Hospitals and Hospitality

Hospital, hotel, hostel, host, hospitality. Latin hospes (m) a guest, visitor hospita (f) female guest.


The six “hospitals” of medieval Bury St Edmunds described by J. Brian Milner in his book  “6 Hospitals and a Chapel: the story of the medieval hospitals of Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk” (2013) lay on the periphery of the town along the main roads. There were  two  at the edge of Southgate St coming in from Sudbury: St John’s and Saint Petronella’s. The Gatehouse to the hospital of St Saviour’s is still visible behind Tesco’s on the Mildenhall Road, although there is no visible sign of the Chapel of St Thomas, which was opposite. There were two in Eastgate St: St Nicholas and St Stephen on the road coming in from Diss, and one in Out Risbygate St coming in from Newmarket.

The position of these buildings raises interesting questions around their role in relation to the abbey and to pilgrims. The name hospital is most likely to mean a guest-house, taking all types of visitor, but perhaps some- the sick, the elderly, the homeless, needed more help and “hospitality” than others. Such an idea has a touching similarity to the principle of the National Health Service, whose premise is based on the basic problem that those most in need of healthcare (the very young, old, mentally ill, poor and ill) are those least likely to be able to afford it.

The Abbey provided for ill-health in both spiritual and physical ways: pilgrims would gain indulgence from their journey, and could hope for miraculous recovery from their chosen saint.  The monks would have been physicians with a classical training, giving particular perspectives on the psyche (breath, soul) and the hierarchy of the Creator and created.  Roy Porter, in “Flesh and the Age of Reason” (2003) discusses the dualism of body and soul assumed from the time of Pythagoras (600 B.C.). “Spiritual” and “physical” became the same thing. People’s destiny in classical Greece seemed dictated by the gods, with rival demands of individual love, duty and  desire leading to inevitable tragedy. Judaism and Christianity added to these perspectives. The Old Testament refers to Man’s misfortune stemming from the Original Sin of disobeying God. Illnesses were punishments from God (e.g Exodus 9:11, Job 2:7). Suffering in the New Testament is sanctified by Christ’s example. Corruption of the body was symptomatic of Man’s lapsed condition, but there was hope of salvation.

Such ideas continue through our use of language (heart, soul, flesh, spirit). Even the NHS refers to ways of living well, based on evidence that some behaviours (e.g. smoking) are causative of disease. And hospitality, now divorced from modern medicine, still has something to offer healthcare through its implication of kindness and nurturing.

I am left wondering what happened to needy pilgrims after the Reformation. With the closure of the Abbey the provision for healthcare would have collapsed.  “The Medieval Hospitals of Bury St Edmunds” by Joy Rowe (1958) refers to the Chantry Certificates for 1544-5 where there is a petition from the inhabitants of Bury St Edmunds:

it may please the King’s most excellent majesty of his most charitable benignity, moved with pity, in that behalf to convert the revenues and profits of the sum of the said promotions (hospitals) into some godly foundation, whereby the said poor inhabitants daily their multiplying may be relieved.

I am also left unclear how much the “hospitals” were ever used by the townspeople: I suspect they were chiefly pilgrims and elderly priests. Yet they missed them when the hospitals were gone as they inherited their occupants.

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