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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature


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Leprosy is a name that was given by the Greek physicians to a scaly disease of the skin. During the dark ages it was indiscriminately applied to all chronic diseases of the skin, and more particularly to elephantiasis, to which latter, however, it does not bear the slightest resemblance. The disease, as it is known at the present day, commences by an eruption of small reddish spots slightly raised above the level of the skin, and grouped in a circle. These spots are soon covered by a very thin, semi-transparent scale or epidermis, of a whitish color, and very smooth, which in a little time falls off, and leaves the skin beneath red and uneven. As the circles increase in diameter the skin recovers its healthy appearance towards the center fresh scales are formed, which are now thicker, and superimposed one above the other, especially at the edges, so that the center of the scale appears to be depressed. The scales are of a grayish white color, and have something of a micaceous or pearly luster. The circles are generally of the size of a shilling or half-crown, but they have been known to attain half a foot in diameter. The disease generally affects the knees and elbows, but sometimes it extends over the whole body; in which case the circles become confluent. It does not at all affect the general health, and the only inconvenience it causes the patient is a slight itching when the skin is heated; or, in inveterate cases, when the skin about the joints is much thickened, it may in some degree impede the free motion of the limbs. It is common to both sexes, to almost all ages, and all ranks of society. It is not in the least infectious, but it is always difficult to be cured, and in old persons, when it is of long standing, may be pronounced incurable. It is commonly met with in this country and in all parts of Europe. On turning to the Mosaic account, we find three species mentioned, which were all included under the generic term of Bahéret, or 'bright spot.' The first is called Bóhaq, which signifies 'brightness,' but in a subordinate degree. This species did not render a person unclean. The second was called Bahéret lebanáh, or a bright white Bahéret. The third was Bahéret kéháh, or dusky Bahéret, spreading in the skin. These two last were also called 'a stroke,' as if a chastisement, and rendered a person unclean. The characteristic marks of the Bahéret lebanáh mentioned by Moses, are a glossy white and spreading scale upon an elevated base, the elevation depressed in the middle, the hair on the patches participating in the whiteness, and the patches themselves perpetually increasing. There are some other slight affections mentioned by name in Leviticus, which the priest was required to distinguish from leprosy. If a person had any of the above diseases he was brought before the priest to be examined. If the priest found the distinctive signs of a contagious leprosy, the person was immediately declared unclean. If the priest had any doubt on the subject, the person was put under confinement for seven days, when he was examined a second time. If in the course of the preceding week the eruption had made no advance, he was shut up for another seven days; and if then the disease was still stationary, and had none of the distinctive signs above noticed, he was declared clean (Leviticus 13).

It may be useful here to subjoin a description of elephantiasis, or the leprosy of the Middle Ages, as this is the disease from which most of the prevalent notions concerning leprosy have been derived, and to which the notices of lepers contained in modern books of travels exclusively refer.

Elephantiasis first of all makes its appearance by spots of a reddish, yellowish, or livid hue, irregularly disseminated over the skin and slightly raised above its surface. These spots are glossy, and appear oily, or as if they were covered with varnish. After they have remained in this way for a longer or shorter time, they are succeeded by an eruption of tubercles. These are soft, roundish tumors, varying in size from that of a pea to that of an olive, and are of a reddish or livid color. They are principally developed on the face and ears, but in the course of years extend over the whole body. The face becomes frightfully deformed; the forehead is traversed by deep lines and covered with numerous tubercles; the eyebrows become bald, swelled, furrowed by oblique lines, and covered with nipple-like elevations; the eyelashes fall out, and the eyes assume a fixed and staring look; the lips are enormously thickened and shining; the beard falls out; the chin and ears are enlarged and beset with tubercles; the lobe and ala of the nose are frightfully enlarged and deformed; the nostrils irregularly dilated, internally constricted, and excoriated; the voice is hoarse and nasal, and the breath intolerably fetid. After some time, generally after some years, many of the tubercles ulcerate, and the matter which exudes from them dries to crusts of a brownish or blackish color; but this process seldom terminates in cicatrization. The extremities are affected in the same way as the face. The hollow of the foot is swelled out, so that the sole becomes flat; the sensibility of the skin is greatly impaired, and, in the hands and feet, often entirely lost; the joints of the toes ulcerate and fall off one after the other; insupportable fetor exhales from the whole body. The patient's general health is not affected for a considerable time, and his sufferings are not always of the same intensity as his external deformity. Often, however, his nights are sleepless or disturbed by frightful dreams; he becomes morose and melancholy; he shuns the sight of the healthy, because he feels what an object of disgust he is to them, and life becomes a loathsome burden to him; or he falls into a state of apathy, and after many years of such an existence he sinks either from exhaustion, or from the supervention of internal disease. The Greeks gave the name of elephantiasis to this disease, because the skin of the person affected with it was thought to resemble that of an elephant, in dark color, ruggedness, and insensibility, or, as some have thought, because the foot, after the loss of the toes, when the hollow of the sole is filled up and the ankle enlarged, resembles the foot of an elephant. About the period of the Crusades elephantiasis spread itself like an epidemic over all Europe, even as far north as the Faroe Islands; and henceforth, owing to the above-named mistakes, everyone became familiar with leprosy under the form of the terrible disease that has just been described. Leper or lazar-houses abounded everywhere; as many as 2000 are said to have existed in France alone. The disease was considered to be contagious possibly only on account of the belief that was entertained respecting its identity with Jewish leprosy, and the strictest regulations were enacted for secluding the diseased from society. Towards the commencement of the seventeenth century the disease gradually disappeared from Europe, and is now confined to intertropical countries. It existed in Faroe as late as 1676, and in the Shetland Islands in 1736, long after it had ceased in the southern parts of Great Britain. The best authors of the present day who have had an opportunity of observing the disease do not consider it to be contagious. There seems, however, to be little doubt as to its being hereditary.





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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Leprosy'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature".

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