The most horrific disease at the time of the Knights Templar

Imagine a disease that results in you losing your fingers and toes, your nose collapsing and going blind – just because somebody sneezed over you. By the time the Knights Templar were formed in the early 1100s, Europe was in the grip of a leprosy epidemic. Villages all over England saw poor unfortunates excluded and shunned for bearing the tell-tale signs of Hansen’s disease.

leper monks
A bishop confronted by several monks in the 1300s who have got leprosy

You had to come into close contact with an untreated leper and be exposed to their nasal droplets but clearly this happened as more and more people succumbed. In the period in which the Templar order existed – 1118 to 1314 – over 300 leper houses were established across England. Some believed that if they were kind to lepers, then God would shorten their time in purgatory after they died for their acts of charity to the afflicted.

But many more medieval folk simply wanted lepers shunted away and unseen. They even insisted that they carry a bell around their neck to announce that they were in the vicinity. You can imagine the terror that some superstitious and ignorant peasants felt when they heard that bell coming towards them. They might have hidden behind a bush until the sad, bedraggled figure limped past.

The bacteria that causes leprosy – Mycobacterium leprae – is slow growing and today very treatable. But of course with no modern medicine in the medieval period, an infected person could expect a long period of painful suffering before death. And I’m talking years here.

The leper squint at Greenstead

So in my book Quest For The True Cross – I have a village leper called Jake, once a respected member of the community and now an outcast. Somebody like him would have been a familiar figure. Villagers might have remembered him as a fixture down the local tavern but now reduced to being treated like a dog with scraps thrown to him while he watched holy mass through a hole in the church wall – called a “leper squint”. There is one such squint in a Saxon church at Greenstead near where I grew up.

When somebody was identified as having succumbed to leprosy, they had to undergo an unusual religious ritual where they were officially excluded from the community. The priest would lead the leper to the local church telling him or her on the way that while they were sick in body, their immortal soul might still be pure. In life the leper would endure pain but in death, the invalid could ascend to heaven with a body free of disease.

Once inside the church, the leper had to kneel under a black cloth – almost as if he was dead already – while the priest set out the rules by which he or she would now have to live:

I forbid you ever to wash your hands or even any of your belongings in spring or stream of water of any kind and if you are thirsty, you must drink water from your cup or some other vessel.

The leper was told by the priest, in no uncertain terms, to wear the designated clothes, carry the bell; never to touch things they wanted to buy but point; never to enter taverns again; to only have intercourse with their own husband or wife; never go down a narrow alley in case they infected somebody; not to touch fences or posts; avoid infants and to only eat and drink in the company of other lepers.

And know that when you die you will be buried in your own house unless it be by favour obtained beforehand in the church.

The most famous leper known to the Knights Templar was the young King of Jerusalem, Baldwin IV – featured with a silvery mask in the movie Kingdom of Heaven. In spite of the debilitating condition and the appalling attitudes towards leprosy in the Middle Ages, Baldwin was able to rule for eleven years and fought the Saracens bravely in the Holy Land.

Here is a tribute to the leper king of Jerusalem:

Medieval magic treatments for disease

Illustration of the Black Death from the Togge...
Illustration of the Black Death from the Toggenburg Bible (1411) 

In a programme for Channel 4 and National Geographic, presenter Tony Robinson has been investigating medieval superstitions and in one recent episode – he looked at disease.  Why did our ancestors believe illness was caused by demons, elves, sprites and even God himself?

In Anglo-Saxon England, people believed sudden sharp pains were caused by arrows from elves – or ‘elf-shot’. Have you ever thought about the phrase ‘shooting pain‘ or ‘stabbing pain’ and even the idea of a ‘stroke’. The arrows that elves used were often thought to be tipped with stone arrow heads. Why? Because Anglo-Saxons picked up neolithic arrow heads in the forest and not knowing what they were (as their arrowheads were made of metal), thought the stone ones must be from the elves.

The sort of diseases caused by elves were anything resulting in fever or madness – like malaria.

But elves were as nothing compared to evil spirits. They entered in to your body – and your head – and turned you mad. Even in the Roman Empire – people had their skulls bored in to with a surgical knife to release an evil spirit from a patient’s head. Some of these skulls have been found with perfectly round holes.

Epilepsy would have been diagnosed as possession – as would brain tumours. Incredibly, some people survived these brain operations with flint tools – and bizarrely, releasing pressure in the head – albeit for the wrong reasons – actually saved the patient.

Demons were another risk for the patient. They got in to your body by morphing into food or odours or smoke. Pungent smells were associated with the devil – a miasma that had emanated from hell. Plague was seen as infected air from bad objects that entered your body and corrupted it. Food rotted because the devil had touched it. Sniffing infected flesh was enough to give you plague.

This is why people sought good smells – herbs like rosemary – that would protect you. In plague conditions, people would walk round with a kind of cowl or helmet with a long bird beak that was packed with herbs. This strange bird suit was believed to stop you catching the plague and those wearing these costumes, often physicians, would go round perfuming houses affected by plague.

If perfume wasn’t felt to be strong enough – they would use vinegar and in extreme cases, they would even mix herbs with gunpowder and let off perfume bombs in people’s houses. Ironically, the bird suit did save the physicians but only because they weren’t bitten by the fleas that were really causing the plague. The smells had nothing to do with it.

Waking up in the Middle Ages and feeling off colour in the morning was often deemed to have been caused by sin. If you had a venereal disease then sin was clearly the case. But pimples, soreness and aches might also be attributed to sinfulness – you just had to figure out what sin you had committed and start repenting.

Repentance could involve fasting, which would actually weaken your body further. In the fourteenth century, those living in communities stricken with the Black Death took to flogging their own bodies. You told your flesh, by striking it, that your soul was in control of your body and therefore you were nearer to the angels than the animals.

In medieval times, nothing was known about germs and bacteria. When we infect somebody else, we know we still have the disease ourselves. But in the Middle Ages, they believed in ‘transference’. If I got better, it was because I’d passed or transferred the disease on to somebody else. In other words, there was a limited amount of disease around which never disappeared – I just had to get it to pass out of my body to somebody else.

That somebody else could be dead! So, if I had a cyst or sore – I might ask an executioner to cut down a recently hanged man and get his cold, dead hand stroked against my cyst or sore. The dead criminal would then take it with him to hell. But I might try it with the living – and the method could be quite bizarre.

If I had a wart, for example, I would rub a snail on my horrible growth and then leave the snail in a bag hung up somewhere for a stranger to pick up. When he picked it up – he would get the wart!

And I might try and transfer the strength of the healthy in to myself to cure my weakness. A Celtic story tells of a warrior injured by a spear so the treatment was to transfer strength from…a whole herd of cows!!! His followers therefore slaughtered the entire herd and mixed their meat, marrow and bone together to save this one life. A very expensive treatment by the way – rather like bathing in champagne. The warrior, by the way, had to lie in this mixture for three days!

So did any medieval treatment actually work? Apart from accidental discoveries – one of the most powerful positive aspects of medicine in this period was its powerful placebo effect. Medicine was primarily about faith over science. That obviously limits it hugely. But, human beings are odd creatures. The belief that one is being cured can be an effective treatment with certain conditions on its own.

Did people really stop washing in the Middle Ages?

bathWhen I was taught history, the conventional wisdom was that after the fall of the Roman Empire – the bathhouses were shut down and people stank to high heaven.

Not only did people refuse to wash but they even venerated a man like Saint Godric who walked all the way to Jerusalem without washing or changing his clothes once.

Washing was believed to open the pores to disease and the bathhouses had been seen as licentious places by the early Church Fathers.

It was the crusaders who re-introduced the art of bathing to western Europe from the Holy Land where it had not died out in the Islamic realms, that had continued Greek/Roman practice though on religious grounds of purification. Bathhouses opened in London but were then closed again during the Black Death.  Bathing only really became fashionable again with the Renaissance and the revival of interest in Roman and Greek culture.

So is any of the above actually true?

Well, some of it is. The bathhouse did indeed cease to have the central social role that it enjoyed during the Roman Empire. Important to note that it wasn’t just about keeping clean for the Romans – they also socialised, gambled, slept with prostitutes, etc in the bathing houses. There were also of varying degrees of hygiene.

Far from emerging healthier, a Roman bather might emerge with any number of ailments.  But once the empire had gone, the great baths – like that of Diocletian in Rome – were often converted in to religious houses.  Or they were just abandoned.

But it’s simply not true to say that nobody took a bath from the last western emperor in 475AD until the Renaissance a thousand years later. There’s ample evidence that bathing of sorts did occur in the Middle Ages though less frequently, among the wealthier classes and without the elaborate buildings of the Romans.

Within the Templar era that is the subject of this blog – there is even a list of regulations from a thirteenth century bathhouse in Paris – and here they are:

  1. Whoever wishes to be a bathhouse-keeper in the city of Paris may freely do so, provided he works according to the usage and customs of the trade, made by agreement of the commune, as follow.
  2. Be it known that no man or woman may cry or have cried their baths until it is day, because of the dangers which can threaten those who rise at the cry to go to the baths.
  3. No man or woman of the aforesaid trade may maintain in their houses or baths either prostitutes of the day or night, or lepers, or vagabonds, or other infamous people of the night.
  4. No man or woman may heat up their baths on Sunday, or on a feast day which the commune of the city keeps.
    And every person should pay, for a steam-bath, two deniers; and if he bathes, he should pay four deniers.
    And because at some times wood and coal are more expensive than at others, if anyone suffers, a suitable price shall be set by the provost of Paris, through the discussion of the good people of the aforesaid trade, according to the situation of the times.
    The male and female bathhouse-keepers have sworn and promised before us to uphold these things firmly and consistently, and not to go against them.
  5. Anyone who infringes any of the above regulations of the aforesaid trade must make amends with ten Parisian sous, of which six go to the king, and the other four go to the masters who oversee the trade, for their pains.
  6. The aforesaid trade shall have three good men of the trade, elected by us unanimously or by a majority, who shall swear before the provost of Paris or his representative that they will oversee the trade well and truly, and that they will make known to the provost of Paris or his representative all the infringements that they know of or discover, and the provost shall remove and change them as often as he wishes.

Etienne de Boileu: “Livre des métiers”

I can remember staying in a very old medieval farm house in Portugal in the 1970s where the only place to get clean was a wash bowl and stand.  As late as the nineteenth century, people had to be instructed on how to take an ‘all over bath’.  And for many people in history, getting clean meant a change of clothes as opposed to necessarily washing the entire body.

So in the Middle Ages, a man of rank might change his linen shirt a couple of times a day – but he would bathe far less frequently.

Complex subject and I’m happy to hear more from users!