Leprosy, a debilitating and disfiguring affliction, has been feared and dreaded since biblical times. The bacterium that causes leprosy was discovered in the late 19th century; before than, particularly during medieval times, it was treated as a disease caused by moral uncleanliness.
During the Middle Ages, no one understood exactly how leprosy spread. Some thought that rich floods were to blame; other believed that unclean food was culprit. The 13th century Franciscan monk Bartholomaeus Anglicus said it could develop from eating spicy foods. But all agreed that leprosy was contagious. Once a person became a leper, he or she would effectively be cut off from society.
Depending on where they lived, lepers were not allowed to drink from public wells or fountains, walk through markets, enter churches, or touch other people. In many communities, lepers wore distinctive hooded robes, and were obliged to ring a bell as they passed through a populated area. deceased lepers could not even be buried with non-lepers.
In 1067, the Spanish soldier and hero El Cid founded the first hospital for lepers, or leprosarium. Over the next several centuries, leprosaria became an increasingly common, and humane, way to separate lepers from the general public. Living quarters in these special hospitals were clean and relatively comfortable; patients were provided with food and clothing. They were also given spiritual sustenance; some leprosaria included small chapels and adjacent cemeteries.
Some historians believe that a significant number of medieval people called lepers were not actually suffering from the disease. They were just homely or annoyingly unpopular people who were removed from society on the pretext of being lepers.
By the 14th century , the number of new cases began to decline, due in part to widespread epidemics of the Black Death, which struck lepers before they could be diagnosed.