Last week, I finished Walking Corpses: Leprosy in Byzantium and the Medieval West.
(For some reason, I received a review copy some months back.)
It’s my kind of book: an examination of a relatively small slice of history with the added bonus of being a rebuttal to some established thinking and conventional wisdom.
In this case, the conventional wisdom is that treatment of leprosy in the West reflected not much more than fear and prejudice. The authors demonstrate that this is not so, and expand the study to include – and feature, really – the Christian treatment of leprosy in the East, a neglected subject of study.
It’s a slender book, but as any academic study, fully of information. There are interesting discussions of the disease itself and the history of Christian understanding of the disease – for example, were the “lepers” described in the Gospels actually suffering from Hansen’s disease or from some other skin disorder?
In an age (today) in which Christians are reflexively described as the Heartless Ones, it is useful to be reminded, once again, of the truth. In this case, that no ancient western or near Eastern cultures had any kind of care for those suffering from leprosy until the Christians came along. And, of course, Christians made care of orphans, widows, all the sick and specifically lepers, a priority. And not because they were scared or bigoted, but because they believed they were cleansing the wounds of Christ when they washed the leper’s sores. That this was what Love called them to do. That leprosy was the “Holy Disease” because those who suffered from it were like Christ.
The material on Eastern Christianity focuses on the works of various church leaders in establishing institutions for lepers, as well as homilies with the disease at the center. Because more legal material survives from the west, the section on Western Christianity has lots of interesting detail on those matters – how it does seem that institutions for lepers in the West were largely self-governing, followed a monastic model, but were also integrated, incorporated both men and women in the same institutions, with women sometimes functioning as leaders.
And remember…for more fun facts and interesting information that takes you beyond the bubble of Straw Men, ill-informed Grand Narratives and Trolling for Traffic…try some history. Get some perspective. Books. Articles. Many free on the InterWeb. It takes as much time to read one interesting scholarly article that gives you a broader perspective on your faith as it does to follow one heated, meaningless session of traffic-building trolling and name-calling. Imagine that.