Until the 19th century, Trumpington Street marked the edge of Cambridge’s development to the south, along the main London road. Beyond this were vast fields and open fenland. It was here, at Spittle End, that the leper hospital of Saints Anthony and Eligius was founded in 1361.
It was one of the many leper hospitals – or 'leprosaria' – which sprang up all over medieval Europe, at a time when leprosy was endemic. Leprosy (or Hansen’s Disease as we now know it) has varied symptoms, but primarily affects the skin, nerves and mucous membranes, resulting in painful skin lesions and disfigurements.
Leprosy was regarded in many different ways in the Middle Ages. Some saw it as a manifestation of God’s punishment, associated with lust and other kinds of sexual sin. Others believed lepers were enduring a kind of Purgatory on earth and therefore their suffering was considered more holy than that of an ordinary person.
Strict leper laws were enforced throughout Europe, which segregated sufferers in an attempt to contain what was then perceived as a highly contagious disease. However evidence suggests that lepers were also well cared for within medieval society. Hospitals were run along monastic lines with a well-appointed chapel and lepers received regular supplies of candles, food, ale and clothing.
Although leprosy had waned by the mid-14th century, Leper Houses continued to provide a refuge for the poor and those with infectious diseases, such as syphilis.
Today, the medieval remains of Barnwell Leper Chapel still stands on the Newmarket Road, all that is left of a substantial Leper Hospital on that site.