Tag Archives: hospitals

Christianity as healing religion: Gary Ferngren on the roles and rationales of healing in the early church


As I have done my early research on the history of medical care in the Christian west, I have benefitted greatly from (and blogged extensively on) the work of Guenther Risse and Darrel Amundson (if you chuck those names into the search box at the upper right of this blog, you can see a number of posts of material from those scholars).

But I have still been left with questions unanswered about the theological underpinnings of Christian medical care. Didn’t early/medieval understandings of human dignity, rooted in a scriptural insistence that we bear the “image of God,” join the Matthean sheep-and-goats passage to set the table for a Christian imperative that all should serve the sick, the dying, the poor? I was looking for a smoking gun on those things in the secondary literature.

Well, now I’ve found it. It’s the wonderful and relatively new (2009) book by an Amundson colleague and collaborator, Gary B. Ferngren. The book is called Medicine & Health Care in Early Christianity. Continue reading

Healing hospitality in the early church


This will be the last post from Guenter B.
Risse’s Mending Bodies, Saving Souls: A History of Hospitals (Oxford University Press, 1999). In these excerpts from chapter 2, “Christian Hospitality,” Risse sketches the events and ideas that shaped the church’s commitments to providing healing spaces in its earliest centuries.

[Page numbers listed at the beginning of each paragraph. To see other posts from Risse’s book, put his name in the search box near the top of the right column of this blog.]

69           “Late in the year 499, the ‘Blessed City’ of Edessa in southeastern Anatolia, with an estimated population of about 10,000, experienced a great crisis. Frequent wars in the surrounding countryside four years earlier had already destroyed entire villages and ruined the fields. This situation was blamed for an epidemic of boils and swellings during which many inhabitants apparently went blind. By the fall of the year 499, agricultural failures in the surrounding rural areas multiplied due to swarms of locusts devouring the remaining crops. Continue reading

Jerusalem’s Hospital of St. John: A model medieval hospital


Guenter Risse has provided, in his Mending Bodies, Saving Souls, a fascinating account of the Hospital of St. John in Jerusalem during the crusader years.

The Hospital reflected and elaborated on the values found in the earlier monastic history of Christian hospitals. Here are some glimpses, prefaced by a brief timeline of Jerusalem’s history: Continue reading

How did hospitals begin to change from monastic to “secular”?


Reading Guenter Risse’s account, in Mending Bodies, Saving Souls, of how hospitals were pioneered and operated for many centuries by monks, I began to wonder–how and why did this situation change? How did we get from monastic hospitals to the huge, shiny, bureaucratic and largely secular institutions that loom on today’s medical landscape? Here is the beginning (but only the beginning) of the answer to my question:

“[In the 11th century,] Benedictine monasteries throughout Europe ceased to play their hitherto prominent roles in the provision of social welfare and medical care. For almost 1,000 years, almshouses and hospitals had been organized and run in accordance with highly successful monastic models of prayer and work. Now, in the face of rapid population growth and urbanization, these establishments became inadequate purveyors of traditional charitable assistance. An increasingly urban economy based on commerce that demanded markets, contracts, and currency loans rapidly became the instrument and measure of work. Continue reading

What did medieval hospitals look like?


Continuing my reading of Guenter Risse’s Mending Bodies, Saving Souls, I encounter the following vivid description of the look, feel, administration, and theological underpinnings of those first medieval hospitals. This was not some blip in the history of medicine, but rather the way hospitals were run for many centuries from their medieval inception:

“Until the time of Purchard’s rule at St. Gall [monastery in Switzerland: Purchard was abbot from 958 to 971], hospitals in the West had been mostly small shelters established mainly for the homeless poor and travelers, including pilgrims. Some were located in cities, attached to a bishop’s palace; others operated near major roads, on mountain passes, or in monasteries alongside infirmaries restricted for sick monks. Hospitals comprised a lodging hall with 12 – 15 beds, an attached kitchen, and a chapel. Dormitories featured suspended mattresses filled with straw, pillows, bed sheets, and blankets. The large beds held two or three inmates.” (106) Continue reading