Join The Drawing Board community in congratulating owner and editor-in-chief, Nakita Valerio, on being the recipient of a Government of Alberta Graduate Student Scholarship. The Graduate Student Scholarship recognizes and rewards outstanding students in their second year of a full-time masters program in Alberta. Award recipients are selected based on all marks obtained in the first year of the student’s masters program. The award comes with significant funding which will be used to continue her studies after her defence is complete. Join us in celebrating this monumental honour.

The tentative title of Nakita’s thesis is: Remembering the Departure of Moroccan Jews. 


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Nakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. She recently completed graduate studies and work as a research assistant in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta, as well as a research fellowship on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism for The Tessellate Institute. Nakita serves her community as the Vice President of External Affairs with Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC), as an advisor for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life,  and as a member of the Executive Fundraising Board for the YIWCL Cree Women’s Camp. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and is currently working on a graphic novel memoir weaving her experiences abroad with her community work and research.

 

The social sciences have demonstrated, on more than one occasion, that people tend to be highly influenced by other people, especially those who are in (perceived) positions of authority. This is an important survival skill: as social animals, we pass down our knowledge and abilities from parent to child, teacher to student, mentor to mentee, and, of course, if we didn’t run when everyone else was running, we might respond too late to save ourselves from the oncoming threat.

Despite its obvious usefulness, conformity and specifically conformity to authority has caused some disturbing problems for humankind. The infamous Milgram experiments found that most of their test subjects continued to administer electric shocks to protesting recipients even in the face of their experiencing medical distress and eventually ceasing to respond. In the Nuremberg trials, Nazi soldiers who committed atrocious war crimes and crimes against humanity tested psychiatrically sound, and argued that they were simply following orders.

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What does all of this have to do with writing? It must be recognized that the written word has authority, and an authority that has been driven home by years of studying textbooks, referencing encyclopedias, and reading news articles. There is the general assumption that in order to be published, authors must be 1) appropriately qualified, and 2) reasonable in their arguments and correct in the general information they present. This has never actually been the case, but today, when anyone can write an article or publish a book, it is glaringly apparent that the (perceived) authority of written works needs to be put in check.

Does this mean that certain mediums should be avoided? Absolutely not. Though there has been an influx of fake news circulating social media sites, no medium is devoid of bias, misinformation, over-simplification, or hyperbole. It is important that people engage critically with information regardless of the form it takes or the person it comes from. This means cross-referencing, fact checking, looking for bias, following the money, analyzing statistics, and arguing with articles even if you agree with them.

There is a general consensus among experts in conformity that blind obedience to authority is bad, and that disobedience is necessary in situations where those in command are in the wrong. But the world is not so simple as “these things are wrong, and these things are right.” We must disobey in order to know when to disobey. We must resist in order to know when to resist. Without initial indiscriminate challenge, criticism, disagreement and distrust, we risk complacency.

Is it exhausting to engage, at such an intense level, with everything you read and hear? Yes. Are there worse things than being tired? Yes. Absolutely.


rachaelRachael Heffernan recently completed a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta. In the course of her academic career, she has received the Harrison Prize in Religion and The Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship. During her undergraduate degree, Rachael was published twice in The Codex: Bishop University’s Journal of Philosophy, Religion, Classics, and Liberal Arts for her work on Hittite divination and magic and philosophy of religion. Rachael has also had the opportunity to participate in an archaeological dig in Israel, and has spoken at a conference on Secularism at the University of Alberta on the Christian nature of contemporary Western healthcare. Her wide-ranging interests in scholarship are complemented by her eclectic extra-curricular interests: she is a personal safety instructor and lifelong martial artist who has been recognized for her leadership with a Nepean Community Sports Hero Award. She is an enthusiastic reader, writer, and learner of all things, a tireless athlete, and a passionate teacher.

Join The Drawing Board community in congratulating owner and editor-in-chief, Nakita Valerio, on being the recipient of the Sir Guy Carleton Graduate Scholarship in History. This award is endowed by the late Mrs. Agnes Agatha Robinson and is one of two scholarships awarded annually to graduate students of outstanding merit: one in English and Film Studies and one in History and Classics. The award comes with significant funding which will be used to fund her studies in Edmonton and research abroad. Join us in celebrating this monumental honour.

The tentative title of Nakita’s thesis is: Remembering the Departure of Morocco’s Jews: Personal Memories, Cultural Representations, Historiography and Silences


nakita

Nakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. She recently completed graduate studies and work as a research assistant in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta, as well as a research fellowship on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism for The Tessellate Institute. Nakita serves her community as the Vice President of External Affairs with Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC), as an advisor for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life,  and as a member of the Executive Fundraising Board for the YIWCL Cree Women’s Camp. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and is currently working on a graphic novel memoir weaving her experiences abroad with her community work and research.

 

Join The Drawing Board community in congratulating owner and editor-in-chief, Nakita Valerio, on her recent appointment to the advisory committee for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life. The CRC is a gathering point within the University of Alberta: Augustana Campus focusing on a broad range of themes where religion and public life intersect. To the discussion of vital issues that often call forth deeply emotional responses, it seeks to bring original contributions that embody the highest standards of academic scholarship. While rooted in the academy, activities of the Center engage the public square and the full range of religious communities, bringing the depth and texture of the most varied religious and civil ideas into a hospitable and constructive conversation.

The appointment carries a 3-year term which involves service in shaping an agenda for research, public programming, and dialogue in relation to religious communities in Alberta and around the globe. Being offered the opportunity to serve this institution is a great honour.


nakitaNakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

Academic writing is forever being accused of being impossible to understand for its heavy jargon and specialized knowledge. Critics claim that academics are hiding away knowledge in their ivory towers, far away from the needs of the rest of the world. Others say that academic writing is solipsistic, riddled with narcissisms and is, overall, self-fellatiating.

But are academics really writing for exclusive audiences that the peasants are not meant to be part of?

No.

Academic writing, like any writing genre, has its own style and tendencies that tend to get replicated across the genre because everyone who is writing academic work is also reading it. No, the “parade of big nouns and their noun-stuffed noun-phrases” is not purely to make popular audiences feel inadequate. It is not made to remind the masses that we are the guilds and they are not.

In fact, I have never met a single academic writer who has even thought to pull out a thesaurus in the hopes of “jazzing up their vocabulary”. Most of us just write with complex vocabularies….because we have complex vocabularies. We read obsessively. And like any skilled “trade” you start to pick up the language and style of those around you. We also tend to be working with terminologies that need to be excavated from their popular meanings. Words like “religion” or “common sense” are broken down and complicated by academics, not for the sake of making things difficult for everyone, but to understand exactly what we mean by them, and to reshape that meaning as well. It just doesn’t make sense that we would then use popular terminology popularly.

Academics “complicate” because the world is infinitely more complex than most people make it out to be. We cringe and even express outrage or protest at the simplification of historical narratives for nationalist purposes. We feel sick when people appropriate terminology for one religious group to stand in representation of all of them. We spend our lives analyzing and nuancing knowledge itself, tracing genealogies of how we came to know things because socio-cultural generalizations that are taken for granted usually hide critical histories in them – things that shape and inform our current realities…including how we deal with one another. Yes, even your academic-bashing-ways has a historical precedent. In this important venture, nothing ought to be taken for granted….especially not vocabulary.

People might argue that academics are not only writing for other academics so their work should be more accessible. And that is most definitely true. Not everything an academic writes will end up in an obscure history journal somewhere that people might never read. Academics can absolutely be public intellectuals, educators and activists but that does not mean they need to forego the processes by which we challenge dominant narratives or dumb-down our writing style to make things more palatable for people who do not want to raise their reading levels.

These ideas do need to be made accessible, but they do not need to be eliminated in their academic form. Ultimately, the Judgmental Observer said it best:

this generalized dismissal of “academese,” of dense, often-jargony prose that is nuanced, reflexive and even self-effacing , is, I’m afraid, just another bullet in the arsenal for those who believe that higher education is populated with up-tight, boring, useless pedants who just talk and write out of some masturbatory infatuation with their own intelligence. The inherent distrust of scholarly language is, at its heart, a dismissal of academia itself.

I don’t mean to be a classic academic here and bring up the neo-liberal far-right agenda, but it’s a serious concern for those of us that dedicate our lives to research and contributing to the discussion of ideas that form understandings and ideologies. The idea that our academic ideas have to not only “lead to jobs” and “mean something” to people who have nothing to do with academia, but to further add that we have to change our vocabulary and packaging to make it digestible by the same people who don’t invest the time and excruciating energy it takes in producing an original academic thought has, at its core, an infatuation with capitalistic intellectualism.

Academic writers shouldn’t have to sacrifice the extraordinary amount of time and energy they put into research for the sake of goddamn marketing and instant “understanding” – see: gratification.  And I know perfectly well that I say that as a business owner of a marketing company on that very company’s blog.

“The work I do is nuanced and specific. It requires hours of reading and thinking before a single word is typed. This work is boring at times — at times even dreadful — but it’s necessary for quality scholarship and sound arguments. Because once you start to research an idea — and I mean really research, beyond the first page of Google search results — you find that the ideas you had, those wonderful, catchy epiphanies that might make for a great headline or tweet, are not nearly as sound as you assumed. And so you go back, armed with the new knowledge you just gleaned, and adjust your original claim. Then you think some more and revise. It is slow work, but its necessary work.

The problem then, with academic writing, is that its core — the creation of careful, accurate ideas about the world — are born of research and revision and, most important of all, time. Time is needed. But our world is increasingly regulated by the ethic of the instant. We are losing our patience. We need content that comes quickly and often, content that can be read during a short morning commute, content that can be tweeted and retweeted and Tumblred and bit-lyed. And that content is great. It’s filled with interesting and dynamic ideas. But this content cannot replace the deep structures of thought that come from research and revision and time.”

If you can’t understand academic writing and even argue that it’s a waste of time, my advice is three-fold:

  • Don’t read it
  • Don’t write it
  • Don’t write about it

I couldn’t care less about most science fiction, but do you see me calling for the end of the genre as a whole? Do you see me stereotyping about how science fiction writers are religious-wannabes tapping out crazy fantasy novels in their grandmothers’ basements? No, obviously I’m not doing that, not only because it’s not true (just as the stereotypes of stuffy old academics are also not true) but it also doesn’t contribute anything meaningful to the discussion and would just make me sound like an idiotic whiner that doesn’t have a certain type of vocabulary so I want everyone to “talk stoopid to me.” Seriously?

People who criticize the very existence of academic writing are, not surprisingly, the people who “just don’t get it” and we know this, not only because those of us who do get it don’t understand how you don’t, but also because you tell us you don’t get it. Since when does the fact that we don’t understand something warrant its complete, wholesale dismissal?

Oh wait, isn’t that something that fascists do?

Intellectual fascism isn’t fashionable; it isn’t intellectualism in itself. Criticizing and trying to shut down the academic conversation doesn’t make you a hero, it makes you a dictator. When academics don’t understand something, we don’t push it away – we race towards it with eyes wide open. We research, we ask questions, we push the boundaries of our own thinking and those around us. We open up thought itself, we don’t shut it down.

If you actually want to learn about some of the critical intellectual work academics are doing, you are going to have to engage with the process and re-learn how to read academic writing, much in the same way you have to adapt to any new writing genre that is unfamiliar to you. Trust me, we would much rather have you part of the conversation than trying to shut it down.

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.[1]

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.


 

[1] 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.

Further Reading

Boeckl, Christine M. 2011. Images of Leprosy: disease, religion, and politics in European art. Kirksville: Truman State University Press.

Demaitre, Luke E. 2007. Leprosy in Premodern Medicine: a malady of the whole body. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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.