Lazar houses in medieval Wrocław, capital of Lower Silesia

Lazar houses in medieval Wrocław, capital of Lower Silesia

Leprosy has been with people for thousands of years. This disease causes skin changes visible to the naked eye: discoloration, calluses, ulcers, and swellings, so sufferers could not hide their symptoms under a layer of clothes. Ancient Greeks associated the symptoms of this cruel disease with reptile scales. The Romans also adopted this word from their teachers, which has been used as “lepra” in Latin ever since. According to old beliefs, it was Pompey’s Roman legionaries stationed in Egypt that spread leprosy throughout the empire. In the Middle Ages, the disease traveled along trade routes and appeared in almost every corner of the continent.

The suffering caused by the symptoms of leprosy was accompanied by another burden: social rejection and loneliness. People considered leprosy to be a highly contagious disease, so lepers were avoided and efforts were made to isolate them from healthy members of society. In some communities, infection with leprosy was equivalent to death: even though the infected person could live for many years, a symbolic funeral was organized for him.

But what to do with quite a large populace of isolated lepers? Since they lived and functioned on the fringes of the community, they had to live and function somewhere. Already in the 4th century CE, the first leper colonies were established – they were founded in desolate places, for example on islands, to isolate the infected from the rest of the community. Sometimes small towns grew up around these specific districts, where lepers ruled themselves in an almost democratic manner.

During the Crusades, the chivalric orders were established, which, apart from prayer, chose the defense of pilgrims and the advancement of faith as their mission: not only in the Middle East but also in the Iberian Peninsula and Eastern Europe. The most famous of them were the legendary Templar Knights.

One of the oldest orders were the knights of St. Lazarus, who looked after a hospital for lepers in Jerusalem. Initially, only leper knights decided to join the ranks of this order. Infected warriors, not fearing death, were to wreak havoc in the enemy ranks. Over time, healthy risk-takers also wore robes with a green cross on a white field – the symbol of the Lazarites.

Wrocław in 18th century by , dzieło Friedrich Bernhard Werner. Source:  Topographia Silesiae

Knights of St. Lazarus established new facilities for people suffering from leprosy also in Europe because the returning crusaders brought the disease to their homelands. After the fall of the crusader states, the Lazarites continued their activity on the European continent, and in the 13th century, they appeared in Poland. 

Medieval Silesia is a fascinating land. In the Piast principalities, which were at the crossroads of the cultures of the Empire, Bohemia, and Poland, a certain kind of awareness of individuality and local patriotism began to form. Despite the fragmentation of Silesia into many smaller organisms ruled by separate rulers, the entire region experienced a period of development associated with the influx of people and the development of cities.

Knights of St. Lazarus appeared in Wrocław in the 13th century. They founded the hospital probably in the second decade of this century, during the reign of the powerful Prince Henry the Bearded. The first mention of the temple of St. Lazarus, erected next to the hospital of the same call, dates from 1260. The facility was intended only for men. It was a specific period in the history of the city, as it was rebuilding itself anew after the devastating invasion of the Tatars. The network of streets and the market square of today’s Wrocław date back to those times. The church and hospital were situated outside the city walls, on the road from Wrocław towards Oława. The original church has not survived to our times, and in the mid-fourteenth century, a small, single-nave, gothic red brick block was built in its place. Over the following centuries, it was damaged and rebuilt many times. 

Silesia in 1561. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Next to the church and hospital buildings, a cemetery was established, where the deceased from this institution were buried. At the end of the Middle Ages, when the leprosy was slowly disappearing in Europe, St. Lazarus Hospital, like other institutions, originally intended only for lepers, began to welcome into its walls also other sick, lonely, and forsaken.

The old medieval hospital was demolished in 1814. Above the entrance was the Latin name of the institution: “A shelter for the elderly and the poor.” In its place, a new building was erected, preserved to this day. Both can still be admired on Romuald Traugutt Street in Wrocław. Interestingly, even though so much has changed, this is still a place where people in need are cared for. Today, the hospital is hosted by the Albertine Sisters, who run the Care and Treatment Center for Adults here.

Wrocław had one more leprosarium, intended for women. It was located north of the Old Town and was called St. Jerome. Today it is the area of ​​Ołbińska and Kręta streets. Unfortunately, the medieval church and the hospital did not survive the 16th century, when the townspeople dismantled many buildings north of the city walls, fearing the Turks. In the mid-sixteenth century, the church and hospital were rebuilt in this place, which, however, ceased to function as a leprosarium, and became a shelter for women in need. At the beginning of the 19th century, this complex was also destroyed, this time for fear of the Napoleonic army. In 1821, the body of the church and a shelter that has survived to this day were erected. Today, a dormitory of the University of Wrocław functions here, and a magnificent frontage of 19th-century tenement houses has been built around the area of ​​the former leprosarium. After 1945, the church lost its former invocation of St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins, and became known as the Church of the Protection of St. Joseph, and his hosts were the Carmelites. However, an attentive stroller will find the heritage of the Middle Ages here: original gothic elements from the second half of the 15th century were installed above the entrance portal. However, they are not part of the former leprosarium … of the former Mikołajska Gate, dismantled at the beginning of the 19th century.

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