Updated: Nov 13, 2022
In an excellent case study on Henryson's "The Testament of Cressid", Ellis Herndon Hutson (1972) identifies the symptoms of the literary Cressid as syphilis more than leprosy. Here, the author makes an interesting hypothesis: when Henryson talks about the abject condition of Cressid he is perhaps talking about syphilis. That is because the references to syphilis and leprosy in Middle Ages are always very peculiar.
Overall, the medieval idea of disability always has a moral signification (Klassen 2001; Sontag 2001). For instance, HIV was always framed in a way to blame non-conventional sexual behaviour, such as homosexuality, and became a pretext for social stigma and homophobic discourse. Even though the medical personnel working in the health sector was the one who was mostly exposed to the illness. (And, last but not least, covid in every place it has hit is no exception.)
During Middle Ages, if a body is damaged, it perhaps was due to God’s will to warn humanity, and this issue encloses immorality at the same time. Diseases are always attached to some kind of pejorative moral judgment. And this is especially true if one considers that we all cannot resist the tendency to project illnesses outside the community of provenance –and in these terms, Syphilis in Italy was traditionally called "il mal di Francia" (the French disease), whereas in France it was called "le mal de Naples" (the Neapolitan disease).
In the case of Henryson, even though the tendency to separate the two diseases is still very dominant, it is very likely that this distinction should not have existed exist. This is especially true if one compares the two symptomatologies. In fact, it is generally known leprosy has a long incubation and takes years to manifest itself. In the Middle Ages, leprosy is treated as a contagious disease, often linked to sexual intercourse. The illness could affect the skin, brain, vocal cords, larynx, and sexual organs, which trigger pustular manifestations and voice changes. Leprosy is therefore rarely deadly but syphilis is. Secondary syphilis may have consequences at the level of the skin as well as other tissues in numerous ways similar to leprosy.
Yet, whereas leprosy is not at all a contagious disease but from the literary point of view, it may become such to fulfil a literary function as a narratological device. It is very likely that this is also due to the fact that the lack of understanding on the part of the contemporaries must have been the basis for this confusion between the two illnesses.
A confirmation may come from the fact that the female protagonist's misfortune in the poem is linked to love deceit, which can be easily associated with sexual intercourse, the loss of virginal status, and therefore moral impurity. Sociologically, this case may be taken as an eloquent example of the way in which communities respond to threats creating an imaginary safety zone whose borders correspond with the notion of closeness concerning personal relationships –even though this may be meant to craft and stigmatise otherness with illness can serve as a way to reinforce the coherence in the 'body politic.'
Klassen, Benjamin. "'Facing it Together': Early Caregiving Responses to Vancouver’s HIV/AIDS Epidemics," Gender & History, 2001, 33.3: 774-789.
Hutson Herndon, Ellis. "Diagnosing a case of venereal disease in fifteenth century Scotland," British Journal of Venereal Diseases, 1972, 48: 146-53.
Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, Picador, 2001, 57-87.