Matthew chapter 25 tells us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and take in the stranger.
Medieval hospitals did just that. They were charity in concrete form. While the modern hospital provides medical care, many medieval hospitals were founded simply for the poor. They provided a home for those too handicapped or elderly to work - people who might otherwise have to beg in the streets if their families could not care for them. Other hospitals took in the stranger. They were hostels for pilgrims and other wayfarers. The leperhouses had their own rationale - segregation of the leper.
What remains of these refuges? Many were swept away at the Reformation. Some live on in other guises. The great teaching Hospital of St Bartholomew in London scarcely looks like a relic of the Middle Ages, yet its museum houses an archive going back to the twelfth century. Bart's is a rarity though in its evolution into a hospital in the modern sense. The medieval hospital was more akin to an almshouse. The natural progression was to continue in that role, but modernising over the centuries, leaving little clue to what a medieval hospital looked like. Yet to the delight of the historian, it is still possible to find a few of these houses of care that are little changed.
Moreover in the last decade there has been a spate of scholarly research and excavations which together have brought life in the British medieval hospital into sharper focus.
Faith and charity
The major source of charity in the Middle Ages was the Church. Churchmen building hospitals had a model ready to hand, since monastic houses dispensed charity as a bounden duty. They gave alms to the poor, often from a special almonry by the gate. They had guest houses for travellers and infirmaries for their own sick. What more natural than to create hospitals along monastic lines? Most medieval hospitals were run by a community following a religious rule and headed by a prior or master.
The core elements were a chapel and an infirmary. The first infirmaries were open halls - like a hospital ward - with beds down either side. The chapel was central to the whole medieval concept of charity. Charity is linked with faith and hope as a Christian virtue. Hospitals cared for the soul as much as the body. Where suffering is constant and death close at hand, faith can be a powerful comfort.
Continue to A life apart: leper hospitals
This article first appeared in Medieval History November 2003, with different images from those shown here.