C r u s a d e N o v e m b e r / D e c e m b e r 2 0 1 6
There is a prevailing idea that healthcare plans are necessarily complex and expensive. 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 em- phasis was not on a “plan,” but on the health of both body and soul.
Faith Wallis describes this in her book called Medieval Medicine: A Reader. Look- ing at this “medieval healthcare plan” is a refreshing glimpse at the care that is lacking today.
By proposing a medieval healthcare plan as an ideal, we do not mean to say that medieval medi- cine, 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 should be imitated.
Hospitals Built on Charity
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. In the early Middle Ages, hospitals first became attached to monas- teries where monks would minister to the sick and dying. No other civilization was able to develop anything remotely comparable.
Medieval hospitals provided free health care. They were usually under the supervision of a reli- gious order, whose members took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They dedicated their lives to God and the cheerful service of all, 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 charity in action. Every effort was made to care for their spiritual needs. Upon entering the hospital, the patient, when a Catholic, went to con- fession and received Holy Communion, as the first steps in the healing process. This provided spiritual peace of mind that often extended to the health of the body.
Once admitted, the patient was seen as another Christ. Each was treated as the “master of the house,” 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 Hos- pital of the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem, one cleric noted: “It has happened on a number of oc- casions 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 cared for the sick did not see their role as just a job to be performed, thinking only about their pleasure or profit. They knew that their service gave meaning and purpose to their lives. Caring for others was an important means to se- cure their own salvation.
Excellent Care 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 the sick who were placed in their care. Regulations required that pa- tients never be left without an attendant and that nurses be on duty around the clock.
The environment was clean and refreshing. Bril- liant works of art were often hung on the hospital walls and ceilings to delight the patients, using the same artistic skills that were employed to adorn churches. Such masterpieces can still be seen today in the buildings that have survived.
Special attention was paid to cleanliness, ven- tilation 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. All Christians saw the sick in a similar Christ-like manner. Patients in ordi- nary hospitals were often heartened by the visits of persons of high or noble rank. Visitors might in- clude 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 hos- pital 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 au- thorities and all in distress. To the extent that they could, theirs were the duties of prayer, Mass atten- dance 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 care they received. This offering gave meaning and purpose to their suffering.
Hospitals Flourish, Then Fall
As a result of practices like these, the hospitals of the Middle Ages flourished. The Benedictine order alone is credited with founding 2,000 hospitals. Im- bued with this spirit of Christian charity, individu- als, guilds, brotherhoods, and municipalities also established and generously endowed hospitals of their own. The result was an extensive sys- tem of healthcare that provided for the care of body and soul on a scale never seen before in history.
This impressive system was largely de- stroyed by the upheavals of the sixteenth cen- tury when the Church and her hospitals were despoiled and plundered. The infamous sup- pression of the monasteries by England’s Henry VIII in 1540 also suppressed the Eng- lish healthcare system, leaving the poor in misery and putting an end to hospital build- ing 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, as they focus more on “liberating” social justice than concrete, 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 healthcare system. The dedicated spirit of this care is needed as an alternative to our ever- expanding medical bureaucracies. 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.
Someone might object that such an ideal sys- tem 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 me- dieval 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 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 re- turn to order comes, there will always be the seeds of this plan inside the Christian souls that await that blessed day.
As seen in Crisis Magazine