The Leper Conspiracy Of 1321

“Well, I don’t know any lepers, either, but I’m not gonna run out and join one of their f—ing clubs.” —John, “The Breakfast Club” (1985)

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

  • Joseph

    This was actually a pretty good article.

  • lonelydisco

    I can get blaming the Jews, blaming the gays, and blaming the Germans – but lepers? Even by Middle Ages standards, that’s just completely bonkers.

    • It’s not any more bonkers than blaming the Jews, Gays, and/or Germans. Leprosy is caused by bacteria, which nobody knew about during the middle ages. Everything was attributed to the supernatural. Certainly those who had leprosy had offended God in some grievous manner. Diseases like the bubonic plague and leprosy were the work of evil forces.

      Unfortunately for Europeans at the time, ergot poisoning was also rampant. In addition to the psychological effects of lysergic acid amide (effects that were somehow safely utilized by cultist of ancient Greece during the Eleusinian Mysteries), ergot also had a tendency to cause gangrene and death. People would be tripping on LSA, and all around them other people (and quite probably themselves) had limbs falling off while they were still alive. Arms and legs were piled up in the streets in the same fashion as the black death casualties, and the stench was said to be especially odious.

      There wasn’t always a clear distinction between all of these problems, and certainly there was some overlap. I can imagine a Jew suffering from leprosy and ergotism in a town full of gangrenous and/or (yes, sometimes only or, interestingly) insane people also effected by ergotism would have suffered a terrible fate.

      • lonelydisco

        I get that, lapse of logic on my part (I’m an idiot with immense inconsistency) but just thinking about people blaming the diseased for their suffering is just so, so bizarre. A whole conspiracy against the diseased is just impossible to just get!

        I have some principles, and this kind of thing’s just perverting them so deeply.

        • “I can get blaming the Jews, blaming the gays, and blaming the Germans – but lepers? Even by Middle Ages standards, that’s just completely bonkers. […] I have some principles, and this kind of thing’s just perverting them so deeply.”

          • lonelydisco

            You’re determined to get that comment in my internet guilt box, aren’t you? It’s already up there with my violent self-covering, and that time I used tl;dr without knowing what it meant.

          • I had a decent tl;dr session early this morning with the ladyperson.

          • lonelydisco

            I hope this was a vague American sex act.

          • It wasn’t vague, and there wasn’t any acting; we meant it, Disco. I’m also pretty sure it’s un- American, at least in the McCarthyist sense. Also, the meaning adapts depending on the itch; makes it more exciting.
            Hey, I rammed a pair of scissors halfway through my forearm the other day in a fit of abject despair and hopelessness; is it sexy?

          • lonelydisco

            In some cultures.

          • I went to the doctor a couple days later because I couldn’t really move my hand very good. They cleaned it and put a band-aid on it; that’s exactly what I did! I should be a doctor.
            The doctors won’t believe me that I have bugs in my skin. Every time I tell them, the doctors challenge me to produce them but the little bastards have disappeared. They keep asking me if I’m on meth, and I keep telling them that’s not the reason I have bugs.

          • Is this the kinda stuff?


          • lonelydisco

            I don’t regret tuning out the late 90’s.

          • I was in middle school, so I wasn’t able to tune them out. There was a boy with whom I pretended to worship Satan in order to upset people. One day he told me he wasn’t going to worship Satan and listen to old school heavy metal anymore; he was going to concentrate on the New World Order and listen to Rage Against the Machine from now on. I was inconsolable. Saw him recently at this pagan festival; he had made some mead. It was pretty good.

          • lonelydisco

            I never quite left my Satan days.

          • You’re a Catholic; that goes without saying.

      • lonelydisco

        Oh, THAT’S what happened in the Eleusinian mysteries. I read about them in this book of Classical European myth I found sometime in the 70s.

        • That is, but I also kinda lied; most cases of mass ergotism resulted in either the physiological symptoms or the psychological symptoms. It’s not really understood why that is the case, though; I’m guessing it had something to do with different strains of ergot. Maybe it had something to do with the peoples’ diet in addition to the ergot rye. Perhaps it has something to do with the rapid onset of total tolerance to psychedelics; after a couple days, no effects can be noticed at all. Maybe the people who weren’t affected psychologically were already saturated when a sudden spike in ergot production resulted in a massive gangrene epidemic.

          I don’t think you read that book sometime in the 70’s, Disco. You’re simply not that old. It’s impossible.