Feeding the hungry

In a time when there were no state benefits, hospitals provided for those who could not provide for themselves. How did they do it? These days a benevolent billionaire might set up a charitable trust fund. In the Middle Ages wealth sprang from largely from the land. Hospitals would be endowed with acreage. They might also gain gifts in kind, such as permission to gather firewood, or a share of a crop. But land was crucial. It could grow food for the inmates, and provide an income from rents.

Great landowners could be generous to the Church. In an age when belief was unquestioning, the Church held the keys to heaven. Souls burdened with sin could yet be raised from purgatory to paradise on wings of prayer. And whose prayers could have more power than those whose lives were dedicated to God? Many a baron yearned for a founder's tomb in the heart of a monastic house. It would act as a grandiose chantry.

Hospitals too could repay a donor in prayer. That bargain was made in countless charitable grants of land. Yet few hospitals could boast really lavish endowments. Some had none at all; they were daughter houses of a monastery and entirely dependent upon it. Churchmen were expected to be charitable, and we find many hospitals founded by bishops. But it was royal patronage that raised St Leonard's York and Soutra to national prominence. Thanks to a Crown grant St Leonard's could claim a thrave (24 sheaves) from every ploughland in the diocese.

At the other end of the scale the smallest hospitals could spring from the gift of a single house with a plot of land. The donor might be a manorial lord or wealthy burgess. Once a hospital was up and running, it could attract donations from humbler folk who could not aspire to found a charity, but wanted to give what they could. A smallholder might remember the local hospital in his will; a passing trader might drop a little money in the hospital collecting box.

It made sense for a hospital to be as self-sufficient as possible. If it were fortunate enough to own good arable land within easy reach of the hospital, that could be worked as a home farm. The hospital would need barns and store-houses for grain, beans and other crops. Any spare land within the hospital precinct itself would make useful kitchen gardens and orchards, tended by able-bodied inmates.

Bread and ale were staples of the diet. The number and variety of additional dishes would depend on the resources available. The wealthy St Leonard York provided meat three times a week, with fish, eggs or cheese on the other days. Other hospitals simply aimed to stave off starvation. St Mark Bristol was founded to feed the poor. They were to be given one meal a day of pottage made from oat-flour, and bread made from equal quantities of wheat, beans and barley or rye. Beans were a valuable source of protein in the absence of meat.

Vegetables are seldom mentioned in hospital ordinances and fruit not at all. Yet the latrine drains at St Mary Spital yield evidence that its inmates enjoyed apples, blackberries, raspberries and figs. As the hospital grew richer, so did the variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs. Carole Rawcliffe's study of St Giles Norwich paints a similar picture. A remarkable set of accounts from the fourteenth century onwards suggests that leeks, onions, pears and apples featured on the menu. It seems that a hospital diet could be healthier than previously thought.

Continue to Caring for the sick.