In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hospitals in the Middle Ages

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Foundational Studies
  • Collections of Essays
  • Journals and Societies
  • Law and Legislation
  • Founders and Patrons
  • Hospitals and the City
  • Internal Regimen and the Nature of Care

Medieval Studies Hospitals in the Middle Ages
Sethina Watson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0233


“Hospital” is an umbrella term for the diverse array of charitable institutions that arose in the Middle Ages. The word originated as a Latin version of the Greek xenodochium (“house for strangers”) and early hospitales (from hospes, or stranger/guest), like their Byzantine counterparts, accommodated poor travelers and pilgrims. By c. 1200 “hospital” might refer to diverse kinds of houses of aid. An elite few did provide medical treatment, but the majority did not. They were welfare institutions, offering food, shelter, spiritual or other physical care. They varied widely, in staffing and routines, in scale, and in who they served and how: feeding the hungry, sheltering the poor, or accommodating the blind, aged priests, orphans, or those with leprosy They might support three to 300 persons, although many adhered to an apostolic twelve or thirteen. They were an unusually dynamic feature of medieval life. New houses (and types of house) arose, and existing houses were refashioned, in response to changing cultures of power, wealth, piety, and regulation. Studies often examine a distinct era in charitable foundation, such as the targeted facilities of early Byzantium, early xenodochia in the West, 12th-century leper-houses, or the increasingly specialist hospitals, domus Dei, and secular almshouses of the later Middle Ages. In particular, scholars have identified c. 1150–c. 1250 as a period of “charitable revolution” due to its surge of foundations, especially by lay men and women. What fueled this wave and what subsequently happened to the houses, and to charitable impulses generally, structures much scholarly investigation. Hospitals attracted largely antiquarian interest until the early 20th century, when a new generation of scholars placed hospitals within a wider national story, one that charted changing patterns of foundation, management, and types of care. With the rise of social history in the 1970s, hospital scholarship came of age, led by French and Belgian studies on poverty and its institutions. The archives of major urban hospitals form the basis of rich case studies, revealing houses embedded within local economic, political, or religious milieu. Agendas have multiplied as scholars wrestle with the diverse secular and spiritual functions of hospitals. These include their relationships to professed religious and the secular church, as well as royal, aristocratic, and urban patrons; their role in lay devotional life and within spiritual (and material) economies of late-medieval towns; the varieties of institutional arrangements and specialist care; sites and buildings, internal routines, and the influence of liturgy, music, medicine, and the material environment. Increasingly, attention has focused on the experience of those within hospitals, staff and inmate or visitor, and to cultivating comparative study across national borders. This bibliography considers the field in European perspective and aims to provide access to scholarship on hospitals across Europe. It also lays out research tools for the British Isles and offers English-language entry points for students of all levels.

General Overviews

Wide-ranging, accessible, and alive to agendas of scholarship, Orme and Webster 1995 remains the fundamental introduction to English hospitals. For France, Mollat’s essays in Imbert 1982 remain influential. Scheutz, et al. 2008 provides regional introductions to scholarship from across Europe, including emerging fields in the former eastern Europe, while Brodman 2009 offers a European-wide perspective on the religious momentum behind charity.

  • Brodman, James William. Charity and Religion in Medieval Europe. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 2009.

    This wide-ranging overview of charity in the Western church includes a general survey of hospitals in the European context. Drawn from Spanish, Italian, French, German, and English scholarship, it is particularly useful for its discussion of religious ideals and religious hospital orders.

  • Imbert, Jean, ed. Histoire des Hôpitaux en France. Toulouse, France: Éditions Privat, 1982.

    Scholarly survey of French hospitals from the Merovingian era onward. Its medieval chapters, written by Michel Mollat, address the function, administration, and routines of hospitals and include extended discussions of religious rules, papal reform efforts, and the effects of the Hundred Years’ War.

  • Orme, Nicholas, and Margaret Webster. The English Hospital 1070–1570. London: Yale University Press, 1995.

    Part I provides a highly accessible introduction to hospitals in England, which is especially strong on their siting, organization, and resources, and on the late Middle Ages through Reformation. Part II gives histories of individual hospitals in Devon and Cornwall, counties missing from the Victoria County History.

  • Scheutz, Martin, Andrea Sommerlechner, Herwig Weigl, and Alfred Stefan Weiß, eds. Europäisches Spitalwesen: Institutionelle Fürsorge in Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit/Hospitals and Institutional Care in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Mitteilungen des Instituts für Österreichische Geschichtsforschung, Ergänzungsband 51. Vienna: Oldenbourg Verlag, 2008.

    Provides introductions by leading scholars to the study of hospitals in regions across Europe, including England, regions of Italy, Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. Chapters are in English or German.

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