Abstract: Leprosy and Leper Hospitals in Late Medieval Ireland


The image of the medieval leper – ubiquitous, deeply feared, and socially outcast – still evokes an emotional response today.  Yet recent research has begun to question the validity of this popular image, tracing its origin to 19th century concern with controlling leprosy in colonized countries.  In addition, regional historical studies have revealed that the medieval European response to the disease was not uniformly hostile.  For example, leprosaria may have been less about segregating lepers than providing the spiritual care they themselves desired.  In this lecture, I present my own work on leprosy and leper hospitals in late medieval Ireland.  Historical and human skeletal evidence suggests that leprosy arrived in Ireland in the 10th or 11th century.  Following general European trends, the majority of leprosaria date to the 12th century or later.  In Ireland, however, the introduction of leper hospitals roughly correlates with the Anglo-Norman conquest of AD 1169-1171.  Indeed, preliminary documentary research indicates that these institutions were largely founded and funded by Anglo-Norman settlers.  Ireland thus offers a unique opportunity to observe how leprosy was treated by two co-existing medical and social systems, Anglo-Norman vs. Gaelic Irish.  I will begin by reviewing the historical background before discussing the results of my field survey of surviving leper hospital sites.


Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic (for lay reader):

Buckley, Laureen 2008 Outcasts, or care in the community? Archaeology Ireland 22(1):26-31.

Lee, Frances, and Magilton, John 1989 The cemetery of the Hospital of St. James and St. Mary Magdalene, Chichester: A case study. World Archaeology 21(2):273-282.

And for a recent update on Chichester, see: http://www.archaeology.co.uk/articles/the-archaeology-of-leprosy-and-the-blackdeath.htm

Murphy, Eileen, and Manchester, Keith 2002 Evidence for leprosy in medieval Ireland. In Charlotte A. Roberts, Mary E. Lewis, and Keith Manchester (eds) The Past and Present of Leprosy: Archaeological, Historical, Palaeopathological, and Clinical Approaches, pp. 193-199. Archaeopress, Oxford.

Roberts, Charlotte 1986 Leprosy and leprosaria in medieval Britain. MASCA Journal 4(1):15-21.

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