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.
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.
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: