‘Medieval and modern events’

Linda Bongiorno
Friday 12 June 2020

Good morning,

Yesterday I learned of a digital event on medieval St Andrews which is taking place today, Friday 12 June, at 3pm. Heritage at Home: Medieval St Andrews. There will be a live discussion on Facebook about St Andrews in the Middle Ages and a look at recent digital reconstructions of historic sites. Contributors include Michael Brown (editor of Medieval St Andrews: Church, Cult, City), Douglas Speirs (Fife County archaeologist) and Rachel Hart (Keeper of Manuscripts and Muniments at the University of St Andrews). More information about the event can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/events/279883333199954/ The link to watch the live video is on the facebook event.

Anyway, it brought to mind something I spotted on a walk during lockdown here in St Andrews. Near Albany Park, the halls of residence closed for rebuilding, is this farmhouse, now the St Nicholas bed and breakfast:

Looking more closely at the sign on the wall it tells an intriguing story:

I hadn’t heard of this Hospital but a quick internet search revealed a wealth of history. Possibly beginning in the late 12th Century, and possibly founded by the Prior and Canons of St Andrews, the house was a home for people with leprosy until at least 1438. In 1529, with leprosy increasingly rare in Scotland, the Dominicans took it over, by which time it may have been a home for poor people more generally, and it survived into Reformation times, still caring for the poor in 1583.

Excavations have discovered building walls, a boundary wall, pottery, a cobbled road, and what is thought to be a graveyard associated with the hospital.

Jurek Pütter imagined what the hospital may have looked like, in St Andrews in Focus, September/October 2016, Issue 78, p. 9:

Leprosy is a condition mentioned in the Bible. In the Old Testament, Elisha told a soldier called Naaman who had leprosy to wash in the River Jordan seven times to be healed. And in the New Testament, Jesus healed ten people with leprosy, one of whom returned to thank him.

Now, some 2000 years later, we have a different approach. Our students are taught that leprosy is treated not by washing in the River Jordan 7 times, nor by going to show themselves to the priests. Rather, treatment for multibacillary leprosy consists of rifampicin, dapsone, and clofazimine taken over 12 months. In the 20 years from 1994 to 2014, at least 15 million people worldwide were cured of leprosy. There are still leper colonies in India, China and parts of Africa, but most people worldwide are treated without being segregated in this way.

We are living today in a time when illness has come to the fore – not leprosy by Covid-19 Coronavirus. There is a palpable fear of contagion, and an emphasis on isolation and segregation. In common with medieval Scotland and leprosy, we face a condition currently without cure. For the first time in our lives for many of us, we have been coming to terms with illness which we cannot control, and which we cannot expect doctors to make better.

Of course we can push any parallel too far. But there is hope surely in the story of leprosy, in how science and medicine have learned how to treat the condition, and how we have largely learned to treat people with leprosy both physically and as people who share our humanity. In times to come, there may well be monuments to Covid-19 and its devastating effects upon the world, much as the sign near Albany Park reflects the effects of leprosy upon many in St Andrews in medieval times. It is too early for such memorials, but it is good to think that we will have gone through the worst and be able to look back in gratitude for all that was done in the crisis with skill, compassion and care.

Yours,

Donald.

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