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Reflections on the bioarchaeology of leprosy and identity, past and present

Leprosy has always been very much a socially defined disease. It has been suggested that people with leprosy in the past suffered as a consequence of not only the disease itself, but also the associated stigma. Is there solid evidence that supports this suggestion? This chapter focuses on the evidence of leprosy in skeletons buried in the Middle Ages and beyond. It aims to challenge the traditional view that the management of leprosy in past communities reflected the ostracisation and marginalisation of sufferers. It considers skeletons with leprous bone changes buried in various funerary contexts, primarily in Europe. Previous and often current opinion is that people with leprosy were segregated into leprosy hospitals. However, the majority of skeletons with signs of the disease are not found in leprosy hospital cemeteries, and in some cases the burials appear to indicate that those buried were of ‘special’ or enhanced status, and were certainly not marginalised within the cemetery. This recent research indicates that people with leprosy were probably more accepted within their communities than previously thought.

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