03.12.12, Marcombe, Leper Knights

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Luke Demaitre

The Medieval Review baj9928.0312.012


Marcombe, David. Leper Knights: The Order of St. Lazarus of Jerusalem in England, c.1150-1544. Series: Studies in the History of Medieval Religion, vol. 30. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2003. Pp. xx, 320. ISBN: 0-85115-893-5.

Reviewed by:
Luke Demaitre
University of Virginia

The lurid title of this book is drawing one kind of reader, and it will probably put off another; in either case, one stands to miss the valuable insights which David Marcombe has drawn from painstaking research. The sensational appeal of the title is obvious on the Web, for example in a listing by "your Online Source for Occult, Magick & Alternative Books," at www.anathemabooks.com. This appeal is boosted by the special fascination with which some gamers imagine leper knights, as "a powerful guild of warriors, among Gateway's player elite" according to www.lostknights.org.uk. Devotees of role playing and 'alternative' history may seize upon the image of "the 'living dead' mobilized in a desperate attempt to ward off the inroads of the Infidel" (13), while skipping the rest of Leper Knights. They are likely to overlook the fact that, in this down-to-earth history, the members of the Order of St. Lazarus of Jerusalem in England prove to have been, for the most part, neither lepers nor knights. There is little fuel for fantasy, indeed, in the story of an organization that failed to rank with the 'grand' orders, soon ceased participating in the crusades--first militarily and then financially--and treated leprosy neither as a fearsome weapon nor as a medical mission but as a promotional shibboleth.

The lure of myth yields to the complexities of reality in this multifaceted study which no serious medievalist can afford to ignore, and which balances rich narrative with keen analysis and judicious appraisal. Even piecing together the story was a challenging task. The twelfth-century origins of the order in the Holy Land remain "obscure and controversial" (6); the saint, to whom it is dedicated, appears to be a conflation of an actual and a fictitious personage from the Gospels; and from the start, the foundation was ambiguous about its primary purpose, whether it was to harbor leprous nobles, fight the Saracens, minister to the sick, or hold lands. After the fall of Acre in 1291, the order left the Levant forever and set up headquarters in France. Subsequently, the French-English hostilities and other developments led to greater insularity of the houses in England. By the fifteenth century, the orientation of these houses shifted from the crusading spirit to the "jollifications of chivalry" (91), and from the administration of hospitals to the performance of religious services for fees. The systematic collection of contributions (in kind as well as money) and the ensuing importance of patronage not only made the order an ideal target for the Reformation but also caused rivalries and entanglements. Thus, decline had set in well before the dissolution by Henry VIII in 1544. The Lazarite order--not to be confused with the Lazarist or Vincentian Order founded by Vincent de Paul in the seventeenth century--was revived in the twentieth century, in several branches. All of these profess, with often contentious differences and various touches of anachronism, loyalty to the fifteenth-century "set of quasi-knightly values" (30), monastic observance of poverty, and particular solicitude for the world's leprosy patients.

Extrapolating from the author's unsparing but low-key appraisal of the flagship establishment known as Burton Lazars, one could claim that the Order of St. Lazarus of Jerusalem was sustained for three centuries in England by the "exploitation of the image of leprosy rather than a determined purpose to do anything about it" (152). This long-term and successful campaign belies two enduring stereotypes, namely of an inherent association of leprosy with sin, and of the universal isolation of its patients. Inversely, the campaign demonstrates that the disease tended to maintain a "higher profile than in reality it deserved" (136). In elaborating his revision, Marcombe both builds on and solidifies the "radical reassessment" (8) in which recent historians, most notably Carole Rawcliffe and Francois-Olivier Touati, have shown the early positive views of leprosy, as a redemptive gift rather than divine punishment, and as an endearing likeness with Christ's sufferings rather than a cause for rejection. In fact, from the perspective of Leper Knights, together with ongoing explorations of various sources, it appears that we can further revise our understanding of medieval lepra. For example, when we see that leprosy was presenting "less of a problem" (14) by the late thirteenth century, we should perhaps understand that this was as much a matter of a waning concern with the disease as of a decline in its actual incidence. Furthermore, while it is quite true that by the fifteenth century leprosy "had become a catch-all for virtually any ailment that appeared infectious or unpleasant" (166), it is worth realizing that the notion of lepra was stretchable from the moment it entered the Latin West.

Marcombe's balanced evaluation of the character and fate of the Order of St. Lazarus in England is based on a meticulous collation and analysis of the evidence. On the other hand, his contribution to a systematic reassessment of medieval leprosy might have been enhanced by more precise interpretations and identifications of some key assertions, texts, and illustrations. It is tantalizing to find no original source cited for the claims that "Lazarus' ailment has traditionally been taken to be leprosy" (4), that Saint George was "traditionally invoked in the cure of leprosy, probably because of the scaly skin of the dragon" (92), or that bryony or wild nep was "known in the fourteenth century as an antidote to leprosy" (245). Footnotes do not contain textual quotations, even in the case of crucial documents. When an important invective of 1567 is quoted at length in the discussion (184-185), an indication whether the original was in Latin or English might have shed light on the significance of a phrase such as "wretched men" (185)-- whose Latin version, miselli was the root of the term "meselry"-- or brought the poem into closer connection with the painted caricature which it accompanied (Plate 29, p. 186). Illustrations tend to be under-identified, beginning with Plate 1, which is simply assigned to "a seventeenth-century Bible" (3). These are mere quibbles, however, and they do not diminish this reviewer's appreciation and gratitude for a book that is as fascinating as it is scholarly.

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Luke Demaitre

University of Virginia