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Written by ILEP on 15 April 2009

In the autumn of 2009 Father Damien is to be canonised for his life devoted to people affected by leprosy in Hawaii. In The Legend of St Julian the Hospitaller Gustave Flaubert narrates his fictionalised version of this legend and St Julian’s redemption through caring for someone with leprosy.

It is quite a hapless tale. The constantly moving narrative could convey the impression that it has all been predetermined. That there is an unstoppable tide of events whose course cannot be altered. Or can they?

Julian is born into a serene and privileged environment, coddled by his doting parents within the enclosure of a castle decorated with pots of basil and heliotrope, its own bakery and wine press. However, his parents’ pleasure at his arrival is soon marred. One evening his mother’s sleep is broken by a hermit, who appears to her and encourages her to rejoice, because her son will become a saint. His mother keeps secret all that she had seen and heard by the light of a moon beam.

At the end of the feasting and celebrations in honour of his son’s birth, Julian’s father sees a beggar through mists, who predicts, in rather bewildering disorder for his son “… much blood… much glory… ever happy! An emperor’s family!” Like his wife, however, the father is not too sure how seriously to take these predictions - partially happy they might be true, partially wary of them.

Attentions are lavished on Julian, who is described as looking like a little baby Jesus. He is educated well. He learns to paint delicate pictures on vellum. His mother teaches him to sing. Julian’s actions are closely observed by his parents, each ascribing certain traits or activities as corroboration of the prophesies they have heard.

Julian develops a habit and taste for killing animals, even before his father insists he learn to hunt. He becomes an ever more compulsive killer. But one day a stag reveals a prophecy to Julian. So terrible is this prophecy that he takes to his bed for months. Soon after he gets up, he takes up a different hobby and, by accident, comes very close to fulfilling part of the stag’s prophecy.

An unfortunate incident later occurs, in which the stag’s prediction comes true. This, combined with a reputation that causes people to reject him, leads Julian to run away. He tries to survive by begging. Often he was rebuffed. He begins to help people in need, for example, children and those who are paralysed. Eventually he sets up a hospice near a dangerous river crossing and also helps people cross safely.

You will read how one day someone with leprosy, frozen and starving, appears on the river bank…

The ending of this short story shows the influence leprosy has had on others and how disease, particularly leprosy, has been interpreted as a means of redemption. How leprosy has been viewed as a living death and emblem of a fallen state. How someone can be labelled as a pariah and isolated in what amounts to the end of the world. It is also an indication of how individuals, who have cared for people affected by leprosy, have inspired and continue to inspire others.

  • The sources for Gustave Flaubert’s short story are uncertain and debated as is the origin of the legend of St Julian (for example it is thought it could have originated in either Belgium or France during the Middle Ages)
  • St Julian is a Roman Catholic Saint who is variously ascribed as being a patron of hospitallers, travellers, inn-keepers, hunters and hospitality
  • Flaubert ends his telling of this legend by saying that he has narrated the story told in the panels of stained glass windows in his local church (the Cathedral at Rouen)

The Legend of St Julian the Hospitaller by Gustave Flaubert published in English in Great Short Stories of the Masters, Cooper Square Press, New York, Ed. 2002, pgs 73-98
ISBN 0-8154-1253-3

Originally published in French in 1877 in the collection Les Trois Contes.


Categories: Book reviews