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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

The Leper's Squint

Originally published on Photoblog by Gethin Thomas JULY. 23, 2021

The amazing tale of the leper and the stolen saint. This small glass window is a Leper's Squint, but it originally didn't have glass. It was a small access hole in the side of a church nave designed to prevent the transmission of a terrible and feared disease.

The small white sign below is a clue as to where we are. This is St. Neot Church in St. Neot, Cornwall, not to be confused with St Neots Priory in St. Neots, Cambridgeshire. The stone tomb is the original tomb of St. Neot and in the year 974, no, not 1974 but one thousand years earlier, his remains were stolen and re-interred at St. Neots in Cambridgeshire.

This is a very early example of celebrity culture and a lesson in how valuable a brand can be. Having a real dead saint on your business CV meant big money. It meant mega bucks tourism, or as they called it back then pilgrimage. Pilgrimage meant pilgrims, "faaasends of 'em" (forgive the film reference), who all needed a place to stay, food, offerings and souvenirs. Pilgrims are a guilty bunch, and guilt means prizes, lots of them. Forgiveness for sins didn't come cheap.

Not much is known about St. Neot today but it is believed that his real name was Aneitus, a Celtic saint who lived and preached in Cornwall.

Well respected for his piety, humility and spiritual counselling one legend tells of this man of small stature standing up to his neck in water while reciting all 150 of the Psalms. It is believed he died in approximately 877.

Just above the tomb in the left hand corner is a small window, now glazed. This is a Leper's Squint.

"In 1313, the vicar having become a Leper, the Bishop appointed a coadjutor and ordered certain appartments in the vicarage to be set aside for the Leper's own use."

The leper's squint was an attempt to prevent the spread of leprosy while still allowing the vicar to meet his flock. Please note, the churches remained open in a time of great ignorance, fear and lack of understanding about disease transmission and there were no vaccines. Contrast that with todays shutting of churches completely during the pandemic. The existence of Leper's Squints is an indication of attitudes in the past towards communicable disease.

The Time of Leprosy in England: 11th Century to 14th Century

Reaction to the disease was complicated. Some people believed it was a punishment for sin, but others saw the suffering of lepers as similar to the suffering of Christ. Because lepers were enduring purgatory on earth, they would go directly to heaven when they died, and were therefore closer to God than other people. Those who cared for them or made charitable donations believed that such good works would reduce their own time in purgatory and accelerate their journey to heaven.

So here in St. Neot you have an example of a vicar of a large church who was known to have a terrible and infectious disease but who carried on his work, socially distanced from his flock instead of being cast out.

Right next door to the church is the old coaching inn, The London Inn. The name is an indication of what coaches stopped the night here. The hill leading east out of the village is still called "London Bound". It is still a working inn today and still welcomes people in a time of fear and disease, no mask required by customer or staff, but no leper's squint in this case, just the contemporary equivalent, acrylic panels fixed to the existing old timbers, seen here below.

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