The Hospital of St Margaret’s, Huntingdon
In honour of World Leprosy Day (which is January 29th) let’s take a look at Trinity Hall’s own leper house, the hospital of St Margaret, Hungtingdon, and leper houses more generally in the middle ages. The hospital of St Margaret was founded for the purpose of treating lepers by Malcolm IV of Scotland (who was also the Earl of Huntingdon) sometime in the 12th century. In the 14th century during the First War of Scottish Independence, the hospital fell into the hands of the English monarchy. From this time onwards the masters of the hospital were the king’s clerks. However, by 1327 it had fallen into such poverty that they had to refuse admission of a leper who was sent to them by the king. By 1461, the hospital was no longer receiving patients or operating for its original purpose, and it was granted to Trinity Hall. The hospital and its lands were given to Trinity Hall as perpetual alms for the support of the inhabitants of the College.
Leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease, is a complex bacterial infection that mainly affects the nerves, skin, and eyes. In extreme cases it can cause gangrene, blindness, the loss of extremities, and weakening of bones. Although it is treatable today, before the 20th century it was a life-long condition. Leprosy was present in England by the 4th century and became quite prevalent by 1050. Between the 11th and 14th centuries over three hundred leper houses were established in England. The attitude towards leprosy during the medieval period was generally sympathetic. Lepers were seen as holy and close to God. It was believed God answered their prayers more readily, so lepers and leper hospitals were popular recipients of charity.
Contrary to popular belief, lepers were not always considered outcasts and forced into strict isolation from society. The patients were not locked away; they were allowed to visit family and receive visitors. Admittance to leper houses was actually highly sought after, even by those not suffering from leprosy. Many had to seek the assistance of local nobles to help them gain admission. Leper houses (also known as lazar houses or leprosaria) tended to be located in the outskirts of towns and cities or near major travel routes, because the lepers needed to stay in close contact with society to beg alms, sell religious services such as praying for the souls of benefactors, and trade goods.
One of the oldest surviving leper houses can be found right here in Cambridge, the Chapel of St Mary Magdalene, Stourbridge (just off what is now Newmarket Road). In 1199 King John granted the chapel the permission to hold a fair to raise funds to support the lepers. At its height, the Stourbridge Fair was one of the largest fairs in Europe.
The care lepers received was both physical and spiritual. For the physical care of the patients, emphasis was placed on cleanliness and a varied diet. Clothes were washed twice a week and much of the food served came from the hospital’s own gardens and livestock. Leprosaria generally had fragrant herb gardens the patients could tend to. On the spiritual side, the houses generally comprised of a series of cottages surrounding a central chapel where the patients could pray and attend mass.
However, by the 14th century fears of contagion due to the outbreak of the Black Death brought about greater restriction and isolation for lepers. Fortunately, leprosy was already on the decline in England at that time, and many leper houses were either disbanded or put to other uses such as almshouses for the sick and poor.