In A Nutshell
Lepers had always had it rough; on one hand, they often received alms from the crown itself, and it was even said that they were God’s chosen, suffering for the good of others. But they were also accused of being able to use their clearly imbalanced humors to create poisons. In 1321, the French crown and their inquisitors started a massive conspiracy theory that would cause a nationwide anti-leper panic. Supposedly in league with the Jews, Muslim leaders, and with Satan, lepers were allegedly poisoning wells and spreading disease. Found guilty, the French crown got to keep any property that had been held beforehand, and when Jews and lepers started to be executed, that made for a lot of financial gains for the money-strapped French crown.
The Whole Bushel
In 1307, the Knights Templar were arrested and burned at the stake, accused and convicted of some pretty nasty heretical behavior. But France wasn’t done looking for scapegoats yet. In 1321, they turned their attention to lepers.
The idea was twofold. The Inquisitions were raging and needed targets. If those targets happened to be wealthy, their fortunes would revert back to the French crown—all the better. The French crown was suffering from increasing financial difficulties, made bad by Philip V and made worse by his second son. Both Philip V and his son used much the same scheme—target the wealthy, convict them of heresy, and reap the rewards.
In 1321, a conspiracy theory was planted in France. Bernard Gui, one of the chief inquisitors, presented “evidence” against the country’s lepers. According to him, the lepers had spirits that were as evil and diseased as their bodies, so it should be absolutely no surprise that they were tainting wells across the country with powders that would turn everyone else into a leper as well.
The first accusations happened in Aquitane, and the fallout was fast. Mob violence led to less-than-willing confessions, and leper houses were torched. That was around Easter, and by June, the king had issued a formal declaration stating that any leper who was guilty of their supposed crimes wasn’t just committing it against the people, he was committing it against the king.
Things continued to go downhill. Lepers that were interrogated soon started naming names, and they were names that were already pretty muddy to begin with. They were supposedly in league with the Jews (who hid their leprosy inside), the Muslim sultan of Granada, and, of course, Satan himself. The lepers were the foot soldiers and were given poison made from a combination of urine, consecrated Hosts, and blood, which they used to spread their disease across France. They were a part of secret meetings, members communicated by a series of secret signals, and the ultimate goal was to wipe Christianity from the face of the Earth.
The alleged conspiracy allowed the crown to seize huge amounts of Jewish property and money. Originally, French Jews were required to serve their penance by paying the crown, but, conveniently, news of a plot to kill the king came to light in 1322, and they were just kicked out of the country. Those who couldn’t pay had already been burned at the stake, and attempts to fix the injustices done were too little, too late.
In 1338, Pope Benedict XII issued an edict that seemed to go directly in the face of the ones issued by the king and his Inquisitors—he declared the lepers innocent. It also completely contradicted his own earlier ruling. When he was only the bishop of Pamiers, he had been one of the many who declared them corrupt.
By then, it was too late. What had until then been pretty much localized violence against lepers (like the 1290s conflict between a leper colony and the Prior of Butley) had become so well entrenched in the public mindset that not even the idea that perhaps lepers were God’s chosen, suffering to the same extremes that Christ had, was enough to keep them out of the public eye and out of danger.
Show Me The Proof
Featured photo credit: Edward Reeves
The Inquisition: A History, by Michael C. Thomsett
Heresy, Magic and Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, by Gary K. Waite
The Burdens of Disease, by J.N. Hays