HISTORIC MALDON: the ruins that tell of a dreaded disease of the past

  Posted: 27.09.20 at 10:56 by by Nick Spenceley

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This week Maldon Nub News explores the surprising history of one of the town’s medieval relics

CONTAGION, isolation and social distancing have become all-too familiar words in 2020.

But in times past the fear of disease, disfigurement and death was something people lived through on a permanent footing. Maldon has a precious relic of a time when a terrible disease was greeted not just with isolation and fear, but also with respect and kindness.

Tucked away off Spital Road lies St. Giles Leper Hospital, founded in 1164 by Henry II.

Medieval hospitals aimed to provide physical and spiritual care for the sick. St. Giles is the only remnant of 10 medieval hospitals known to have existed in Essex. Leper hospitals were even rarer institutions, very few of which survive nationally. They tended to be located outside population centres, but near enough to access roads to enable the inmates to beg for alms.

Leprosy (also known as Hansen’s Disease) is a bacterial infection which can damage the nerves, respiratory tract, skin and eyes. It is entirely treatable nowadays, but in past times was dreaded particularly because of the skin disease and other disfigurements caused by loss of sensation and damage to the extremities.

Lepers are referred to extensively in the Bible (though the term probably covers a number of skin diseases). The Old Testament emphasised the casting out of lepers as “unclean”, but in the Gospels they were especially favoured with compassion. Hence in medieval times we see them physically separated, but also well cared for, as their suffering was seen in some ways as a holy thing – suffering not only for their own sins, but also for others. A chapel was always at the heart of a leper hospital, and the prayers of the lepers for their benefactors were greatly valued. Lepers grew their own food, traded small items, and could
have some contact with their families.

It is the chapel that chiefly survives at St. Giles, but the foundations of the other buildings still lie underground in the surrounding area. As leprosy declined in the 13th and 14th centuries, St. Giles became a general hospital. This transferred to Beeleigh Abbey in 1481.

St. Giles later became a barn, and was ruinous by the late 19th Century.

Until relatively modern times, the “cure” offered by doctors for an ailment was often worse than the disease. At a leper hospital however, the philosophy was to leave well alone, and the regime of communal living, prayer and meditation, exercise, good diet and frequent washing of clothes was probably the best that was on offer at the time.

Now owned by Maldon Town Council, St. Giles was sadly the object of vandalism last year and is now only open by special arrangement, but can be seen from the entrance on Spital Road.

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