The Form and Function of Medieval Hospitals
Lecture by Carole Rawcliffe
Given at the Tudor Health Reform Symposium, held on June 22, 2011 at Gresham College
Introduction: I’d better come clean at the start of this lecture and admit that I’m on an evangelical mission – in so far that I want to liberate the medieval hospital from the shackles of misinformation and neglect. Despite the intensive research that has been undertaken on this remarkable institution over the last couple of decades, it still remains widely misunderstood. And it’s easy to see why. First of all, we have to contend with the destruction and loss of so much evidence, both documentary and architectural, largely as a result of the devastation caused during the English Reformation.
Between the very late eleventh century and the 1530s, a bare minimum of 1,300 hospitals and almshouses were founded in England. The approaches to every town and city were dominated by them, but almost all have completely disappeared from the landscape. We can readily appreciate the importance of medieval castles and monasteries because so many of them have been preserved under the auspices of the National Trust and English Heritage, but hospitals are more elusive. Those which do survive are all too often little more than picturesque ruins, giving no real clue as to their original size or function.