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Walking Corpses: Leprosy in Byzantium and the Medieval West by Timothy S. Miller, John W. Nesbitt (review)
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Reviewed by
Timothy S. Miller and John W. Nesbitt. Walking Corpses: Leprosy in Byzantium and the Medieval West. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2014. xiv + 243 pp. Ill. $35.00 (978-0-8014-5135-5).

This study extends the concentration on philanthropy of Miller’s monographs on The Birth of the Hospital in the Byzantine Empire (1985; paperback 1997) and The Orphans of Byzantium: Child Welfare in the Christian Empire (2003). Medicine is relatively marginal to a comparative assessment of the response to leprosy in the Greek Orthodox East and the Latin Catholic West. This may account for the allegation that two stages in leprosy were first differentiated in an “acute observation” of a Byzantine compiler and remained unknown to “doctors of the Catholic Middle Ages” (p. 159).

Two introductory chapters shed light on an earlier age and wider region than commonly covered by leprosy history, and they share testimonies normally accessible only to specialists. A survey of Byzantine medicine and leprosariums presents the few Greek treatises that survived the Arabic influx, and the diverse foundations that proliferated from the fourth century on. Seven centuries elapsed before the West witnessed a similar proliferation, which peaked by 1300. The pivotal chapter on leprosy in Latin Europe opens with the 1321 attacks on leprosariums, in order to highlight both the “wall of mistrust” between society and leprous patients (p. 99) and the contrast with the cultivation of charity in Byzantium. The thesis of a “deep-seated alienation” rooted in Germanic customary law (p. 106), together with the forceful reasoning and selected evidence, should trigger lively debate and [End Page 339] further research. A review of the Western leprosariums stresses their indebtedness to the Byzantine legacy, while cautioning that many questions remain about origins and organization. Less uncertainty is reflected in the chapter on the evolution of the Order of the Knights of Saint Lazarus from a ministering community to a fighting brotherhood. The militarization, utterly “alien to the orthodox Byzantine worldview” (p. 139), led to a greater concern with property than with patients, and to the development of a “highly structured group of leprosariums under a central command” (p. 152). A network of estates became the target of royal and popular resentment, igniting the 1321 explosion of accumulated and characteristically Western alienation, fear, segregation, and “warrior ethos” (p. 159).

The credibility of Walking Corpses suffers from the authors’ tendency to bend the evidence. For example, they present a key Oratio by Gregory of Nazianzos “On loving the poor” as “focused entirely on the plight of lepers” (p. 30, emphasis added). Miller’s penchant for extrapolation and generalization, which has troubled reviewers of his previous work, appears undiminished. A few sermons suffice for declaring that religious leaders “changed society’s attitudes toward lepers” (p. 43), procured patients “a privileged position in Byzantine society” (p. 45), and induced medical authors to abandon the belief in the contagiousness of leprosy (p. 59). Supporting texts are cited with little attention for reliability, and without quotations. Checking the citations reveals facile inferences of specific leprosy from allusions to disfigurement, debility, or “disease (nosos, morbus).” The terms “leprosy,” “Elephant Disease,” and “Sacred Disease” are mixed incessantly and with utter disregard for the original text and context. Treating the Greek lelobemenos, “crippled” or “disfigured,” as entirely synonymous with “leprous” is misleading. The name lobotropheion of a sixth-century infirmary for crippled soldiers raises doubt about the categorical assertion that this was “the technical term for a leprosarium” (p. 86, emphasis added). A leper asylum emerges too readily from a reported shelter for the poor (ptochotropheion), the elderly (gerokomeion), indigent wanderers (xenon, xenodocheion), or the sick in general (nosokomeion).

To the extent that words matter, the title of Walking Corpses calls for comment. Drawn from a single occurrence, the label is presented as used more than once (“sometimes,” 2). The phrase has parallels in evocations by Gregory of Nazianzos, but in isolation it conveys a negative impression of abandonment, inverting the sense it originally carried in a hyperbolic appeal to compassion—and contradicting Byzantium’s positive outlook that is a major theme of the book. The sensational tag is also jarring from a current perspective. Students of...