Medieval Hospitals

God's House Tower

God’s House Tower, Southampton

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

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Buildings, Medieval Medicine, The Medieval Church

31 responses to “Medieval Hospitals

  1. Losing the Plot

    I was in the St John ‘s Ambulance Brigade, fair a long time. We had to learn about the history of the Order. It quite like to visit Rhodes sometime since that’s where the Order has its HQ. It’s fascinating stuff, but history seems to have given it all a gloss of romance which I think couldn’t be further from the truth.

    I think it must actually have been brutal!

    Liked by 3 people

    • I didn’t want to mention the Hospitallers, as it would have meant going into their history in more detail than I’m able to.

      I’m in two minds as to whether people living then considered their lives to be brutal or not. Like us, they could look back to times that were worse and they could imagine better times, but life was what it was.

      Liked by 5 people

  2. Interesting post as always, and thanks too for reminding me about God’s House tower. It’s been a while since I walked the walls, but I shall think of this post when I do!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Fab history lesson April.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Our house is built in the grounds of Bath’s leper hospital which is close to the top of a street called Holloway, quite a climb up from the town.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. As always, a delightful read!

    Wishing you and your Christian readers a blessed Easter! For all readers I hope for a gentle spring that dissolves into a glorious summer! May lovely and memorable moments grace these hours! ♥

    Liked by 1 person

  6. lydiaschoch

    I didn’t realize hospitals were so common in the medieval era! Is it safe to assume the church paid for their maintenance?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Not entirely. It looks as if wealthy people gave them land and money as well.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’m thinking it must have. Plus, the population believed giving alms to lepers was a holy act. Remember that Lazarus was a leper healed by Jesus, and was noted in the Biblical story of the rich man and the leper.

      Another thing to keep in mind is that leprosy is not a respecter of persons, and that people from well-off families also suffered. Families often endowed Lazar hospitals or supported existing ones for the sake of their loved ones.

      I’ve read that if a leper went abroad, he or she had to completely cover themselves with cloth and shake a clapper to warn of their passing. I’m thinking these trips would have been for traveling to shrines. They also carried bowls for alms, which were often food or drink. Other alms might be clothes. Giving money directly was probably rare, as it was thought touching a leper’s coin might doom the merchant.

      The alms giver was to pour whatever offered into the bowl(s), or set it on the ground in front of the sufferer, not looking at the person. It was feared eye contact or touching a leper would give the disease a bridge to leap onto a new victim. This was to be done respectfully, as St. Lazarus would not bless alms given in disdain. Dissing saints was a major no-no!

      Upon death, the leper’s possessions were either shared among fellow sufferers or burned. Even this probably had to be done within the Lazar hospital precincts. Burial was also within the pale of the hospital, set in a secluded area.

      There is even speculation that King Henry IV contracted leprosy, and there is proof that several noble & royal personages had it, so the scourge had no preference. It was a disease that baffled the medical profession until microscopes could identify the bacillus.

      As April stated, any skin disease was feared, as it can take years for the leprosy bacillus to become the full-blown disease, and many other skin issues closely resembled it. Better to send the sufferer to the Lazar House than take a chance. Sadly, that increased the chances of the non-leprous to somehow pick up the deadly bacteria.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. “ In the hospital the poor, the wounded and the sick were considered lords and those who looked after them their servants.”

    Just like today 😏

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Medieval hospitals must have been a godsend for the poor at the time. To be warm, fed, and cared for… Even nowadays hospitals are far from risk free, courtesy of the superbugs that seem to thrive in them.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Yikes! I’d much prefer to receive a doctor’s visit at home than be exposed to potentially worse things at a medieval hospital if I’d lived during that time. Cool origin of hospital from hospitality, though!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Anatomy of a Monastery – The Infirmary | A Writer's Perspective

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