Leprosy and social exclusion in Italo Calvino’s Il visconte dimezzato and Umberto Eco’s Il nome della rosa
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The leper is the ultimate symbol of the social outcast. Plagued by connotations of not just contagion but of sinfulness and moral depravity, lepers have long been stigmatized and excluded from society. The Hebrew Bible declared them to be unclean, and their influence was believed to be wholly corrupting, as if their physical deformities were an external sign of their defiled souls. In the Middle Ages, those diagnosed with leprosy were made to undergo a particularly severe ritual that closely resembled the office of the dead, making them effectively dead to the world. They were then isolated from the healthy population in leprosariums, and their movements and behaviors were strictly controlled. However, their exclusion can be seen as serving a larger purpose than just the protection of normal society from infection in that it can be used by those in power as a mechanism of social control. The imputation of danger to undesirable persons of a given community ensures that they will be duly feared and ostracized. It is within this context that Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco make use of the idea of the leper as a social outlier in their novels, Il visconte dimezzato and Il nome della rosa, as a way to critique certain processes of exclusion, namely the construction and stigmatization of a social “other” as a means of maintaining social order. This report draws on the historical and literary treatments of the leper to discuss the ways in which Calvino and Eco successfully employ the image of the leper to represent the machinery of exclusion and to shed light on the continued marginalization of outcast groups down to the present day.