About this image
Photograph of an original pencil sketch. Following is an extract from Lysons' Topographical and Historical Account of Derbyshire, 1817 (Magna Britannia Vol 5):- 'There was an ancient hospital of lepers at Chesterfield, dedicated to St. Leonard, which existed before the year 1195, when a rent charge of 6 pounds per annum, payable out of the manor, was assigned to the brethren in lieu of their fair. The patronage of this hospital was annexed to the manor: Francis, Earl of Shrewsbury claimed it on the same grounds in 1547. We suppose the site of this hospital to have been at a place called Spital (The name Spital can be found in many towns in england and the word derives from the early hoSPITALs found at that location), near the Rother, about half a mile south-east of the town, which belonged formerly to the Jenkinsons, and was sold by the co-heiresses of Woodyear to the late Sir Thomas Windsor Hunloke, Bart. The house was many years occupied by the family of Bourne, and now by Mr. John Charge, attorney at law, who married one of the daughters of the Reverend John Bourne.' Leprosy was one of the most feared and terrible diseases of the Middle Ages. Victims of the disease were outcasts from their homes and villages. They were condemned to become beggars, warning people of their approach by the ringing of hand-bells. Lazar houses (named after Lazarus the leper, mentioned in the New Testament as being healed by Jesus) were built in towns throughout England. These were isolation hospitals where lepers would live a monastic type of life. Leprosy produced a welter of emotions in the medieval mind. Pity vied with horror. Those ravaged by leprosy were shunned not only through fear of contagion, but because they were so hideously disfigured. This dreadful disease was seen as a divine punishment for sin. The more compassionate felt that such suffering must bring lepers closer to God, but caring for them was the choice of few. Archbishop Lanfranc (d.1089) founded the first English leper hospital at Harbledown near Canterbury. At the time the idea of caring for the sick in a special building was a novelty in this country, but there was an obvious need to separate lepers from the healthy and soon others were following Lanfranc's lead. Leper hospitals sprang up on the outskirts of towns all over the country, generally run by monks. They were usually established in isolation, many such as Chesterfield's were across a river, away from the city. It has often been said that other ailments were confused with leprosy in the Middle Ages. Certainly the disease can be hard to recognise in the early stages. However, medieval physicians were well versed in the works of Galen, who gave clear and precise descriptions of leprosy. No doubt mistakes were made, but there is evidence of considerable caution in diagnosis. This is understandable. Committal to a lazar-house was a sentence of living death. Lepers underwent a symbolic funeral on admission, in which they were declared dead to the world, born again to God. It was as much a prison as a hospice. Medieval hospitals were generally one long hall with beds down either side and a chapel at one end, but for lepers the range might be divided up into individual cells. Lepers could own no property, so their wills were carried out immediately. A bequest to the hospital would help to ensure their future comfort, but most would have little to give. By the end of the 14th century, leprosy was dying out in England. The leper hospitals gradually emptied. It was not difficult to find a new use for them as the elderly and infirm always needed care. Also, by the 16th century, with the Dissolution of the Monastries, many leper hospitals lost the monks who had previously cared for them. Though no longer seen in Britain, the disease is still prevalent in many other countries around the world and is more correctly known as 'Hansen's disease'.