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Leprosy and diet in medieval Normandy

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By | Early Medicine, Events and Visits

The first seminar in the 2017–18 History of Pre-Modern Medicine seminar series takes place on Tuesday 10 October.

Woodcut of man in kitchen.

Woodcut on title-page of EPB/916/B: Koch unnd Kellermeisterey, von allen Speisen und Getrencken … (Frankfort: W. Han, [1550?]). Wellcome Images L0023703.

Speaker: Dr Elma Brenner (Wellcome Collection), ‘Leprosy and diet in medieval Normandy’

Food and drink were key markers of status in medieval Europe, with different dietary options available to urban and rural dwellers, as well as to members of aristocratic households, religious communities and other groupings. At the same time, physicians and others held that dietary regulation was an essential means of remaining healthy and combating sickness. As part of a wider collaborative exploration of leprosy and identity, this paper considers the significance of food and drink with respect to this disease, especially within leprosy hospitals. The focus is the French region of Normandy, for which rich documentary sources survive from the 12th to 15th centuries. Within the hospitals, the provision of food and drink formed part of the palliative care of the sick, but also served to distinguish sufferers of differing social and religious statuses from one another. The diet of the non-leprous residents of these communities distinguished them from the sick, and also varied according to status. The practical arrangements surrounding meals, from communal eating to ownership of eating utensils, were important. Issues of contamination and contagion came into play in certain instances, with the leprous being prohibited from coming into contact with the food and utensils of the non-leprous, and themselves sometimes being served with contaminated, substandard food. The paper also considers the sensory ramifications of leprosy for eating and drinking, and the broader social and religious significance of food and drink in the Middle Ages.


Wellcome Library, 183 Euston Road, London, NW1 2BE.

Doors open at 6pm, seminar will start at 6.15pm.

The seminar series is focused on pre-modern medicine, which we take to cover European and non-European history before the 20th century (antiquity, medieval and early modern history, some elements of 19th-century medicine).

Further details on the seminar series are available in a previous post.

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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