Sacred Stigma: Intimate Interactions with the Leprous Body in Late Medieval Hagiography
A version of this article was originally presented by Liz Hill in February 2016 at the University of Alberta History and Classics Graduate Student Conference on the theme of the sacred.
In his Life of Saint Francis of Assisi, Bonaventura credits an encounter with a leper with being a formative moment in Francis’ conversion. While traveling, Francis happened upon a leper on the side of the road. Initially horrified by this surprise encounter, Francis remembered his developing spiritual intentions and that if he was to become a soldier of Christ he must first conquer self. He leaped from his horse to embrace the leper, and kissed the leper’s hand as he gave him alms. After mounting his horse and turning back towards the leper, Francis found that the leper had miraculously vanished without a trace. Shortly after this episode Francis received a vision of Christ that called him to the apostolic life. “From that time forth,” writes Bonaventura, “Francis put on the spirit of poverty, the feeling of humility, and the love of inward godliness.” In contrast to his previous loathing of lepers, the converted Francis began to frequent their homes, giving alms and kissing their hands and faces. In The Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assisi, a later collection of stories about Francis and the early Franciscan Order, Francis is credited with curing a leper both physically and spiritually. The leper in this story was so ill tempered and blasphemous that none of the other brothers would tend to him. Francis bathed the man and where the saint touched, his leprosy was cured. Seeing this, and the charitable and compassionated example of Francis, the leper repented for his sins and after his death Francis received a vision of the leper’s soul ascending to heaven.
Catherine of Siena also tended to an ill tempered and ungrateful leper. Catherine’s leper was named Tecca and her leprosy was so severe that everyone was repelled by the smell and she had no one to care for her. She was going to be removed from the city when Catherine came to the hospital, promising to tend to her every need and be her servant for the remainder of Tecca’s life. Unlike Francis’ leper, who was moved to penitence after the saint’s charitable example, Tecca became filled with pride, ingratitude, and irritation at Catherine’s humility and charity. Nonetheless, Catherine persisted in her ministrations until the leper’s death. Catherine even contracted leprosy on her hands from her contact with Tecca’s corrupted body. This leprosy miraculously disappeared after Catherine prepared and buried Tecca’s body. Raymond of Capua reports that Catherine’s “hands seemed to be whiter than the rest of her person, as though the leprosy had imparted additional delicacy to them.”
Lepers appear in miracle stories throughout the Middle Ages, beginning with Christ cleansing lepers in the New Testament. There is a transformation in their narrative roles and the type of sainthood that they help construct around the eleventh century, though. Prior to the eleventh century leprosy mainly appeared as an affliction under divine control, often as a punishment or penance. Miracles that involved controlling leprosy – whether by curing a penitent leper or afflicting a sinner with the disease – were highly effective demonstrations of a saint’s supernatural powers because of leprosy’s natural incurability and biblical associations. The leper’s role was to be an outlet for the saint’s powers, and show the link between sin and punishment, and penitence and mercy. After the eleventh century the “ministering” saint became more prevalent and the role of lepers in those stories is simply to be the suffering recipient of charity. Catherine and Francis are both ministering saints, as are Elizabeth of Hungary and the less well-known St Eleazar. Martin of Tours and St Radegund were earlier models for the ministering saint. Martin cured a leper with a kiss, and St Radegund welcomed a group of lepers into her convent. Some ministering saints are credited with curing lepers, but stories of these interactions emphasize the saint’s compassion and ministration to the material needs of lepers. Rather than focusing on encounters between supernaturally powerful saints and stricken, penitent lepers, late medieval hagiography depicts penitent and humble saints serving lepers out of Christian charity.
Charitable service is regularly represented in hagiography by acts such as bathing, embracing, and kissing lepers. Martin and Radegund both kissed lepers, but it became a common hagiographic trope along with the increased popularity of ministering saint after the eleventh century. Francis kissed the leper he met on the road and St Eleazar kissed three lepers who later found the stench of their disease replaced by a pleasant scent and their bodies cured. Both bathing and kissing involve close physical engagement with the leprous body. Catherine’s ministrations to the leper Tecca brings her so close to the leprous body that her own hands become leprous. Visual depictions of Elizabeth of Hungary also show her bathing lepers and Jacques Voragine wrote that she “laid in her lap a man horribly sick, which had his visage stinking like carrion” and shaved and washed his head. (The patient’s “stinking visage” suggests that he was a leper since bad breath and smell from the mouth and nasal cavity was a known symptom of leprosy.)
The intimacy and tenderness of these acts is often contrasted with descriptions of the disgusted responses of onlookers, or even by the saint’s own initial negative response to the leprous body. Before his conversion, “even the distant sight of lepers had filled [Francis] with violent loathing,” wrote Bonaventura, and Francis’ initial response to suddenly coming upon the leper on the road was horror. Raymond wrote that one of the virtues exhibited by Catherine in her care for Tecca was “patience [that] led her to support with joy the violence of the leper’s temper as well as the disgusts inseparable from that loathsome malady.” Tecca is introduced as having been abandoned by her care-givers because her disease had become so unpleasant and smelly that no one, except the saintly Catherine, could stand to be around her. Elizabeth’s tenderness towards the patient with the “stinking visage” was also met with “loathing” and “scorn.” “All shuddered” to see Martin kiss the leper whom he cured outside Paris and one of Radegund’s attendants questioned who would kiss Radegund now that she had embraced lepers, to which Radegund responded “Really, if you will not kiss me it is no concern of mine.”
These interactions between lepers and ministering saints have a fairly clear didactic purpose. They give hagiographers the opportunity to illustrate their saint’s charity, kindness, and humility. In some ways, the ministering saint can be viewed as a rather “down to earth” and practical model of sainthood. Rather than performing miracle cures they give alms and simply display compassion for the marginal and poor, modeling behaviors that could be emulated by ordinary Christians. This narrative purpose could be just as easily fulfilled by describing interactions between saints and any type of poor, sick, or disabled person, however. The leper has a uniquely untouchable nature, however, that gives more weight to the hagiographer’s demonstrations of his subject’s holiness.
The leper’s untouchable nature was perhaps most acutely manifested in his body, which was characterized as repulsive and gross, but his social status was also defined by untouchability. Recent scholarship has shown that rigid and punitive segregation and confinement of lepers has been simplified and over exaggerated, but medieval society did follow the spirit of biblical laws about leprosy that stated that the leper must live “outside the camp.” The leprosarium provided refuge, care, and community for lepers but it developed because lepers were customarily excluded and stigmatized, putting them in a vulnerable and needy social position. Lepers were marked out from the general population by special clothing, noisemakers that they carried to attract almsgivers and warn people of their presence, and of course by the physical marks of the disease itself. Although some could afford to remain in seclusion at home, most were made to live physically outside of society and their interactions and freedom of movement were restricted by measures that prevented them from eating with the healthy, sharing the same water sources, or frequenting public places such as taverns and markets. The actual institution and enforcement of these measures varied by time and place but the overall social responses to leprosy aimed to prevent contact, both physical and social, between lepers and the healthy.
The socially and personally untouchable nature of lepers made the tactile interactions between lepers and saints a double transgression. There was transgression across the social boundaries that removed the saints, as healthy and often upper class members of society, from the lepers who lived on the margins of society, and there was transgression of normative personal boundaries. As the reactions to saints embracing lepers, and hagiographers’ descriptions of the corrupted bodies of lepers show, the normal response to the leprous body and person was repulsion and disgust. Saints are able to make these transgressions at the extreme level of intimate touch because of their exceptional, and sacred, natures.
Merchant class or noble saints such as Francis, Catherine, Eleazar, and Elizabeth serving members of a segment of society so marginal as to symbolize the entire concept of marginality was a transgression of social boundaries that demonstrated saintly humility and charity. Representing that transgression with an act as intimate and lowly as washing lepers’ feet dramatized this transgression very powerfully. It also drew on the idea that charity and service to the lowest of society was charity and service to Christ. Because Christ’s suffering during the Passion, and disfigured appearance after, were likened to the suffering and disfigurement caused by leprosy. Thus the charity and humility demonstrated by serving lepers had additional significance as symbolic service of Christ.
Transgressing the personal boundary created by the leprous body’s repulsiveness demonstrated mortification of self and transcendence of normal bodily reactions of disgust, in addition to being an expression of compassion and love. Francis’ encounter with the leper marked a turning point in his conversion because it was an act consciously undertaken in order to “conquer self” by resisting his normal, but selfish and uncharitable, revulsion towards the miserable leper. Raymond credits Catherine with the virtue of patience for bearing the disgust of her patient’s disease. When saints don’t struggle with their own revulsion, the ease with which they physically interact with lepers, such as in the cases of St Martin and St Radegund, is contrasted with the disgust of onlookers, demonstrating that the saint already possesses a degree of spiritual love and charity that allows them to be undisturbed by either their or others’ physical states.
Interactions between lepers and saints in hagiography make use of the untouchable leper and the act of touch by the saint to articulate ideas about sainthood – the traits that make a saint, and what the enactment of ideal Christianity looks like. The act of touch itself, however, has significance itself as an act with sacred power. Medieval Christianity made use of touch in a number of ways to express, transmit, and interact with sanctity, including the laying on of hands, the kiss of peace, devotional gestures, ascetic use of sensation (especially pain and discomfort), and devotional touch. Mystical experiences and spiritual relationships were also expressed through images of touch. The use of relics, in particular, demonstrates the perceived power of touch to confer sanctity through touch. Relics, sacred sites, and even living holy people became the objects of devotees’ feverish desire to touch. Hagiographies and miracle books from shrines recount the miraculous healing powers of relics, but even for those who were not sick, touching a relic provided a moment of closeness to the sacred and divine, possibly conferring some blessing or special grace.
The act of touch between leper and saint can be interpreted as a transmission of sanctity, much like that which occurs when a devotee touches a relic. In earlier hagiography that emphasized the saint’s power to heal and the leper’s penitential attitude the leper takes the role of recipient of the powers of the saint’s sanctity, but in the later examples, in which touch becomes most prominent, these roles are almost reversed. The lepers are sometimes healed, either physically or spiritually, but it is the saint who seems to truly benefit from the interaction. Catherine’s leper does not even repent for her ingratitude at the end of her life. Catherine, however, receives a sign of her own special grace by the miraculous cure of her leprous hands. Francis receives a vision that confirms his vocation after kissing his leper. Bathing lepers at least serves their physical needs, but kissing a leper primarily serves to demonstrate the saint’s piety more than to benefit the leper. The leper is the passive object of touch, like a relic, and in the tactile interaction between leper and saint, it is the leprous body that is emphasized rather than the saintly body. The saint is the holy person, and the leper might not even be portrayed as a very good person, but the leprous body has power when it is touched because it is normally untouchable. The leper’s body is in a sense sacred because it is only touchable by the very holy. Through receiving a saint’s touch, it either confers or reveals that individual’s sanctity.
 It is worth noting that this was not motivated by fears of contagion. Medical theories about the spread of leprosy only developed in earnest in the late Middle Ages and the idea of easy contagion by miasma only began to gain prevalence in the fourteenth century. Most medical sources suggest that leprosy could only be contracted by regular and prolonged interaction with lepers, or by sexual contact either with a leper or with a woman whose last partner was a leper. The leper’s isolation through out the Middle Ages was much more firmly rooted in Biblical tradition and the disease’s moral associations than in medical fears.
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Orlemanski, Julie. 2012. “How to Kiss a Leper.” Postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies 3
Rawcliffe, Carole. 2007. “Isolating the Medieval Leper: Ideas – and Misconceptions – about Segregation in the Middle Ages.” Harlaxton Medieval Studies 15.
Stemmle, Jennifer. 2015. “From Cure to Care: Indignation, Assistance and Leprosy in the High Middle Ages.” In Experiences of Charity, 1250 – 1650. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate.