Many people do not realize that the hospital as it is known today was an invention of the Middle Ages. They were established from the desire to extend Christian charity to the poor and needy.
There is a prevailing idea that healthcare plans are necessarily complex and expensive schemes. There was, however, an ideal healthcare plan in the distant past that was amazingly simple. The plan did not list its benefits, clinical metrics or financial data. The main emphasis of this plan was not so much on a plan but care and the health of both body and soul.
Faith Wallis describes this plan in her book called Medieval Medicine: A Reader. Looking at this “medieval healthcare plan” is a refreshing glimpse at the kind of care that is sadly lacking today.
By proposing a medieval healthcare plan as an ideal, it does not mean to say that medieval medicine, primitive as it was, is the ideal formula for the present. Medieval medicine was advanced for its time but certainly not for today. However, the spirit with which people were treated does present an ideal that can and should be imitated.
Hospitals Return to Roots
Many people do not realize that the hospital as it is known today was an invention of the Middle Ages. They were established from the desire to extend Christian charity to the poor and needy. In the early Middle Ages, hospitals first became attached to monasteries where monks would minister to the sick and dying. No other civilization was able to develop anything remotely comparable.
Medieval hospitals provided free care to the poor and needy. They were usually under the supervision of a religious order that had members with vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They dedicated their lives to God and the cheerful service of all that sought their care — including non-Christians.
Not content with those who came to their doors, hospital attendants were obliged regularly to go out into the streets and bring in all those found in need of treatment.
Reception of Patients
The reception of patients was extremely touching in the broad charity extended to them.
Every possible effort was made to take care of their spiritual needs. Upon entering the hospital, the patient, when a Catholic, went to confession and received Holy Communion, as the first steps in the healing process. This provided spiritual peace of mind that often had its repercussion in the physical health of the body.
Once admitted, the patient was seen as another Christ. Each was treated as the master of the house, for so each was, according to the hospital’s bylaws. Every need was taken care of as if Christ himself were being served.
During a visit to the 2,000-bed Jerusalem Hospital of the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem, one cleric noted: “It has happened on a number of occasions that when the space … proves insufficient for the multitude of the suffering, the dormitory of the brethren is taken over by the sick and the brethren themselves sleep on the floor.”
Those who attended the care of the sick did not see their role as just a job to be performed. They did not think about their pleasure or profit. They saw their service as something that gave meaning and purpose to their lives. Caring for others was an important means to secure their salvation.
Thus, the care was as excellent as it could be for the times. Specialists were brought in to take care of extraordinary cases. Doctors made the rounds daily to check on the progress of those in their care. Regulations required that patients should never be left without an attendant and that nurses be on duty at all times both day and night.
The environment was clean and refreshing. In fact, major works of art were often painted on the hospital walls and ceilings to delight and edify the patients, using the same artistic skills that were employed to adorn churches.
The environment was clean and refreshing. In fact, major works of art were often painted on the hospital walls and ceilings to delight and edify the patients, using the same artistic skills that were employed to adorn churches. Such masterpieces can still be seen today in the buildings that survive.
Special attention was paid to cleanliness, ventilation and comfort. Patients were supplied with clean mattresses, white linen sheets and “fleecy blankets.” Care was so excellent that the cleric at the Jerusalem Hospital reported that there were “wealthy people who pretended to be poor to stay in the hospital.”
Solicitude for the sick was not limited to the doctors and attendants. Likewise, all Christians saw the sick in a similar Christ-like manner. Patients in ordinary hospitals were often heartened by the visits of persons of high or noble rank and charitable disposition. Visitors might include even personages like Catherine of Sweden, Margaret, Queen of Scotland, or King Saint Louis IX of France.
A Touching Reciprocity
However, the sick were not just the recipients of charity. They also had their duties inside the hospital whereby they extended charity to those around them.
Mindful of how God especially hears the prayers of the suffering, the patients, when Christian, were enjoined to intercede for their benefactors, the authorities and all in distress. To the extent that they could, theirs was the duty of prayer, Mass attendance and reception of the sacraments. At night-fall, the wards might end the day with litanies where the “sick lords” of the house would pray for those in need of prayers. In this way, the sick gave their best to reciprocate for the enormous charity extended to them. Above all, this offering gave meaning and purpose to their suffering.
As a result of practices like these, the hospitals of the Middle Ages flourished. Every diocese and monastery was encouraged to have hospitals attached to them. The Benedictine order alone is credited with founding 2,000 hospitals. Imbued with this spirit of Christian charity, individuals, guilds, brotherhoods, and municipalities also established and generously endowed hospitals of their own. The result was an extensive system of healthcare that provided for the care of body and soul on a scale never seen before in history.
This impressive system was largely destroyed by the upheavals of the sixteenth century when the Church and her hospitals were despoiled and plundered. The infamous suppression of the monasteries by England’s Henry VIII in 1540 also suppressed the English healthcare system, leaving the poor in misery and putting an end to hospital building in that country for some 200 years.
In modern times, religious orders that once cared for the sick in this manner now face dwindling membership since they adhered to more “up-to-date” theological currents that focus more on quixotic and “liberating” social justice than concrete medical Christ-like care.
A Lost Ideal Never to Return?
With all the talk about rising premiums and healthcare costs, perhaps it is time to rediscover the ideal medieval healthcare system. The dedicated spirit of this care is so needed in face of today’s ever-expanding medical bureaucracies. Perhaps the massive number of complex government regulations and mandates might be better replaced by the selfless work of dedicated men and women who simply treat the sick as if each one is the Person of Christ Himself.
As a result of practices like these, the hospitals of the Middle Ages flourished. Every diocese and monastery was encouraged to have hospitals attached to them.
Someone might object that such an ideal system is impossible in today’s secular and hedonistic age. People simply will not dedicate themselves to the service of the sick and needy. The ideal medieval healthcare plan is a dream that will never again reappear.
This is not true. Religious congregations like the Little Sisters of the Poor are flooded with youthful and cheerful young women who minister to the elderly poor in the medieval tradition. Ironically, these same sisters are being prosecuted by the government for failure to comply with government healthcare mandates that would make them complicit in distributing abortion-causing drugs to their employees.
The problem is not the lack of people or even money, but a failure to present the ideal. The ideal healthcare plan will be rediscovered when the Christian Faith is revived in society. Until that return to order comes, there will always be the seeds of this plan inside the Christian souls that await that blessed day.