Lepers in Cumbria (Background)
In medieval times, leprosy was endemic in Cumbria – but everything changed with the Black Death
Leprosy seems to have become endemic in England – and the rest of Europe – from the 12th century – possibly with a crusader connection. In this region, we had a number of leper hospitals. Conishead Priory was first founded as a hospital, some time before 1181. There was a hospital dedicated to St Leonard at Scalthwaiterigg, near Kendal, founded in the early 13th century: the site is now called Spital Farm (the word ‘spital’ means hospital). At Wigton another ‘Spital’ site recalls the medieval leper hospital dedicated to St Nicholas. There is yet another Spital at Lupton, west of Kirkby Lonsdale, which may also have been a leper hospital, At Appleby, St Nicholas’ leper hospital was founded on outskirts of town before 1235, while another hospital dedicated to St Nicholas was founded in Botchergate, Carlisle, probably in the 12th century.
There was no treatment as such for leprosy, so in essence these places were hospices or isolation hospitals, providing a safe place, safe both for the lepers and for the community at large. Most of those living there would have been suffering from Hansen’s Disease, as leprosy is now known – but some at least would have been suffering from a range of other skin diseases, misdiagnosed as leprosy. In some medieval hospitals, the residents seem to have been regarded as members of a religious community, usually comprising both male and female inmates.
Then in 1349, the Black Death struck and everything changed– although we lack the detail for the Cumbrian hospitals, we know elsewhere that over a short period, all, or nearly all, of the residents died, possibly because they had even less natural immunity than the population at large, so disproportionately far more lepers died of the Plague As a result, nationally, the Black Death seems to have seen the ending of leprosy in this country,. Gradually, the hospitals would have fallen into disrepair, although some continued to exist up to the Dissolution, although no longer acting as hospitals.
Apart from ‘spital’, place-names recalling leprosy are rare. One which has been associated with leprosy is Loppergarth, Pennington, which may mean ‘Lepers’ enclosure’. The local story claims its name derives from a leper hospital on the site – but it is much more likely that if it is indeed related to lepers, it is because the land had been set aside at some time, as an act of charity, to provide income to support a nearby hospital, most likely that at Consihead, about five kilometres away. Eilert Ekwall, Place-names of Lancashire (1922) says the name is first recorded 1595, and gives the unlikely derivation from ON hlaupari, a jumper (?) or vagabond, rather than from leper.
Text and photo by Bill Shannon