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The leper was forbidden to enter the church, the marketplace, or any assemblage of people; he must not wash in the brook or anywhere else, and could only take water to drink with a jug or cup he carried; he could go only barefoot and in a habit that marked him as a leper, was forbidden to touch anything he wished to buy, but could only point to it with his staff; he was forbidden, “while going through the fields, to reply to anyone who may question you, except first, for fear you might infect someone, you step off the road to leeward.”
He must not go by the highway; and on the path he must not touch hedges or bushes on either side unless he had first put on gloves. He must not touch little children or any young people, and was forbidden to eat or drink with anybody but other lepers. He wore a leper's robe of black with a veil over his mouth, and carried cliquettes or clappers to warn of his approach.
All these horrors were, of course, based on notions of contagion, notions still unformed and intermingled with ideas of magic. But leprosy was obviously thought to be conveyed by contact, directly or indirectly through food or water, or through the air in talking, or even by contaminated hedges or bushes.
Nevertheless at that time ideas of uncleanliness or defilement were all mixed up with the opposite idea of holiness. A. D. White, writing at the turn of the nineteenth century, reminds us that during the Middle Ages there was a belief current in theological circles, said to have come out of the Orient, “that the abasement of man adds to the glory of God; that indignity to the body may secure salvation to the soul; hence, that cleanliness betokens pride and filthiness humility. Living in filth was regarded by great numbers of holy men as an evidence of sanctity. St. Hilarian lived his whole life in utter physical uncleanliness; St. Anthony never washed his feet; St. Abraham's most striking evidence of holiness was that for fifty years he washed neither his hands nor his feet; St. Sylvia never washed any part of her body save her fingers; St. Euphraxis belonged to a convent in which the nuns religiously abstained from bathing; St. Mary of Egypt was eminent for filthiness; St. Simon [sic] Stylites was in this respect unspeakable the least that can be said is, that he lived in ordure and stench intolerable to his visitors. The Lives of the Saints dwells with complacency on the statement that, when sundry Eastern monks showed a disposition to wash themselves, the Almighty manifested his displeasure by drying up a neighboring stream until the bath which it had supplied was destroyed.”
This was many centuries before the aphorism attributed to John Wesley, "cleanliness is near akin to godliness." (see LEPROSY IS STILL A SERIOUS PROBLEM PART III)
- Leprosy is Still a Serious Problem Part III
- Leprosy is Still a Serious Problem Part I
- Leprosy Transmission
- Syphilis and Columbus Time Part II
- Fracastor: Three Types of Contagion