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The Power of Plagues –Chapter 14
Leprosy, the Striking Hand of God
there is interest in and dread of leprosy, largely stemming from frequent references of the bible.
To the readers of the Old Testament, leprosy was an abomination.
Job says , “pity me, pity me, and pity me you my friends for the hand of god has stuck me” it was
assumed that job was struck by the perils of leprosy
In medieval art, job is always depicted in being covered in black spots
Body spots are even seen in illustrations of lepers
“when a man shall have the skin of his flesh a rising, a scab or a bright spot, and it be in the skin
of hi flesh the plague of leprosy, then he shall be brought until Aaron the priest or unto the son
of his priests”
And mention of leprosy in the old testament and the New testament has contributed to the fear
of sores associated with leprosy as well as the notion that what is blemished is unclean and also
displeasing to god because its defiled
The fictional account of Ben Hur, as well as the parables of Christ and his encounter with the 10
lepers on the road to Gaililee gave rise to a massive literature on the imagery of leprosy as a
disease of the soul and one that was massively contagious
A look Back
Leprosy arose in the Far East about 1400 BC for there are accurate descriptions in the sacred
Hindu writings of the Veda, and there are also descriptions in Chinese literature
The earliest accounts of leprosy occur in an Indian text, the Charaka Samhit, written between
600 and 400 BC.
The Nei Chang a textbook describes in to be where the patient has: stiff joints, the eyebrows
and beard fall off, the flesh becomes nodular and ulcerates, numbness results, and finally the
bridge of the nose changes colour and rots
WHERE DID IT BEGIN? Leprosy was brought from India to Greece in the fourth century BC by the
soldiers of Alexander the Great , but it is also possible that leprosy spread from the Far East to
the West along the trade routes, arriving in the Mediterranean about the time of Christ
Leprosy then spread further west; in the graveyards of Britain and France there is evidence of
the disease in bones dating form AD 500 to 700.
Emperor Constantine ( AD 274-337) suffered from leprosy , and pagan priests believed that
bathing in blood of sacrificed children would cure him but it didn’t
Saarath (Hebrew word) was used to describe many skin conditions; it has been described as
“defiled” or “accursed” or simply “scaly”
o Saraath became lepros . St. Jerome changed lepros into lepra and in the first English
translation of the bible lepros became “leprosy”
o Leprosy was considered a disease of the soul In medieval times
Disease was known as satyriasis- an insatiable sexual appetite. The belief that this veneral
disease was due to immortality was “logically” extended to leprosy , leprosy became known as
divine punishment for the sins of flesh
the disfigurement of the face and hands contributed to the alienation of the leper , and the
sores on the body led to the belief that leprosy was contagious.
SOCIAL PROBLEMS: lepers were an outcast in society , were not considered to be nice people
o In 1179, the Third Lateran Council issued a decree urging the segregation of lepers from
society. They were to not mix with crowds, to use his own container and draw in water,
and to not touch anything unless they paid for it first. They were to wear a distinctive
garment and announce his presence with a bell or clappers. There was a ritual burial
o At the time of Henry II the Phillip V of France the leper was strapped to a post and
burned alive. Edward I buried them alive
o Christians created almshouses and refuges for lepers. Lazar houses or lazarets (after
Lazarus of Bethany) who also suffered from leprosy and replaced Job as the patron saint
of the leper
o Leprosy received epidemic proportions in the 12th century and had its peak in Europe in
the 13th and 14th centuries; records showing the construction of 19,000 lazarets
document the increase of leprosy in Europe
o Due to the closing of many lazarets, many hypothesized the reasoning behind this:
The rising incidence of pulmonary tuberculosis provided greater resistance to
The increased supplies of woolen textiles for clothing may have broken the
chain of skin to skin contact needed for the spread of the disease , and at the
same time contributed to the spread of typhus
o Knights participating in the crusade contracted leprosy, and in 1048 they formed the
Order of Lazarus , and their return to Europe contributed to the spread of leprosy
o Leprosy spread from Spain to Africa to the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries, the
last patient was a Great Britain who died in Scotland in 1798.
o In the 1860s there was a rediscovery of leprosy as a disease of those of foreign birth. To
stop the leprosy from spreading, they used quarantine using isolation and segregation.
Officials rounded up the lepers and loaded them onto ships bound for settlement in
Kalawo, on an isolated peninsula of Molokai’s north shore.
In 1865 a leper colony was established on Molokai that housed a total of 142
Chinese were singled out as the cause for leprosy but 97% of those affected
were Hawaiian. Leprosy was considered to be a contagious disease, and
Hawaiians were considered to be lacking in social unity
o 1873- father Damien , a Roman Catholic priest from Belgium, joined the colony as the
resident priest. He stayed for 16 years and bandaged sores and built homes, a hospital ,
a reservoir, and a plumbing system, and he buried many leprosy victims
o In the US there was a fear of the Chinese- a condition that increased after 1850. By
1870 leprosy was considered to be one of the diseases that was specifically associated
with the Chinese.
o Louisiana established the Home for Lepers, , it was a neglected asylum
The Louisiana home for Lepers became the American National Leprosarium at
Carville, and in 1921, the US flag was raised over the institution. The rules and
regulations were more like a prison instead of a hospital.
Babies born to the patients were given up to adoption
Patients were sent there by special leper trains, and some arrived in shackles
accompanied by armed guards, and their mail both ingoing and outgoing was
They were not allowed to marry until 1952, even though there were drugs to
control the disease, such as sulfone daspone , were introduced until late 1940s