The Order of the Hospitals in the Early Modern Period

by Falcon_Puncher on October 26, 2017 - 5:19pm


October 19, 2017 was my first visit to the Osler Library of the History of Medicine; it is a subdivision of McGill University. It was opened in 1929 to house the medical books donated by Sir William Osler. The majority of the library’s collections are current publications on medical history, reference collection, archives, historical texts, and manuscripts. The Osler Library is one of the most important libraries of the History of Medicine in North America as it contains approximately 100,000 works. During this visit, the librarian introduced a book to my group called “The Order of the Hospitalls of K. Henry the viiith and K. Edward the vith, viz. St. Bartholomew's, Christ's, Bridewell, St. Thomas's”. This book is tiny and its dimensions are 7cm x 12cm. The weight of this book is 80 grams. It appears to be in its original dark brown leather cover with some gold fleur-de-lys designs on the cover. The inside trims of the top and bottom is also pressed with small gold flowers. Since the book was published in 1557, it has an old musty smell. Other than that, this 460 year old book is preserved in good shape and it does not appear to be extensively used. It is not easy to comprehend the book considering the writing is in old English and mixed with many Latin vocabularies. In addition, the old English gothic font is also not easy to deal with. This book contains no marginalia. There are three pictures of ancient buildings attached at the end of the book. The content of the book demonstrates that hospitals are well organized and standardized at the early modern period.


During the late 1530s, after King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries act, the church terminated their support to hospitals and the sick people had nowhere to go. For this reason, the citizens of London held a direct petition. Hospitals such as St. Bartholomew's and St. Thomas's were endowed by the crown. In order to standardize hospital conditions, the book “The Order of the Hospitalls…..” was published to achieve this goal. The purpose of this book helps to clarify the order at St. Bartholomew's, Christ's, Bridewell, and St. Thomas's Hospital as well as guideline for hospital rules and job descriptions. It helps to make the hospitals run in a proper manner. The appearance of this well-crafted book suggests that it belongs to elite individuals. It is most likely intended to be used by priests and physicians.  The intention of the book is no different than modern day’s standard operating procedures. These procedures demonstrate early professionalism in the medical history. In the sixteen century, physicians are being at the top of the hierarchy of medical professions. They are often well-educated aristocrat. This book of rules appear to be written by physicians due to the fact that they are the “highly literate group who expressed themselves on paper while also exhibiting great sensitivity to changes in both the science and the art of their discipline”, as suggested in Harold J. Cook’s “Medicine” in The Cambridge History of Medicine (Cook 407).

Harold J. Cook mentioned, “by restoring the purity of ancient texts through the difficult practice of philology, true and potent wisdom could be recaptured” (Cook 411), it is so true that the old age wisdom can definitely benefit the modern society. The text of this tiny book is written in Latin and old English that is quite difficult to understand. Some of the content of the text was not completely understood. At the early modern period, laws were often written in Latin and English spelling was not standardized. As for the distribution of knowledge, this book would not be easily obtained by the general public because physicians are mainly “lived among educated urbanites” (Cook 417). This book is only designated for the elites. The distribution of medical knowledge seems to be very selective at that period of time. Most of the physicians acquired their knowledge from “family and neighbors” (Cook 417). This makes traditional knowledge develop over generations within same family only. As for the old days, school was mainly designed for the rich society especially male predominant, so the distribution of medical knowledge is only within the wealthy social class. Over the years, the education system has been transformed and advanced in the right direction. Nowadays, everyone can have equal opportunity to acquire knowledge.

Early modern period has great contribution to shape up our medical world today. Historical medical texts can help people to acquire different types of medical knowledge. In this case, the book “The Order of the Hospitalls…..” established guidelines to standardize public hospitals. It demonstrates early professionalism in the medical history. At that period of time, the production and distribution of medical knowledges are all exclusively accomplished by the wealthy elite male scientists as illustrated by Harold J. Cook. On my second visit to the Osler Library, these findings were determined more definitively. I am certain that Sir William Osler used this tiny book as reference in his successful career.


Harold J. Cook, “Medicine,” in Katherine Park and Lorraine Daston (eds.) The Cambridge History of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003): 407-434.

Maior, Cominaite and Citizens of London, “The Order of the Hospitalls of K. Henry the viiith and K. Edward the vith, viz. St. Bartholomew's, Christ's, Bridewell, St. Thomas's”, (London, 1557).