The regulations for the admission and care of patients are interesting as showing how much these medieval institutions tried to fulfill the ideal of hospital work. The people of the Middle Ages had not as yet suffered all the disillusionments that come from the abuse of charity at the hands of those who least deserve help, and besides, the attendants at the hospitals were expected to do their work for its own sake and from the highest motives of Christian benevolence rather than for any lesser reward. At the beginning, at least, there seems to be no doubt that this lofty purpose was accomplished very satisfactorily; but men and women are only human, and after a time there was deterioration. Even Virchow, however, was so struck by the ideal conditions that existed in these early hospitals that he discussed the necessity for having in modern times hospital attendants with as unselfish motives as those of the medieval period. It seems worth while then to give some of the details of this supremely Christian management of hospital work.

In an article on the medieval hospitals in the Dublin Review for October, 1903, Elizabeth Speakman quotes from the statutes of various hospitals sufficient to show how the internal government of these charitable institutions was regulated. There was always a porter at the main door, usually one of the Brothers or Sisters, who had the power to receive patients applying for admission. At certain places, however, it seems to have been necessary to inform the superior; and the statutes of the French Hospital at Angers say, that the prioress is to go herself without delay to receive patients or to send one of the Sisters for that purpose, “not severe or hard, but kind of countenance.” At the same place the statutes say, “the number of the sick is not to be defined, for the house is theirs, and so all indifferently shall be received as far as the resources of the house allow.”

From many of the hospitals members of the community were sent out from day to day to find out if there were any lying sick who needed care and who should be sent to the hospital. They were expected also to pick up any of the infirm whom they might find along the streets and bring them to the hospital.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

When those who are not of the fold know even a little of the history of the Church, know a reasonable amount of the other side of controversial problems, and, above all, when they have been brought into personal touch with the Church itself, her pastors and the hierarchy and religious men and women, prejudice disappears and understanding grows. We still have the monks and nuns of the olden time with us, but no one who knows them personally ever thinks for a moment of lazy monks and idle nuns. After a man has met scholarly Catholic clergymen, he has quite a different view of the relations of the Church to education. That is all that the Church has ever needed–to be known in order to be appreciated.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

Denifle calls attention to the fact that there are letters of Pope John XXII. which show that he paid out of the Papal revenues the salary of a teacher of physic at the University of the City of Rome while the Papal Court was at Avignon. It is rather interesting to find the names of the two Popes, Boniface VIII. and John XXII., whose Papal decrees are supposed to have prevented the study of anatomy and chemistry, thus cropping up on unquestionable authority as the founder and the patron of medical teaching in the City of Rome. Pope Boniface VIII. is now generally credited with having been the founder of the Sapienza, the medical school of which, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, was to develop into one of the most important schools of its kind in Europe, and to have on its faculty list the greatest teachers of their time, who had been tempted to come to Rome because the Popes wished to enhance the prestige of the medical school of their capital.

While it may be a surprise for those who have been accustomed to think of the Popes as inalterably opposed to all science, and especially to medical science, thus to find them encouraging and fostering medical teaching, it will only be what would naturally be expected by those who know anything of the real history of medicine in the earlier Middle Ages. There is no doubt at all, that during the so-called “dark ages,” that is, when the invasion of the barbarians had put out the lights of the older civilizations, it was mainly ecclesiastics who preserved whatever traditions there were of the old medical learning and carried on whatever serious teaching of medicine, in the sense of medical science, that existed during this time. The monks were the most prominent in this; and the Benedictines, after their foundation in the sixth century, added to their duties of caring for the other temporal needs of the poor, who so often appealed to them, that of helping them as far as they could in any bodily ailments with which they might be afflicted. There are even definite traditions that a certain amount of training in medicine, or at least in the care of the sick, was one of the features of the Benedictine monasteries.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

Professor Draper’s summary of the relations of the Church to science or learning, and his declaration of her absolute refusal to recognize anything as scholarship, except what was deduced from the Scriptures, shows how far a man can go in his assumption of knowledge when he knows literally nothing about a subject. For him the Dark Ages knew nothing because he knows nothing about them. If they knew anything, he would know it, but he does not. Of one or two men he knows something, but they are exceptions to the general rule of absolute negation of intellectual interests and developments…It is especially striking to take a paragraph of Professor Draper’s, in which he sums up a whole movement, and place beside it a paragraph of a serious and informed student of the same subject. Professor Draper inherited the old traditions of lazy monks, living in idleness, a drain on the country, of absolutely no benefit to themselves or to others. Professor Draper wrote:

“While thus the higher clergy secured every political appointment worth having, and abbots vied with counts, in the herds of slaves they possessed–some, it is said, owned not fewer than twenty thousand–begging friars pervaded society in all directions, picking up a share of what still remained to the poor. There was a vast body of non-producers, living in idleness and owning a foreign allegiance, who were subsisting on the fruits of the toil of the laborers. It could not be otherwise than that small farms should be unceasingly merged into the larger estates; that the poor should steadily become poorer; that society far from improving, should exhibit a continually increasing demoralization.”

As a commentary on this, read the following paragraph from Mr. Ralph Adams Cram’s book on “The Ruined Abbeys of Great Britain,” in which he describes what the monasteries actually did for the people. Mr. Cram has made a special study of the subject in connection with the magnificent architecture which these medieval monks developed, and which he would like to have our people appreciate and emulate. Professor Draper is much more positive, but Mr. Cram is much more convincing.

“At the height of monastic glory the religious houses were actually the chief centres of industry and civilization, and around them grew up the eager villages, many of which now exist, even though their impulse and original inspiration have long since departed. Of course, the possessions of the abbey reached far away from the walls in every direction, including many farms even at a great distance, for the abbeys were then the great landowners, and beneficent landlords they were as well; even in their last days, for we have many records of the cruelty and hardships that came to the tenants the moment the stolen lands came into the hands of laymen.”

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

It has been suggested that this exclusion of monks and religious from the study of medicine by Church ordinance practically shut out all the clerics, that is, all the educated men of the medieval period, from the medical profession. Any such idea, however, could only have occurred to one who does not realize that at any given time there are only a comparatively few religious and a great many secular clergymen. Practically all those who could read and write in the Middle Ages were known as clerks, that is clerics, and were under the protection of the Church, most of them indeed receiving minor orders, and if all the clergy were to have been excluded from the medical profession this contention would be true.

So far is it from the truth, however, that a number of the great physicians and surgeons of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries belonged to the clerical orders, not a few of them were priests and some of the greatest of them, like Theodoric, were actually bishops. It was only the religious, that is the men who had specially devoted their lives to monasticism, who were forbidden to take up the study of medicine because it did not comport with their monastic vocation.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

We have the best evidence, that of a contemporary, as to the conditions which obtained in these medieval hospitals, and the dispositions of the attendants as regards their religious duties would seem to be an unmistakable index as to their willingness to sacrifice their own comfort for the sake of the patients. The well known Jacques de Vitry, who had been Bishop of Acre and afterwards Cardinal, and whose wide travel had given him many opportunities to judge for himself, said:

“There are innumerable congregations, both of men and women, renouncing the world and living regularly in leper houses and hospitals of the poor, humbly and devoutly ministering to the poor and the infirm. They live according to the rule of St. Augustine, without property and in community and under obedience to one above them; and having assumed the regular habit, they promise to God perpetual continence. The men and women, with all reverence and chastity, eat and sleep apart. The canonical hours, as far as hospitality and the care of the poor of Christ allow, by day and night they attend. In houses where there is a large congregation of brethren and sisters, they congregate frequently in chapter for the correction of faults and other causes. Readings from Holy Scriptures are frequently made during meals, and silence is maintained during meals in the refectory and other fixed places and at certain times. …. Their chaplains, ministering in spiritual matters with all humility and devotion to the infirm, instruct the ignorant in the word of divine preaching, console the faint-hearted and weak, and exhort them to patience and to correspond to the action of grace. They celebrate divine office in the common chapel assiduously by day and night, so that the sick can hear from their beds. Confession and extreme unction and the other sacraments they administer diligently and solicitously to the sick, and to the dead they give due burial. These ministers of Christ, sober and sparing to themselves and {266} very strict and severe to their bodies, overflowing with charity to the poor and infirm and ministering with tender heart to their necessities according to their powers, are all the more lowly in the House of God as they were of high rank in the world. They bear for Christ’s sake such unclean and almost intolerable things, that I do not think any other can be compared to this martyrdom, holy and precious in the sight of God.”

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

Throughout the seventh century, there was increased attention to the deathbed as the focal point where sainthood was proved…A united sisterhood stood at a dying woman’s deathbed to sing her into heaven while her parting revelations strengthened them for their unending struggles to perfect themselves. The troops were thus reassured that they followed a victorious general. The visionary content of seventh-century texts increased, and the saints were credited with powers of prophecy and illumination directed toward making the promises of bliss in another world concrete. As the saint’s miracles in life decreased in number, the power of relics, tombs, and associated artifacts like oil, dust, funeral palls, and candles grew, weapons like the texts themselves in the ongoing battle.

The deeds and even the voices of women speak to us from these documents with a clarity rarely accomplished in historical texts. Although conforming to ecclesiastical prescriptions, at least two of the biographies that follow were written by women who knew their subjects. Others reflect the direct testimony of women within the cloister walls. They lived in a rough and brutal age, an age moderns have condemned as “the dark ages,” but from the peril and suffering of their lives they shaped themselves as models of womanly power, womanly achievement, and womanly voices. They did not hide their lights under a bushel, but lit candles in the darkness and set them high upon a candlestick. Today, their light still shines.

Jo Ann McNamara, Sainted Women of the Dark Ages