His face disfigured beyond recognition, the leper begged, clanging his bell and pleading for food. The kindly priest, Bartholomew Buonpedoni, always gave what he could, day after day, as he walked through the streets of his parish of Peccioli, Italy.
In the Middle Ages, lepers were considered extremely contagious, declared legally dead and forced to live apart from others, whether in special hospitals for lepers or in leper colonies. When advanced, leprosy causes the hands and feet to swell, lumps of discolored flesh to form on the surface of the skin, nerves are damaged, limbs are weakened, and hair is lost. Feeling may be lost in the skin, leading to numb areas that can result in severe injury if the leper is burnt or scalded. While relatively less contagious in the earlier stages, it becomes more contagious as the disease progresses. Furthermore, leprosy has a very long incubation period of 3-5 years and sometimes up to 20 years after exposure before symptoms of the disease appear. Treated today with antibiotics, there was no effective treatment in medieval times.
No one knows when Don Bartholomew contracted leprosy. However, it was likely in the course of his duties serving the lepers of the parish. The disease is passed by infected water droplets during coughing or sneezing.
It must have come as a shock when the middle aged priest noticed a whitened patch on his skin. He no doubt tried to treat the patch, but it grew worse. He was forced to admit to his superior that he had been stricken with leprosy.