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  • Leprosy and Charity in Medieval Rouen by Elma Brenner
  • Sharon Farm
Elma Brenner. Leprosy and Charity in Medieval Rouen. Royal Historical Society Studies in History: New Series. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell & Brewer, 2015. xi + 203 pp. Ill. $90.00 (978-0-86193-339-6).

This thorough regional study draws on the rich archives of one of the largest and wealthiest leprosaria in medieval France—Monts-aux-Malades, just outside of Rouen—along with institutional and testamentary evidence for a number of other leprosaria, the episcopal visitation records of Bishop Eudes Rigaud from the second half of the thirteenth century, diocesan statutes, medical literature, and surviving architectural monuments both from Montaux-Malades and the female leprosarium of Salle-aux-Puelles. Many of the author's broader conclusions support what has been argued concerning other French and English leprosaria: the surge of support for such institutions began in the twelfth century; ideas about contagion began to shape attitudes toward lepers only in the 1220s and 30s and then accelerated after the onset of the Black Death; physicians sometimes played a role in diagnosing lepers at the point of entry into a leprosarium, but the bulk of palliative care fell on the shoulders of female religious; and leprosaria, like other hospital institutions, had to adapt to new circumstances in the later Middle Ages. In Normandy, those circumstances included the depredations of the Hundred Years' War. Brenner also draws on archeobiological evidence from the cemeteries of leprosaria in other regions in order to argue that a significant proportion of the sick inmates of leprosaria did, in fact, have Hansen's disease.

The evidence concerning Montaux-Malades adds to our understanding of the ways in which the landscape of patronage adapted when the political landscape changed: up until 1204 Montaux-Malades received its most significant support from the English king and from Anglo-Norman aristocrats. After 1204, when the English king lost Normandy to France, some Anglo-Norman aristocrats continued to offer support, while the support of the urban elite of Rouen rose, and, eventually, the French king became involved.

The sources concerning the inmates of both Montaux-Malades and Salle-aux-Puelles add to our understanding of the ways in which gender and social status could complicate lepers' experiences of confinement and difference. Both institutions catered to lepers from the aristocracy, and Salle-aux-Puelles—unlike any other leper institution in Normandy—accepted only women, as was the case, as well, with a number of leprosaria in England. Additionally, leprous monks from [End Page 439] two of the most prestigious monasteries in Normandy—St. Ouen and St. Wandrille—were sent to Montaux-Malades, where they enjoyed special arrangements both concerning their diets and their rights to leave the leprosarium in order to visit their home monasteries. The penitentiary at Montaux-Malades and perhaps other leprosaria as well, also housed miscreant monks and nuns from the region, especially those who had broken their vows of chastity. The author suggests that monastic authorities chose to confine sexually active monks and nuns at leprosaria in order to remind them that in some cases the disease of leprosy was a divine punishment for lascivious behavior. Brenner also brings new perspectives to the argument that lepers were not as marginalized as scholars once thought: through its landholdings and urban fair in the center of Rouen, Montaux-Malades was tied to the vibrant urban culture of the town. Every Sunday, moreover, itinerant lepers and representatives of some of the smaller leprosaria in the region gathered at the Cathedral of Rouen in order to beg for alms.

Brenner fails to resolve apparent contradictions in a few places: on p. 5, for instance, she argues that lepers were viewed as spiritually superior, and thus valuable allies in prayer; on p. 130, by contrast, she suggests that leprosy was often seen as a form of punishment for lascivious behavior. And on pp. 54 and 55 she draws differing conclusions concerning a statute that placed limitations on who could provide an entry gift when a leper entered Montaux-Malades. Nevertheless, this is a fine study that brings new perspectives to the history of leprosy in the Middle Ages.

Sharon Farm
University of...


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pp. 439-440
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