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I was Sick and You Visited Me: The Hospital of Saint John in Brussels and its Patrons

I was Sick and You Visited Me: The Hospital of Saint John in Brussels and its Patrons

By Tiffany A. Ziegler

PhD Dissertation, University of Missouri-Columbia, 2010

Abstract: Prior to the twelfth century, medieval Europe was generally rural. Few substantial settlements existed on the continent, and the trade of goods and the exchange of ideas virtually came to a halt. It was only in the twelfth century that a ‘renaissance’ occurred. As postulated by historian Charles Homer Haskins in the early twentieth century, this renaissance meant that in many areas what had once been unclaimed lands and farmlands could be reclaimed. Dikes and canals pushed rivers and seawaters back into their banks in order to clear lands for crops. Towns blossomed, and in many places quaint settlements exploded into formidable cities. With the rise of towns and cities, the creation of the many urban organizations soon followed. While some of these groups grew out of the religious traditions of the Middle Ages, other organizations were tied strictly to the rebirth of towns. Thus, several new groups emerged, many for which the traditional divisions of medieval society did not account. Most prominent of these organizations was a new merchant, burgher class (the burgenses), who not only created a social upheaval, but who also began to dictate a new set of social norms. As society moved from a land based economy and a barter society to a cash society, land and rents, once limited to only the upper nobility, were freed up. As a result, mid-level and lower nobility were able to participate in some of the customs and traditions, especially in regards to land donations, that were once limited to only the upper nobility.

Yet, social upheaval through the creation of a new urban class was not the only consequence of urbanization. For the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire, the poor and sick alike began to plague the streets, many of whom were victims of the success of urbanization. The poor and sick who had once benefited from the structure of rural society were now forced into despair through the creation of towns and proto-industry. Thus, the crisis of urbanization not only precipitated social and communal evolutions but also new social structures, many of which came as responses by local churchmen and nobles to remedy the unforeseen urban problems.

To understand all these urban, societal, and economic changes, one only has to look to hospitals, which were the recipients of donations from the medieval burgenses, refuges for the sick and poor, and places where local churchmen and nobles sought to deal with the crises of urbanization. While care for the sick and poor seems like a significant enough reason to study hospitals, a study of a single medieval hospital in one city also demonstrates the manner in which societies behaved and interacted. Several social levels of people are identified through the study of one hospital, giving historians a better understanding of town life and the ways in which townspeople interacted in the Middle Ages. Thus, hospitals are at their simplest levels a microcosm of town life in the Middle Ages. They provide a snapshot of medieval life and demonstrate the everyday workings of medieval people.

The hospital of Saint John in Brussels is an exemplar of medieval hospitals, and this study examines the hospital in conjunction with its development during the high Middle Ages. While previous histories of hospitals have been concerned with the hospital itself, the patients, and the care that the brothers and the sisters gave to the inmates, my work moves beyond the institution itself to consider the social, economic, and political context into which the hospital was born. By exploring the many  developments that were taking place in society via the hospital‘s extant documents, I am better able to understand—and I hope, demonstrate—the cultural transitions that transpired in the high Middle Ages.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Missouri

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