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   Chapter 14 No.14

The History of London By Walter Besant Characters: 5650

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

One mile outside the City walls, on the west, stood for four hundred years the Hospital of St. Giles in the Fields.

Here was a Lazar House, i.e. a Hospital for Lepers. It was founded by Maud, Queen of Henry I. It was dedicated to St. Giles because this saint was considered the protector of cripples. Hence the name Cripplegate, which really means the Little Gate, was applied to the church of St. Giles, and supposed to mean the gate near the church dedicated to the Patron Saint of Cripples. A common result of leprosy was to make the sufferer lame and crippled. Hence the connection. Generally, however, Lazarus, whom our Lord raised from the dead, was esteemed the Saint of Lepers, whence a Leper's Hospital was always called a Lazar House.

In the middle ages the mysterious disease called leprosy was an ever present terror. Other plagues appeared at intervals and disappeared. Leprosy remained. It never left the land. It struck the King on his Throne, the Bishop in his Cathedral, the Abbess in her Nunnery, the soldier in camp, the merchant in his counting house, the sailor at sea. No class could escape it. Robert Bruce died of it; Orivalle, Bishop of London, died of it; Baldwin, King of Jerusalem, died of it. To this day it prevails in India, at the Cape, in the Pacific Islands, while there are occasional cases found in our own hospitals. The disease was incurable: the man, woman, or child, attacked by it would surely and slowly die of it. The leper was unclean: he was thrust out of the town: he had to live apart, or congregated in hospitals with other wretches similarly afflicted: if he walked abroad he wore a grey gown for distinction and carried a clapper as he went along, crying 'Unclean, Unclean,' so that the people might stand aside and not so much as touch his garments. And since he could not work with his hands, he was permitted to carry into the market a 'clap dish,' that is to say, a bowl or basin in which to receive food and alms.[2]

[2] Lacroix, Science, p. 146.

Leprosy is supposed to have had its origin in Egypt: the laws laid down in the Book of Leviticus for the separation of lepers are stringent and precise: it was believed, partly, no doubt, on account of these statutes in the Book of the Jewish Law, that the disease was brought into Western Europe by the Crusaders; but this was erroneous, because it was in this country before the Crusaders. Thus the Palace of St. James stands upon the site of a lazar house founded before the Conquest for fourteen leprous maidens.

This is not the place to describe the symptoms and the results of this dreadful disease. Suffice it to say that the skin thickens, is discoloured and ulcerates: that the limbs swell: that the fingers and toes drop off: that the voice sinks to a whisper: and that the sufferer's mind is weake

ned by his malady.

The fearful scourge was so prevalent that there was not a town, hardly a village, in any country of Europe which had not, in those centuries, its lepers and its lazar house, great or small. Every effort was made to isolate them: they were not allowed to worship with the rest of the people: they were provided with a separate building or chapel where, through a hole in the wall, they could look on at the performance of mass. And in addition, as you have seen, they lived apart and took their food apart.

As for their houses-the lazar houses-the chief of them all, the place where Abbot possessed some kind of authority over the others, was one built in a village near Melton Mowbray called Burton Lazars. The Hospital of St. Giles, for instance, became shortly after its foundation a 'cell,' or dependency, of this House.

Whatever the cause of this malady, whether it be contagious, i.e. communicated by touch; or infectious, that is, communicated by breathing the same air; or hereditary; it is quite certain that it was greatly aggravated by the habits of the time. Bad food, uncleanly habits, bad air, all contributed to the spread of leprosy. Especially it has been considered that the long fasts during which meat was prohibited encouraged the disease: not because abstinence from meat is in itself a bad thing, but because the people had to eat fish imperfectly cured or kept too long, and unwholesome. Fresh-water fish could not be procured in sufficient quantities and it was impossible to convey fish from the sea more than a certain distance inland.


The dreadful appearance of the lepers, their horrible sufferings, produced loathing more than pity. People were horror stricken at the sight of them: they drove them out of their sight: they punished them cruelly if they broke the rules of separation: they imprisoned any citizen who should harbour a leper: they kept bailiffs at the City gates to keep them from entering. Fourteen of these afflicted persons were required to be maintained in accordance with Queen Maud's Foundation by the Hospital of St. Giles: there was also a lazar house in the Old Kent Road, Southwark: one between Mile End and Bow: one at Kingsland between Shoreditch and Stoke Newington: one at Knightsbridge, west of Charing Cross, and one at Holloway.

On the Dissolution of the Monasteries, all these lazar houses were suppressed. Now, since we hear very little more about lepers, and since no new lazar houses were built, and since the prohibitions to enter churches, towns, &c., are no more renewed, it is tolerably certain that leprosy by the middle of the sixteenth century had practically disappeared. The above will show, however, how great and terrible a thing it was between the ninth and the sixteenth centuries.

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