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Between 500 and 1100, monasteries played an important role in European agricultural communities. Among their many welfare functions, they established early hospitals, which provided hospitality and healing for the sick. Monasteries were also sites of medical learning, possessing important libraries.

The infirmary was often separate from the other monastic buildings. Some surrounded a central courtyard, while others resembled barrel-vaulted halls. They had separate houses for the poor, pilgrims and distinguished guests such as foreign monks. Monastic guesthouses could be large enough to sleep several hundred individuals, but the majority were smaller spaces and slept 15-30 people. Most halls for the care of the sick poor had their own oratory and altar, so there was no need to get up to hear and view the mass. Routines prescribed two daily visits to the sick, one in the morning and one in the evening, following prayer.

Cathedral monasteries in England were located at Canterbury, Westminster, Norwich, Peterborough and Gloucester. Cistercian orders had a very rigid organisational form. Augustinian monasteries usually followed Roman traditions and favoured bathing cures. Occasionally treatment involved minor surgery. Some monasteries had a bleeding room and most possessed herb gardens. The most common treatment available to the sick was bed rest, warmth, cleanliness, music and prayers, and an adequate diet. The staple food was bread and beer or wine, depending on region. Benedictine rules often prescribed meat, but recovered monks always returned to their spartan lives.

Monasteries were traditionally located in rural settings, and their importance to community life declined as cities grew throughout the medieval period. The first civic hospitals were created to serve urban populations. In England the monasteries faced dissolution under Henry VIII in the early 1530s. In northern France their cultural role was taken on by the cathedral schools.

Related Themes and Topics


M Rubin, ‘Development and change in English hospitals’, in L Granshaw and R Porter (eds), The Hospital in History (London: Routledge, 1989), pp 41-59

R Selzer, ‘Diary of an infidel: notes from a monastery’, in Taking the World in for Repairs (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), pp 13-79