©Wellcome Library, London

In 1179, the Lateran Council ordered lepers to be cut off from society with their own churches and cemeteries. Some were formally abandoned by the enactment of ‘burial' rites whereby a priest sprinkled them with earth while they stood in a grave. The Church taught that leprosy was an earthly Purgatory which brought swift reward in Heaven, and the French surgeon, Guy de Chauliac (1298-1368), claimed that God loved lepers above all creation. Leprosy was associated with sin, particularly lust, and many believed that it was spread through sexual intercourse. In the Testament of Cresseid by Scottish poet, Robert Henryson (fl. 1470-1500), Cresseid was punished with leprosy by God for her pride and lust. Such punishment rendered material wealth insignificant:

‘Here I bequeath my corpse and carrion With worms and toads to be rent; My cup and clapper, and my ornament, And all my gold the leper folk shall have, When I am dead, to bury me in the grave'.

Etching by Willem Writs (fl. 1760-1786), 1768, after Jan de Beyer (b. 1703), 1765.