The Leper’s Plot: Rehearsal for the Witch Trials

LeprosoriumIn 1321 a strange hysteria gripped Southern France and parts of Spain. By 1320 a series of attacks called ‘The Cowherd’s Crusade’ (emulating a much more widespread series of attacks dubbed ‘The Shepherds Crusade’) had already targetted Leprosaria all over Southern France. The lieutenant of Sauventerre-de-Guyenne had already recorded in public records that he’d had to forbid the torching of a leprosarium at Sauvanterre, while the chronicle of Raymonde-Bernarde de La Motte, the Bishop of Bazas, stated that some of the pasgoureaux who were hanged had claimed to have found barrels of rotting bread while pillaging the leprosarium of a certain town (perhaps Mas d’Agenais.)

The lepers, it was said, had planned to use the bread in the preparation of some poison that would contaminate the wells. This is an uncommon libel this early in the 14th Century. One factor that might have precipitated the violence was that the Bishop of Dax had all lepers in his diocese arrested in December 1320. The Bishop was trying to preserve his jurisdiction over lepers from encroachments by the sire d’Albret. The latter had burned a leper accused of an unstipulated crime, one in which the lepers were implicated.

The ensuing kerfuffle over jurisdiction involved a number of ducal, episcopal and papal officials. Such widespread rumours of accusations could have contributed to the charges brought against the lepers in the spring of 1321.

It’s even clear that before February 1321, communities in Toulouse, Albi and Caracssone were petitioning the French monarchy to expel the Jews from France and to segregate the lepers. The petitioners (generously) said they were happy to administer all the revenues and pious donations that had accrued to the lepers, and to provide for the lepers’ welfare (in return for stealing all their cash.)

They claimed that segregation was needed because lepers intended to infect the whole country with their illness by poison and sorcery. The lepers also provided Jews with consecrated hosts which they desecrated. Also, the Jews were having sex with the wives of their Christian debtors and committed all kinds of horrible crimes, which meant they deserved expulsion.

This was very likely part of a bigger push to protect local jurisdiction from royal justice, and to limit the scope of Inquisitional procedure. When the King did not respond favorably to the petition by local authorites, they took things into their own hands: in Holy Week 1321, the mayor of Pérginueux ordered lepers arrested. Rumors of crimes had been circulating since spring, but  now lepers were seized and tortured, and many who confessed were burned.

The confession of Johan de Bosco is probably representative: he was arrested by officials at “Regale Ville” in France. Johan was from Alterque, and appeared before officials on May 16th (notes say he was ‘free from all jail chains.”) He stated on oath that three weeks before, Brother Geraldus, a leper, and the ‘perceptor’ of the leprosarium of Alterque, had bought two bags of ‘pessimam’ powder, which he ordered Johan to put inthe fountains, waters and rivers of diverse areas. The powder would poison the waters so that anyone who drank from them would either die or turn leprous. Geraldus then gave Johan twenty sous as payment, and ten sous for expenses.

The rest of the confession lists the dozens of villagers Johan visted, poisoning wells and rivers in each place. Acording to Johan he was cought ‘locum Regalis ville’ when he was leaving a well he had just poisoned. He did not know the rescipe for the powder, but it would kill or turn its victim leprous within two months.

From then on, municipal authorities started arresting, torturing and executing lepers. This was a direct challenge to crown authority, and officials of Pégrinueux even rewrote history twenty years later, saying “`since the plague-stricken mob of lepers had rebelled… against the royal magnificence… the infamy and the odious crime discovered, with our lordthe king notified of them as quickly as possible… the said consuls, like true champions of justice…”

King Philip V recieved news while he was in Poitiers, and immediately issued a statement demanding that any leper who confessed poisoning the waters was to be burned, and tortured if they did not confess. These crimes were ruled as lese-majeste, which meant all their goods returned to the crown, and that jurisdiction belonged only to the king.

By August 19th the Bishop of Albi had expressed doubt that the King was right to take his hard stolen cash, and the King responded with the same reasoning that Albi had used to steal it in the first place: the case was urgent and speed was of the essence.

In the case of the lepers, ambiguity of jurisdictional status may have contributed wo the rapidity of their arrest and the confiscation of the property. Crown, municipality, lay lords, abbeys and bishoprics might all have some claims on leper houses. The accusation of poisoning gave cometing claimants a powerful excuse to extend their jurisdiction.

Attacks on lepers must be put in the context of their position: if an attack was made on the lepers, it could be used as an attack on the monarchy. If an attack was non-judicial, it would be a revellious and illegal breach of the peace. If they were judicial, they were a usurpation of jurisdiction. Once the King declared is right to judge upon lepers in June, further actoins were considered lese-majeste.

However anti-leper violence was more than that: lepers and monarch both played roles in the moral economy. There was a belief that moral management of a human body showed on its physical condition.

Leprosy was seen as a disease of the soul, brought on by corruption and sin. Leprosy served as  a sign of sin. The leper was a heretic or an unrepentent sinner, and had to be separated. Ralphus Flaviacenis (12th century) wrote, “Whoever has been corrupted by the disease of spiritual leprosy, as either by the offense of faithlessness or because of  depracity of morals, should be sequstered from association with the faithful.” This moral infection was also seen as being infectious, like one complaint of a Catalan against his neighbour, “One sick sheep infects the whole flock.”

The charges of poisoning made against lepers moral in their nature. The images of leprosy and leprosy venom to illustrate the danger of moral infection and vulnerability to sin were standard. In the Gesta Romanorum, moralising stories for preachers, there is a story that goes, “Once upon a time, when the noble knight Iosias was sleeping, his wife went out and forgot to lock the door. A bear came into the house and bathed in the well, infecting it with venom. When Joasias and his household drank the water, they were poisoned with sinful leprosy.” Leprosy was unrestricted by group identity, instead affecting all people as a somatization of God’s sins.

Not only that, but Philip V was seen as corrupt himself: the assembly he was leading in Poitiers was an assembly of reform, but ruors were rife that it was about corruption and grabbing power. His own Chroniclars were already implying that he was being badly advised, and that his subjects were wishing him dead (Jean de Saint-Victor wrote in his Tecueil des historiens, “Better one man die for the populace, than that so many people be subjected to so much danger.”)

The King’s avarice was seen as being expressed through his sudden illness (thought to be a punishment from God) and the lepers’ plot. It also isn’t surprising that the 1321 attack on the lepers was followed by an attack on the Jews.

Philip was notably silent on the subject of attacks against the Jews, although Chroniclars from the time wrote that the Jews had been approached by the King of GRanada, who planned, together wit hthe lepers, to poison Christendom. The King o Mallorca wrote to the King or Aragon abtou the Jews’ complicity on June 2nd 1321, even before Philip’s edict of 21st, stating that the lepers alone were involved.

In late June, Phillip, Count of Anjour (later Philip VI of France) wrote to Pope John 22nd (and perhaps the King). By June 26th he wrote that there had been a solar eclipse in counties of Touraine and Anjou, and that later the sun had run red with blood. (There are few, if any, surviving transcripts of the confessions of the lepers, the only well known transcript being that iof Guillaume Agasse before the Inquisition of Palmiers, saying that he had eschewed the Christian faith and agreed to spread poisons at the behest of the King of Granada and the “Sultan of Babylon” (the Mamluke King of Cairo.) There was even a (possibly) spurious letter found saying that the Muslim monarchs wanted to convert to Judiaism because of a vision, and the lepers had been sent to poison Paris because the Jews wanted to swap it for Jerusalem.

Eventually, after a lot of death, the lepers’ scare burned itself out, but not before costing a great number of lepers their lives. It also provided a model of persecution that was almost immediately put into practise against the accused witch Alice Kyteler in Ireland, and which added an important vocabulary to the language of persecution of witchcraft all over continental Europe.


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