The Hôtel-Dieu of Beaune

One of the rarest and most superb buildings in France, which seems rather the abode of a prince than a hospital for the poor.' Thus, in the early seventeenth century, the clerical scholar Fodere characterised the fifteenth-century hospital (Hôtel-Dieu ) at Beaune, which remains today one of the finest monuments of the high period of Burgundian power in Europe. From the earliest days of its existence, in fact, there was an evident and striking contrast between the paupers who were the institution's normal residents, and their environment, the beauty and sumptuousness of which were to cause Viollet-le-Duc, the nineteenth-century champion of French Gothic, to sigh that it would almost be a pleasure to fall sick in Beaune.

The contrast between wealth and poverty was not fortuitous: the Beaune hospital constitutes a dazzling illustration of the aspiration of the wealthy and powerful in the Middle Ages to 'purchase' their salvation by a foundation for the needy and distressed. Was Nicolas Rolin, the long-serving and notoriously rapacious Chancellor of the Duke of Burgundy, also afflicted by a twinge of social conscience in founding the hospital at Beaune? In his will, which was drawn up on August 4th, 1443, he declared that:

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