Medieval leper colony being unearthed in Ypres


Rich remains are being pulled from the ground in a district of Ypres, which should provide a full picture of what life was like in a leper colony of the middle ages

Hooge Siecken

Throughout the middle ages, regions across Europe had to cope with outbreaks of leprosy. So disfiguring and deadly, the infectious disease gave birth to many leper colonies, where the more privileged received care, separated from the rest of society.

In Ypres, archaeologists are unearthing a unique site that provides a glimpse of life in these isolated communities. Ground broke in April on the project, which is providing rich remains of a medieval leper colony behind the Sint-Jan church.

Not long before that, the historical site was threatened by planned sewage works for new developments. In Belgium, archaeologically valuable spots can generally only be protected when they are threatened with destruction.

In this case, it was a closer call than usual: Works had already started up without an archaeological consultation. As the historical importance of the site was well known, archaeologists were able to halt the construction works in time to limit the damage.

“The existence of the leper colony at Sint-Jan, one of the most significant in the region, is quite well-documented,” says Sofie Vanhoutte, an archaeologist at Flanders Heritage Agency. She is co-ordinating the dig, which is being carried out by the archaeological firm Monument Vandekerckhove, with the support of local heritage agency CO7.

“A drawing in the book Flandria illustrata by Flemish cleric and historian Antonius Sanderus gives us a good idea of what the leper colony looked like,” she explains. The drawing in the 17th-century book refers to the site as “Hooge Siecken”, which means “Extremely Sick” in old Dutch.

Much information about the site is collected in a history book by local guide Jenny Vandenbulcke. We know that a first leper colony was established closer to Ypres’ city centre in the 12th century. But because of strong growth, that colony was closed down and a new one established further away in about 1230. It was in today’s Sint-Jan district.

A committee of clerics and physicians decided whether you were allowed to enter a leper colony

- Archaeologist Sofie Vanhoutte

At that time, most towns in Flanders – called the County of Flanders – had leper colonies. Leprosy, which causes disfiguring skin sores and severe nerve damage in the limbs, became a prominent threat from the 11th century on and was looked upon as a punishment from God.

While people suffering from leprosy were excluded from society, it was considered a Christian duty to help them, resulting in the establishment of leper colonies. The colonies were small, self-sufficient communities where groups of sick received care.

Archival documents suggest that the colony at Ypres generally housed between 10 and 15 people at a time, as well as caretakers. It consisted of small houses, a chapel, a brewery, a bakery and a gatehouse. A deep ditch separated it from the rest of the countryside, and there as only one way in and out.

Clearing house

To be admitted to a leper colony was a privilege, because the residents not only got proper care but also an annual allowance. People with leprosy outside of them were condemned to wander around as outcasts, living off alms.

“A small committee of clerics and physicians decided whether you were allowed to enter a leper colony,” explains Vanhoutte. “The sick had to present themselves and had their condition assessed. The criteria on which the decisions were based are vague, and it seems that the social status of people played a role. So mostly well-off people got in.”

The status of the Ypres colony can be discerned from documentation showing that sick people from other cities in the region, like Kortrijk and Oudenaarde, also had to present themselves at the Sint-Jan site. Sources state that 3,180 people were examined there between 1549 and 1583.

We hope to find out how the colony was structured, what kind of food they ate and what kind of products they could afford

- Sofie Vanhoutte

The care facilities existed until about 1650, when the threat of leprosy abated. The property officially became a farm, but it continued to serve as a foundation for the sick, first for people  with leprosy and later for those with the plague. The chapel of the former colony was gradually opened to everyone, and Sint-Jan eventually became a regular Catholic community in 1839.

During the First World War, most of Sint-Jan was demolished by bombardments. Many historical remains were untouched, however, even though they were hidden just below the surface. Among the artefacts are bomb shelters from the war, but particularly fascinating are the remnants of the leper colony.

“We have found walls, fireplaces, waste from animal slaughter, kitchenware, tools, clothing accessories, glassware and personal care items like a wooden comb,” says Vanhoutte. “One impressive find is a near complete, lavishly decorated earthenware pot from the 13th century, a luxury product that shows that the people with leprosy enjoyed some comforts.”

The archaeologists have also uncovered about 55 skeletons, which they will examine for symptoms of leprosy. An international team of researchers, including experts from KU Leuven and the University of Cambridge, has shown an interest in analysing the DNA as part of a broader project on leprosy.

The dig continues until October, after which the collected remains will be thoroughly investigated and a report made up. “We hope to find out how the colony was built and structured, how people lived there, what kind of food they ate and what kind of products they could afford,” says Vanhoutte. “In combination with the knowledge obtained from historical sources, we should be able to give quite a unique picture of life in a leper colony.”

Before the archaeological site makes way for the development of building plots, the public is invited to a presentation and guided tour, which will take place on 21 September. There are also plans for a museum exhibition later on.

Photos from top: 55 skeletons have already been found on the site; an illustration from an old book suggests what the colony looked like; archaeologist Sofie Vanhoutte