Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: St Elizabeth washing a leper
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    In this manuscript illustration, St Elizabeth of Hungary kneels to wash the foot of a leper, who can be identified primarily by the red marks covering his leg, face and hands. The leper is clothed in red and green and sitting on a box or seat. In his left hand is a clapper; such devices were long believed to have been used in order to alert others to the presence of lepers. He holds his right hand in front of his face. This action may be for the purpose of communicating the leper’s shame at needing assistance or else to obscure his facial features. Leprosy can cause disfigurement, such as open wounds or the loss of the nose. St Elizabeth is accompanied by another woman, dressed in the same colors as the leper, who is holding out a clean white cloth. A number of other people, with a woman and bald, bearded man distinguishable in the front, look on at the scene from behind the leper. The woman’s face is marked with the same signs of leprosy.

    This miniature appears in the manuscript of Madame Marie’s picture book. It is believed by some that the titular Madame Marie could have been Marie de Rethel, who married Waultier d’Enghien in 1266. She is best known for commissioning a French translation of the Liber de monstruosis hominibus by Thomas de Cantimpré, and founding hospitals in the Mons region. This manuscript was created around 1285 in France by two artists, an assistant painter known by the name of Master Henri and a master painter who is unknown. The pages of the manuscript, which are comprised of eighty-seven full page miniature paintings, contain thirty-three scenes in the life of Christ and fifty-four depictions of the saints in order of the litany. Madame Marie herself is featured kneeling in prayer in ten images in front of her favourite saints, and these depictions were designed strategically to represent her social status as an aristocratic wife and mother. Several of the images are striking due to the fact that they contain gruesome displays of torture and martyrdom, including decapitation and flaying of saints. However, Madame Marie is not featured in any of these scenes of torture; thus, she shares the perspective of the reader: one that absorbs these images from a distance, reflecting on the virtues of the saints.

    Leprosy – in its current form known as Hansen’s disease - is caused by Mycobacterium leprae, a slow-growing bacteria in the same genus as the causative agent of tuberculosis. The disease can cause nerve damage, which can result in paralysis, blindness, and loss of appendages or limbs. While leprosy is considered a stigmatized illness today and in recent history, medieval historians have in recent decades come to the conclusion that this understanding of leprosy is incorrect for the Middle Ages.

    Traditionally, historians believed that the disease was always stigmatized, considered to be a sign of poverty, and made those infected outcasts from society. Historians thought that those with leprosy were forced to wear bells and carry clappers to warn those nearby. However, as Monica H. Green wrote in her letter to the editor, those infected with leprosy carried such accessories due to the loss of function of their larynx. Indeed, people infected with leprosy were not cast out, but cared for and revered because they were thought to be closer to God. Saint Elizabeth of Hungary was their saint. As Ottó Gecser writes, the person with leprosy in the painting is elevated above the other figures, showing his position as closer to Jesus. More evidence of the respect for those with leprosy is a beautiful clapper reported by Koldeweij and Vlierman. They argue this demonstrates a higher status for the owner, though, in their reckoning, this does not align with usual medieval practices. How people living with leprosy were viewed during the Middle Ages is a complex issue which historians of medicine and disability studies continue to document based on primary sources.

    We can further interpret St Elizabeth’s role in this illustration by considering the Biblical understanding of charity. It is defined as a virtue in which the practitioner has a love of God and their neighbours and strives to engage in pious and practical acts. The identification of Christ with the poor and the sick from the Gospel of John and First Corinthians inspired medieval Christians to provide for others. This would have included actions such as feeding the hungry and visiting the sick as a means of ensuring the salvation of one’s immortal soul. Charity would not have been carried out purely due to a motivation to be kind but instead was seen as a mutually beneficial relationship for both the one giving the charity and the one receiving it. The connection between charity and leprosy is relatively straightforward, insofar as tending to the sick was seen as a charitable act. However, some complexities emerge, particularly when taking into account the extent to which the sufferings of the 13th-century leper were seen in a religious light.

    Elma Brenner has recently discussed how visiting a leper house could be an opportunity to receive lepers' prayers, something that was sought after due to the belief that God chose lepers for heavenly redemption without time in Purgatory. St Elizabeth was revered widely, in part because of her charitable acts in serving lepers. Among other works, the saint helped found a hospital for lepers, attending to the sick herself. The two miracles for which St Elizabeth is most famous, those involving the leper and the food turned into roses, both highlight the saint’s proclivity for charity. In the former case, a leper Elizabeth has placed in her bed is seen by Elizabeth’s husband as the crucified Christ in order to deter any accusations of adultery. This is a story that emphasizes how even wealthy men are required to perform acts of charity.

  • Source: Gallica, Bibliothèque nationale de France
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Elizabeth of Hungary, Saint Hagiography Leprosy Madame Marie, Owner of a Devotional Picture Book Manuscripts- Ownership of Marie de Rethel, Wife of Wautier d'Enghien Noble Women Picture Books
  • Geographic Area: France
  • Century: 13
  • Date: 1280-1290
  • Related Work: Digital copy of Madame Marie’s book, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. n.a. fr. 16251.
    Saint Margaret, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS n.a. fr. 16251, fol. 100r.
    Saints Juliana and Christine, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS n.a. fr. 16251, fol. 102r.
    Saints Waudru of Mons and Gertrude of Nivelles, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS n.a. fr. 16251, fol. 104r.
    St Elisabeth washing a beggar, second half of the 15th century, a scene from the main altar of St Elisabeth Cathedral in Košice, Slovakia.
    Saint Elizabeth washing a leper, 1480-1500, winged retable, Parish Church of St. Giles, Bardejov, Slovakia.
  • Current Location: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS n.a. fr. 1625, fol. 103v
  • Original Location: France, Hainaut (Mons?)
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Manuscript illuminations
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Paint;
  • Donor: Laywoman; ? Marie de Rethel, Wife of Wautier d'Enghien, lord of Mons
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 18/13/
  • Inscription: "Sainte Ysabiel" [Saint Elizabeth]
  • Related Resources:

    Brenner, Elma. “Introduction: Leprosy, Charity and Rouen.” Leprosy and Charity in Medieval Rouen. Boydell & Brewer, 2015. Pages. 1–18.

    Gecser, Ottó. “Miracles of the Leper and the Roses: Charity, Chastity and Female Independence in St.Elizabeth of Hungary.” Franciscana 15 (2013): 149-171.

    Green, Monica H., Kathleen Walker-Meikle, and Wolfgang P. Müller. “Diagnosis of a ‘Plague’ Image: A Digital Cautionary Tale.” The Medieval Globe 1, 1 (2014). Available open access.

    Green, Monica H. “Lepers and Their Bells.” New York Times 12 Feb. 2013.

    Hamburger, Jeffrey F. "The Picture Book of Madame Marie (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale Ms. n.a. fr. 16251)." Scriptorium 52, 2 (1998): 413-428.

    Koldeweij, A.M and K. Vlierman. “A Remarkable Clapper: Significance, Function and Origin.” A Small Cog, Wrecked on the Zuiderzee in the Early Fifteenth Century. Edited by Frederick Martin Hocker and Karel Vlierman. Ketelhaven, 1996. Pages 86-97.

    Skinner, Patricia. Living with Disfigurement in Early Medieval Europe. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

    Stones, Alison. "Nipples, Entrails, Severed Heads, and Skin: Devotional Images for Madame Marie." Image and Belief: Studies in Celebration of the Eightieth Anniversary of the Index of Christian Art. Edited by Colum Hourihane. Index of Christian Art, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University in association with Princeton University Press, 1999. Pages 47-70.

    Wolf, Kenneth Baxter. The Life and Afterlife of St. Elizabeth of Hungary: Testimony from Her Canonization Hearings. Oxford University Press, 2011.