A recent conference sets leprosy history studies on an exciting new path.
|Toward a more complete view: “Leprosy has been stereotyped as a paradigmatic ‘medieval’ disease.”|
In September 2018, McGill University in Montréal, Canada hosted a conference that brought together academics from a wide array of fields and time periods to begin a conversation aimed at broadening and unifying the discussion on leprosy and those affected by the disease.
Leprosy and the ‘Leper’ Reconsidered had its origins in the 2016 Leeds International Medieval Congress where I had co-organized, along with Dr. Elma Brenner from the Wellcome Library, a strand titled Leprosy and Identity. This included a paper by Courtney Krolikoski, with whom I spent the majority of the conference. One of the topics we kept circling back to was why there was no complete study about the history of leprosy. Leprosy and the ‘Leper’ Reconsidered was our proposed solution.
Both Courtney and I are medievalists specializing in the history of medicine and/or social welfare, with particular attention to leprosy. As such, we are acutely sensitive to the ways in which leprosy has been stereotyped as a paradigmatic ‘medieval’ disease, in the most sensationally negative sense of that term.
This is unfortunate in two ways. First, the new histories of medieval leprosy pioneered by François-Oliver Touati, Carole Rawcliffe and Luke Demaitre, which have overturned previous ideas about how medieval societies viewed leprosy and treated those with the disease, are often overlooked by non-specialists. Second, the inordinate focus on leprosy in the medieval West has obscured other histories of leprosy in other parts of the world, and in other eras.
That being said, the way in which both popular and academic writing discusses this illness, especially in the medieval context, is often incorrect. We knew that the only way to break down the artificial barriers that existed—not only between time periods, but also disciplines—was to host a conference.
Fundamentally, Leprosy and the ‘Leper’ Reconsidered was conceived as a means to explore how communities around the world have approached leprosy and leprosy sufferers. We invited historians, scholars of art, film, archaeology, religion and literature to participate, and we also included new theoretical tools such as disability studies, and new historical techniques like digital humanities.
At the same time, we did not neglect crucial medical and scientific histories of leprosy, while anthropological, archeological and material culture contexts also featured. We provided a space to examine the disease’s impact as it intersects with gender, class and race, and addressed the complex and violent history of the term ‘leper’.
Our aim was to bridge the gap between scientists and social scientists to bring new clarity to questions about the human experience of leprosy, and to open new research opportunities, modeled on the work of the historian of medicine Professor Monica Green. In 2014, Green edited Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Re-thinking the Black Death as the inaugural issue of the journal The Medieval Globe.* This was the first history of Late Medieval and Early Modern plague to embrace a Eurasian perspective, and to engage on a high level with the most recent immunological and bioarchaeological research.
Green has become a vocal advocate in the professional and public media for closer integration of medical history and the science of infectious disease; this was particularly notable during the Ebola crisis, where she penned numerous essays and op-ed pieces, and created new courses for her history undergraduates to model how specialists in the past and biomedical scientists can mutually enrich their analyses.
Most recently, she co-authored an open letter with Dr. Helen King in The Lancet** calling for scientists and physicians to consult historians as a means of creating an open dialogue between our two fields in an effort to ensure that the history in medical articles reflects the current historiographical approach.
We look forward to the second meeting of Leprosy and the ‘Leper’ Reconsidered because we hope to continue to foster a strong dialogue between the humanities and the sciences so that we can develop well-rounded and accessible studies in order to continue to demystify leprosy and the people who are impacted by it.
** Helen King and Monica Green, “On the misuses of medical history,” The Lancet 391, no. 10128 (2018): pp. 1354-1355.
Dr. Anna Peterson is a historian of medieval welfare institutions. She is currently a Mellon Fellow at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto, Canada working on a project titled: ‘Detesting such neglect and abuse’: the Church’s response to corruption in hospitals and leprosaria in western Europe (c. 1200–1342).