Probing into Early Modern Medicine through the Analysis of Hospitals

by topaz on October 26, 2017 - 5:25pm

           The study of early modern medicine is only made possible through the examination of the written texts from the period. One of such books is titled The Order of the Hospitalls of [Henry VIII and Edward VI, 1557]. Different from most of the texts analyzed by the medical historians, which directly discuss many of the medical theories and knowledge from the early modern period, this text in fact focuses more on the legislation and administration of four hospitals in London. Nevertheless, it gives us an insight into the landscape of early modern medicine from a very special perspective, which actually solidifies and enriches the understanding of early modern medicine gained from the common medicine texts. This book was published and physically produced in the year of 1557, which is over four hundred years ago. Very surprisingly, the copy of the book that was examined still is in great condition. On the other hand, the cover of the book appears to be made of leather. However, what really reveals its old age is the font of the text, which is called Dutch black letter. The font is so ancient and different from modern fonts that it is almost illegible. As opposed to its physicality, its real significance lies in the contents of the book, which can help decode the knowledge concerning early modern medicine. The text titled The Order of the Hospitalls of [Henry VIII and Edward VI, 1557] helps argue that hospitals of the early modern period, different from its modern counterparts, which focus more on curing diseases, were more of a religious charitable institution.

           To uncover the actual role and function of the hospitals in the early modern society, the contents of the book will be analyzed. It was noticed that quite surprisingly, according to the ordinances, a number of 66 governors were supposed to be elected for the four hospitals. The fact that so many governors were required to manage the four hospitals demonstrate that hospitals were taken seriously in the early modern society. In addition, the candidates of such governors were to be a mix of commoners and aldermen. Therefore, the management of hospitals were highly organized at the time, which implicitly suggests that early modern medicine was already quite developed in its own paradigm and its application had already been integrated into people’s regular life. It was also noticed that, among the many governors elected, at least four had to be scriveners. This suggests that the hospitals were producing medical records or at least documenting their major events, which is very similar to the protocols of modern hospitals. Another noteworthy detail is that the governors included scruteners (scrutineers), one of the jobs of whom was “to request that the ministers to plead with their parishioner ‘to yield and give to the maintenance of the hospital weekly” (94 Christ's Hospital of London, 1552-1598: A Passing Deed of Pity). This demonstrates that early modern hospitals were in close collaboration with religious groups, which juxtaposes the secularity of most of the modern hospitals.

             Moreover, the main distinction between early modern hospitals and their modern counterparts will be discussed. As the book addresses, admitting children from poor family and granting pensions were two responsibilities of the hospitals, which in modern days are assumed by welfare institutions rather than hospitals. Therefore, one can argue that the treatment of the sick was not the sole and ultimate function of early modern hospitals. Another evidence that supports the argument is a list of hospital officers that is found within the book (as shown in the picture). The list includes positions ranging from the cook, and the shoemaker to the nurses, and the chirurgians (surgeons). The section of the book following the list lays out the detailed responsibilities of all the officers with only those of the chirurgian and the barber left out. The fact that the book contains the charges of the shoemakers, yet omits those of the chirurgians really demonstrates the moderate importance of treatment in early modern medicine. The argument is agreed with by Harold J. Cook in his article titled “Medicine” from the book titled The Cambridge History of Medicine. In his article, Cook writes, “the physician could ‘practice’ his science even if he never treated patients (409 Cook). He also mentions that among the five “medical institutes […] last came treatment (how to restore the body to health)” (410 Cook). As a result, treatment really was not an integral part of the early modern medicine, which in turn suggests that the ultimate role of the early modern hospitals resembles that of a charitable institution.

              In conclusion, medicine in the early modern period belongs to a very different paradigm from that of modern days since treatment was counterintuitively not an integral part of medicine and hospitals back then were little more than religious charitable institutions. The research is based on a book themed on the legislations governing hospitals which have moderate relevance to the knowledge of medicine in the early modern period. However, this crucial fraction of irrelevance serves to be what contributes to a more holistic understanding of early modern medicine, by providing researchers with a new and unique and perspective from which to examine the same subject. Furthermore, the acquisition of the knowledge concerning early modern medicine does not just enable one to discover the development of medicine, it also helps explain more diverse social issues such as the mortality rate of the period.


Works Cited

Carol Kazmierczak Manzione.  Christ's Hospital of London, 1552-1598: A Passing Deed of Pity.    Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press. Print.


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


The Maior, Cominaltie, and Citizens of London, Governours of the Possessions, Revenues and Goods of the said Hospitalls. The Order of the Hospitalls of [Henry VIII and Edward VI, 1557]. Print.