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Medieval Hospitals of England

During the Middle Ages, writes Courtney Dainton, English hospitals continued to flourish until the beginning of the fifteenth century.

Over seven hundred hospitals were founded in England between the Norman conquest and the middle of the sixteenth century. This number is surprisingly large, for at no time did the population of the country exceed four million. Of course, many of them were not really hospitals as we know them today. Their name indicated their primary function; it was derived from the Latin word hospitalis, meaning being concerned with hospites, or guests, and guests were any persons who needed shelter.

Some of the hospitals were, therefore, erected for the use of pilgrims and other travellers; others were really almshouses, intended chiefly for the poor and the aged. Nevertheless, a considerable number of them provided accommodation where the sick could receive care and even some primitive form of treatment for their ailments.

Many of the early hospitals were erected for sufferers from leprosy, the common scourge of the Middle Ages. Some time before 1089 Archbishop Lanfranc built a leper hospital at Harbledown, near Canterbury; it had room for one hundred inmates. In the following century another Kentish hospital, also used mainly by lepers, was erected by monks at Buckland by Dover.

Because lepers were seldom cured they usually became permanent inmates, and becoming a patient in a leper hospital was almost like entering a monastery. At Buckland there were strict rules regarding the type of leper admitted, and the actual admission was accompanied by a religious ceremony.

No leper could be admitted unless the other patients gave their consent; it was probably thought that this measure would help to maintain peace among the long-term inmates. The new patient also had to give one hundred shillings to the funds of the hospital; in those days that was a considerable sum, so that only a fairly wealthy leper could gain admission.

On being admitted the leper was required to take the following oath:

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