The Relevance of Futility: Jordanus de Turre (fl. 1313-1335) on the Treatment of Leprosy
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The Relevance of Futility:
Jordanus de Turre (fl. 1313–1335) on the Treatment of Leprosy

Appendix. Jordanus De Turre, De Lepra Nota

The reaction of medieval society to lepers, with its paradox of stigma and charity, has long fascinated students of history, but the treatment of leprosy in premodern medicine has received little attention. The efforts of physicians to improve their diagnoses have attracted some study because these efforts are well documented in the manuscripts, they appear inherently empirical, and they affected actual conditions. 1 In contrast, the texts on the care of leprosy remain virtually unexamined. 2 The historical value of these texts is readily obscured by certain assumptions that I hope to correct in this paper. In the first place, it is easy to dismiss as irrelevant the advice of scholastic authors for an utterly incurable disease. Further, pejorative notions of medieval therapeutics lead one to [End Page 25] expect, here more than anywhere else, nothing but outlandish remedies and a profusion of drugs. Even an examination of the sources leaves the initial impression that therapeutic writings were mere academic exercises, unrelated to practice and largely dependent on earlier sources.

The medical literature on leprosy consists of chapters in comprehensive manuals (summae or practicae) and a few special treatises. In both categories the sections on diagnostics tend to be arresting enough to eclipse the adjoining material. A second look can be fruitful. The present study was set in motion by the discovery that a fairly widespread text on the examination of lepers and an elaborate table of symptoms belonged to a fuller work on leprosy, and that they represented barely half of a practical agenda. The diagnostic guidelines, which often occur separately and under the name of Arnau de Vilanova as The Signs of Leprosy, actually constitute the first panel of a diptych that is attributed to Jordanus (Jordan) de Turre and is titled, in the manuscripts, Summa on Leprosy, or Treatise on the Signs and Treatments of Lepers. 3 The second (and more sub-stantial) panel, on which this paper concentrates, is devoted to therapeutics. It bears unobtrusive titles, such as Notes on Leprosy or Treatise on Care, but it has a special appeal because of its own character as well as that of its author.

The text of the Notes, extant in at least seven manuscripts and appended here in a first printed edition, is rhetorically complete—with a prologue and ending—yet soberly concise, totaling less than twenty-three hundred words. 4 This brevity, together with a tight arrangement, inspires [End Page 26] confidence that the author included only what he considered essential. This would be in character for Jordan de Turre, who, as Michael McVaugh has shown, balanced his efforts in scholastic disputation with a “considerable reputation for clinical skills.” 5 He combined a career of royal service with his sometimes stormy tenure at the university of Montpellier: as a faculty member, Jordan was independent and opinionated, as we may gather from several incidents that culminated in a sharp altercation with his chancellor in 1320. 6

Our interest in the Notes on Leprosy may be heightened when we recall the historic upheavals that coincided with the turmoil in Jordan’s career. 7 The period 1320–21 was a turbulent one in France, and particularly in the southwest. A threat of rampaging shepherds or pastoureaux had barely faded when rumors arose that lepers were plotting with Jews and Muslims to destroy Christendom by poisoning the wells. Panic spread, scores of lepers were executed, and leprosaria from Lausanne to Carcassonne went up in flames. The pogroms served the royal designs of Philip V and drew few recorded protests from local leaders. 8 It is tempting to speculate that this madness prodded a Montpellier physician to propound the rational treatment of leprosy. Jordan did not mention contemporary events in his Notes on Leprosy, but he seemed to hint at impending danger or actual crisis by injecting a note of urgency. 9 Among [End Page 27] the reasons for writing his treatise, he stated his wish “not to neglect the benefit of the commonwealth” (lines 12–13 in the appended edition); such an expression of...