Healing medieval souls

The English Hospital 1070-1570
January 19, 1996

Condemned prisoners in the late Middle Ages on their last journey from the City of London to Tyburn would halt for some final refreshment at the gate-house of the hospital of St Giles in the Fields, Holborn. The varied role of the medieval hospital is encapsulated here: not simply a building to house the sick and, perhaps, to aid their recovery, but also a House of God built on the foundation of Christian charity. That the practice at St Giles mirrored the passion of Christ is not lost on the authors of The English Hospital, in which the complicated relationship of hospital and medieval society is a recurrent theme.

This book offers nuggets drawn from an analysis of secondary sources for the most part; the work is intended as a successor to Rotha Mary Clay's The Medieval Hospitals of England, published in 1909. The debt owed to Clay is acknowledged through a potted biography and photograph in the introduction. As the authors state, there has been little serious investigation of the English medieval hospital since Clay. The Victoria County Histories contain much of the specific work that has been carried out, while the appearance of a number of more recent detailed studies of hospitals within particular communities, such as Miri Rubin's consideration of the hospital of St John, Cambridge, has for some time required that a synthesis be written.

Nicholas Orme and Margaret Webster have attempted this here in a work that seems to be aimed at a fairly wide audience. The book is divided into two parts: the first is described as a national survey; and the second is a shorter regional study of hospitals in Cornwall and Devon.

Part one contains chapters on hospital origins, functions, organisation, resources and inmates, as well as their nature and siting and their role in the later Middle Ages, and at the Reformation.

The topic is approached with a broad brush and, although example is often piled upon example, less room is given to discussion of recent important secondary material. Discussion of corrodians, for example, would have benefited from reference to Barbara Harvey's examination of the corrodies of Westminster Abbey. Similarly, discussion of seasonality of mortality in hospitals should have included reference to the work of John Hatcher and of Harvey on mortality in monastic communities. Orme, however, who wrote the first part of the book and sections of the second, prefers to rely solely on his own material drawn from the muniments of the Devonshire hospital of Clyst Gabriel.

There are numerous illustrations but these seldom relate directly to the text. For example, a sketch of the memorial brass of the founders of a Tiverton almshouse is reproduced in the chapter describing hospitals in Cornwall, while the description of the almshouse and the brass itself, appears in the text some 50 pages later among the other hospitals of Devon. This is a mildly irritating feature that does not add to the clarity of the work, especially since, other than an index, there is no cross-referencing. There is also an over-reliance on material drawn from the Victoria County History; although this is a stated intention of the authors, it limits discussion of the sources employed and, where some of the more dated volumes are used, raises doubts about the accuracy of the material.

Finally, and more positively, the second part of the book, essentially a gazeteer of the hospitals of the Southwest, will be a useful tool for the future research that this volume is intended to encourage.

Phillipp R. Schofield is a researcher, Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, Oxford.

The English Hospital 1070-1570

Author - Nicholas Orme and Margaret Webster
ISBN - 0 300 06058 0
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 308

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