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A few days ago, Mister Jarrett posted one of the more revolting hagiographical miracles I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Pleasure may not be the correct term, but his tale of saint-spittle and demonic possession entertained me. What that tells you about me I do not even know. At any rate, it reminded me of the most disgusting piece of Latin I have ever had the pleasure of translating.
A couple of years ago, I wrote an undergraduate essay on Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, the famous leper king. My argument was that the apparent softening of attitudes towards lepers in the Latin East had less to do with the king and more to do with other factors. Not least of these was the increasing influence of the order of leper knights, the Order of Saint Lazarus. In order to write about these things I also had to discuss leprosy in the thirteenth century more generally, and a damn fascinating topic it is. I tell you, I was quite the life of the party during that period, delighting in regaling friends and family with the grotesque details of the disease as well as some of the treatments proscribed.
One of the more obscure sources I found was one Gerard of Nazareth, bishop of Laodicea by 1140. The scholarly giant Benjamin Z. Kedar wrote a paper on the cleric, having collated the surviving fragments of his works. Among other things, Gerard discussed hermits and monasteries and the imitatio christi interpreted by some as requiring care of the ill. One particular monk he discusses in detail is Alberic, who was devoted to the lepers of a house outside the walls of Jerusalem. (A house I suspect was that granted to the Order of Lazarus, as a matter of fact.) Apparently Alberic was not a quiet man, prone to hurling abuse and invectives at passers-by.
Nonetheless, he was extremely devoted to his charges:
Albericus…Ierosolymis leprosis inservivit. Is ea quae reliqua fecerant leprosi, comedit, singulos quotidie exacta Missa exosculatus est, pedes eorum lavit, tersit, stravit lectos, languentes humeris cubitum portavit.
Alberic… was devoted to the lepers of Jerusalem. He ate those things which the lepers had left over, he kissed them individually every day at the end of Mass, washed their feet, cleansed them, made the beds, he carried those tiring leaning on him by the shoulders.
In fact, he was very devoted.
Cumque uni aliquando pedes lavisset, et aqua sanguine et sanie mixta ipsi nauseam moveret, protinus faciem immersit, et partem non exiguam (horrible dictu) exhausit.
And once when he had washed the feet of one of them, and the water mixed with blood and pus moved nausea in him, right away he immersed his face and (awful to say!) drained not a small part.
Naturally this reveals interesting details in the lives of both lepers and those devoted to them. Cleaning feet will minimize the secondary infections which are so dangerous to those afflicted with the disease, for example. Feeling (natural) disgust at the sight of such infected blood goes against the teachings that Alberic was following. There are valuable insights to be found here.
Yet it is inescapable that this excerpt of Latin describes a monk immersing his face in water mixed with blood and pus and then drinking some. Yum.