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Byzantine hospitals

The earliest Byzantine hospitals or xenon (literally ‘house for strangers’) began to develop in the 300s CE. They were founded by emperors, clergymen, monks and lay individuals. Often associated with monasteries, some of them provided medical care, alongside food and shelter. They are said to resemble modern hospitals more closely than any other ancient medical institutions.

The first known major xenon dates from 370 CE, and was built in Caesarea by St Basil of Caesarea (c. 329-379 CE), Governor and Bishop of Cappadocia. By the 400s, the concept had spread throughout the Byzantine Empire. Up to the mid-800s, there were about 160 charitable institutions in the Byzantine Empire, and 23-25 of these are thought to have had medical staff. The majority were more like hospices than hospitals.

The most famous was located in Constantinople and was known as the Hospital of the Pantocrator. Built by Emperor John Commenos II (1087-1143), the hospital, according to its foundation charter, had five wards for inpatients, including a surgical ward and a women's ward. It offered between 50 and 60 beds and also maintained an outpatient clinic. Unlike other hospitals of the time, the administration made provision for proper heating, lighting and bed linen, as well as bathing facilities and latrines. The patients were fed a carefully planned vegetarian diet and received an allowance which enabled them to purchase additional food or drink. Medical care was supplied by a large and specialised staff of physicians, medical assistants and orderlies. Its charter also refers to a medical school, though historians are unsure if the institution was actually used for educational purposes.

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External links:


P Horden, ‘How Medicalised Were Byzantine Hospitals?’, in Medicina e Storia, 10 (2006), pp 45-74

T S Miller, The Birth of the Hospital in the Byzantine Empire (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1997)