Hospitals might not be something that you associate with the fourteenth century, but most towns had one, if not two. Many were founded in the twelfth century and were the result of both the First Crusade and what might be considered a spiritual revival at that time.
Hospitals were religious institutions. Monasteries and convents had always had infirmaries where sick and elderly members of the community were cared for. From the twelfth century that care was extended formally to the community beyond the walls of the abbeys. Hospitals were usually staffed by monks and nuns, but sometimes a physician was employed as well.
Medieval hospitals took many forms. They could be hostels for pilgrims, hospices for the dying, almshouses for the aged poor, or a hospital for the sick poor. They were founded as acts of charity.
The hospital set up in Jerusalem after the First Crusade in 1113 was a model for later hospitals. It had room for 1,000 to 2,000 beds with 150 staff. It cared mostly for poor people who were sick and for wounded Crusaders. It provided the ideal of what a hospital should be for many centuries. In the hospital the poor, the wounded and the sick were considered lords and those who looked after them their servants.
Hospitals were mainly for providing hospitality, which is where the name comes from. They were often called a Maison Dieu or Domus Dei. In English they were called God’s House. The hospital was a house because it was always part of a religious community, a household with God at the head. There are the remains of one near where I live dating back to the twelfth century. A God’s House was essentially a large hall where people could lie along the walls in beds. It had a chapel for prayers and mass.
In a hospital there would probably be a fire. Patients might have to share a bed, so the chances were good that you would catch something worse than the reason you were there in the first place. On the plus side, the floor and the sheets would be washed often, and mutton was prescribed, regardless of the illness. The inmates would probably be bathed as well as having their hair washed and their beards trimmed regularly.
There was another kind of hospital in medieval towns, but here the patients were not expected to survive their sickness. Until the arrival of the Black Death halfway through the fourteenth century, leprosy was probably the worst disease you could get. It wasn’t just the disease we know by that name today, but any disfiguring skin disease including eczema, psoriasis and lupus was considered to be leprosy.
Lepers were excluded from society, as it was considered to be extremely contagious. Hospitals to house lepers were set up not within towns, but on roads into them. Leprosy was also considered to be incurable, so lepers weren’t expected to leave once they’d arrived. Ian Mortimer’s book, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, has a very disturbing and distressing description of leprosy in the fourteenth century. Suffice it to say that it wasn’t uncommon for the fingers, toes and noses of sufferers to fall off.
There was a leper hospital a mile and a half away from where I’m writing this. Like God’s House, it was established in the twelfth century and was called the Hospital of St Mary Magdalene. In 1347 it received a grant of land from Edward III. It was supported by revenues from land that had been given to it on its foundation and by legacies. It also benefited from a tax of one penny on each tun of wine imported into the town, a not inconsiderable sum, given that Southampton was one of the main ports through which wine arrived from Bordeaux in the fourteenth century. Despite that, I doubt it was a pleasant place to inhabit.
Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine by Nancy G. Siraisi
The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer
Medieval Southampton by Colin Platt
Medieval Medicine: A Reader ed. Faith Wallis