Updated: Feb 5
The first Covid lock down of 2020 stands out very well in my memory because that was when I first started thinking of leper houses. The sun shone and we were all being encouraged to take a daily walk, and so I did. I walked in the fields behind our house, close to the boundary between Wisbech and Elm, where once, long ago there had been a leper house.
I used to imagine how the landscape might have looked back in those days, when the old Well Stream flowed along the course now followed by the A1101 as it makes its way through town towards Outwell. Standing on the river bank and looking towards Elm, I would have been able to see the ancient hospital that was dedicated to the care of lepers.
Leprosy was rife in early medieval England. The Church tried to help the situation and an early sort of social services system was created. Infirmaries were built for the care of the sick within many monasteries. In addition to these, there were around 750 ‘stand alone’ hospitals located in communities where there was no local religious house. Of these, around 200 were leper houses. One such institution was situated between Wisbech and Elm, but sadly its location is all that is known about it. We do not even know its name. Yet despite these drawbacks, my curiosity was awakened and Wisbech’s leper hospital became the subject of ‘The Lazar House’, the new Fenland Mystery.
There was no shortage of other material to research. Fortunately, we know quite a lot about the way in which hospitals of that time were run. It is often assumed that the monasteries, hospitals and schools were sloppily managed, but it would seem that poorly run institutions were in the minority. St Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine order of monasteries, created a long list of rules by which the brethren under his rule were to live. Among the rules applying to hospitals, he wrote that patients, or ‘guests’, as he called them, were to be treated ‘as if Christ himself.’ That says a lot about the dedication that went into the running of infirmaries.
By the time I had finished my research, I was well and truly inspired by the medieval leper hospitals of England. ‘The Lazar House’ has been a joy to write