social, medical and religious history of the medieval West.

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