William Bruce, M.A., FSA Scot
The Leper King? Not So:
Every so often the myth about King Robert I being a leper comes up, often from those who are his self chosen detractors, people whose agenda is to discredit the king’s character, person and reign. There are others who are merely curious, having heard obtuse rumors and having read obscure references. So, let us put this straight and then to rest.
True leprosy, known in the medical profession as Hanson’s Disease, is an insidious and crippling illness which has been feared since ancient times. Those who contracted the disease before the advent of modern medicine could look forward to only a slow process in which their bodies deteriorated and were sometimes grossly disfigured. They were believed to be infectious to all around them, and, from time to time in the progress of the disease, they were. In many places and times, laws were enacted barring those so afflicted from all social intercourse. They could live only in very restricted places and venues, and were required to make their condition known to all so that others could avoid contact. They lost their livelihoods, were considered dead to their families, and sometimes were considered to actually be dead, well before breathing their last. Funerals were conducted and mock burials took place. In anticipation of physical death, they were condemned to social death, with marital, parental, business and legal affairs terminated. However, in the last of the classical and throughout the whole of the medieval periods of history, it was the church which, although complicit in the marginalization of lepers, was also the institution which did not forget them and which provided a measure of relief. Christian brothers of the Order of Saint Lazarus built leprosarium throughout Europe and the Middle East and provided what medical and palliative care could be had in those days. As you can well imagine, diagnostics in medieval times were primitive, and many false diagnoses were made. The result was that many persons with skin diseases which had nothing whatsoever to do with leprosy were misdiagnosed as having that disease.
From the perspective of the 21st century, it should not be surprising to us that King Robert I did indeed suffer from very serious skin conditions which also affected his immune system and made him a candidate for even more serious infections. Anyone who spent lengthy periods of time on the run, without adequate shelter, in all kinds of weather and with a very poor diet would be subject to such illness. Add to all of that an often frustrated sense of purpose, severe emotional stress and separation from family and friends and you have conditions ripe for all kinds of medical problems.
As best I understand it, Robert’s symptoms included large patches of reddened skin which were very sensitive to the touch. As time passed, these patches dried and skin flaked away. From time to time they covered large parts of his body and caused him great discomfort. Very serious episodes were accompanied by weakness and fever, with muscle and joint pain. It must have been a horrible thing to endure. Recently I described these symptoms to a friend who is a specialist in internal medicine and asked him what his diagnosis would be if he was to encounter a patient experiencing them. He noted that all of these things would be consistent with skin infections caused by poor sanitation and exposure. Untreated or poorly treated, these things could also cause more serious systemic problems. Today, all this would easily be treated with improved hygiene and antibiotics. However, in King Robert’s day, all that could be done would be to provide good food (as close to a balanced diet as could be achieved), require the patient to get plenty of rest, to keep the body and environment clean, and provide what other palliative care could be had. Unfortunately, in that day, even those things were not clearly understood and practiced. Folk medicines were undoubtedly applied in King Robert’s case, and some may have done as much harm as others did for his good. Yet another possible explanation for his symptoms would be scurvy, caused by nutritional deficiencies such as Robert would have experienced from time to time while constantly on the road and in the saddle in defense of Scotland. Whatever the problem may have been, it was certainly not Hanson’s Disease. It would not have made much difference that it was not leprosy in his day and age, as the symptoms themselves would have been enough, had they been widely known, to bring down his reign, much to the detriment of the nation.
(Composed May, 2009) (Copyright William Bruce, May, 2009)