You never thought visiting a Hospital could be interesting? Me neither! But when in the heart of the Burgundy region in France, and specifically in Beaune, you really can’t miss the opportunity. You go there to take pictures of the magnificent tiled roof and you end up wondering what it was like to catch a cold in the 15th century. Well, I got some answers for you, so come along for a visit of the Hospices of Beaune or Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune.
The Hotel-Dieu is most famous for its gorgeous roof covered with shiny and colorful glazed tiles, its polyptych altarpiece from Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden and… its wine auction, because France!
As often, there is down below, an affiliated link for a book I recommend you to read if you want to learn more. If you decide to buy such book, I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you.
The Hospices of Beaune: A Palace for the Poor
The Hospices of Beaune or Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune was founded in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin and his wife Guigone de Salins as a hospital for the poor and was consecrated in 1452. The Hundred Years’ War had recently ended. You know the story, The French, the English, Joan of Arc… However, times were still more than rough with marauding bandits still pillaging the region and misery & famine still part of people’s daily life. Plague was another issue all together.
People were in dire need of help and the creation of the hospice was probably a blessing for many. However Nicolas Rolin’s motives were not just charitable. Commissioning the creation of the hospice was a way for him to show his Christian compassion and most importantly, a way to redeem his soul. Yet, constructing such a magnificent building was also a way to display his tremendous wealth. There is just a touch of contradiction here, but hey, no-one is perfect!
So, Nicolas Rolin created the Hospices of Beaune, a prestigious institution for the sick, the poor, the destitute, in a prestigious building which is today a fine example of 15th century Gothic architecture with Flemish influence. He spared no expenses to ensure his legacy, using the most noble materials to create this place, which would be dedicated to “the salvation of the souls and the care for the body by devout women of good conduct”.
And indeed his legacy survived, as the hospices served as a hospital until late 1970. 500 years of medicine, that’s pretty impressive!
But what was it like to be sick and taken care of in the hospice, in the 15th century? Not so good, I’m afraid!
The History of Medicine: Status in the 15th century
In the Middle Ages, Medicine was rooted in pagan and folk practices with a bit of “medical knowledge” having survived from Greek and Roman text (Hippocrates & Co!). Astrology was a thing too. So what was it like?
It might be Evil doing…
It was considered OK to have a little cold, that was part of life. But anything a bit more serious had to have supernatural origin, like witchcraft, a spell casted by an enemy (who did not need to be a witch to do so but could easily be accused of being one), or even demonic activity. To treat the body, the evil had, therefore, to be extracted by various means like counterspells, incantations or potions. Yes, that was the science of healing in religious Medieval times. Yet, various approaches existed. Physicians analyzed symptoms and rendered diagnoses. They prescribed diet, rest, exercise… Some “evil acts” or specific sicknesses were recognized and some herbal potions were effective with them. Incantations and prayers were probably less useful, but that’s a personal point of view.
Or Humours issue?
Another approach to Medicine, reminiscent from the greek, was the theory of humours. This lasted until the 19th century so it can’t be taken lightly! Four humours could be found in every individual: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. Any imbalance could cause certain ailments. Too much phlegm caused lung problems for example. Too much blood cause hypertension… Good health resided in the balance of humours which was considered to influence not only the physical health but the mental health as well. “Oh, you’re hysterical, a little bleeding will do you some good! Yes, sure, you’re the doctor…”
Maybe it was in your stars!
Medical astrology was also all rage. This medical system associated the parts of the bodies and diseases with your astrological sign. You have seen this in movies for sure. Kings were big on consulting their astrologers for all matters, including their health.
Because Medicine was just not that evolved yet. When you believe the cause is supernatural, you are not looking for other explanations. So it took centuries for things to change.
For example, germs & bacteria were only discovered in the mid 17th century. In the 15th century, people had no idea how sicknesses were spread, well, apart from an act from Evil himself.
Medical instruments looked more like torture devices, although one could consider that it isn’t much better today.
Surgeons still performed amputations as and when considered necessary, although there was no anesthesia. Opium, mandragora or alcohol were common prescriptions to deaden the pain.
The miracle of childbirth? This was left to midwives, who also relied on folklore and tradition.
All in all, if you had survived childhood and if you were a wealthy man, your life expectancy, actually, wasn’t so bad. You could expect to live up to 70 years old. If you were poor, well… sorry. If you were a woman, well… sorry as well. Childbirth was a very tricky business.
Now, aren’t you glad to be alive in the 21st century?!
The Visit of the Hospices of Beaune
The small porch of the Hospices of Beaune leads you to the internal courtyard. The beauty of the tiled roof and details will take your breath away and make you forget that this was a hospital.
The current tiles are replicas dating from between 1902 and 1907 but it really does matter, you’ll just want to stay there!
The visit of the hospital starts in the Grand Hall of the Poor and goes around the courtyard.
In the Grand Hall of the Poor, you will get to see the Hospital original organisation. 15 beds on each side of the Hall, lined up and numbered. the space in the middle was for the tables and benches where meals were served by the nuns.
2 to 3 persons could sleep in each bed and until Louis XIV visit in 1658, men and women were mixed together. You may notice that there was no fireplace in the Grand Hall. Hot water bottles and probably promiscuity, helped keep warm during winter nights as the Hall was originally not heated.
The furniture of the Grand Hall was recreated in 1875.
Each patient had a chair, a night stand and in the passage between the beds and the walls, a night stool to do their business and a chest to put their personal belonging.
At the end of the Hall, separated by a wooden screen, you will find the Chapel. Remember the mission of the nuns was to heal the bodies and the souls. The chapel was decorated with the polyptych shown below.
Do take the time to admire ceiling of the Great Hall. Shaped like the hull of an upside-down boat, it is quite impressive and colorful.
In the picture above you may notice the little window. Such window allowed to the nuns to watch over the patient from their own accommodations.
Love those monsters! It may look a little too ‘Violet le Duc style’ if you ask me, but it’s no surprise considering those comes from the restauration conducted by Maurice Ouradou, an architect who worked with Violet le Duc, on amongst others places, the Chateau de Pierrefonds (will show you soon such castle and all will be clear!)
Below are some of his watercolor drawings for some metal work in the Chapel.
Your visit will continue in the Saint Hugues Room.
This room was fitted with 12 beds which were reserved for the ‘sick with means’, although after the visit of Louis XIV, only men could be treated there. This room is quite big, but compare to the Great Hall it is tiny. Richly decorated with numerous painting mostly describing the Christ miracles, it feels really cosy!
You are now on the other side of the courtyard in the Saint Louis Room. Such room now displays medical equipments, the straw model a patient created as a payment for his healing, the nuns costumes… Such room used to be reserved for the patient in ‘danger of death’.
Do notice the slab of glass in the middle. The Bouzaise river flows below. Such river was very important in the 15th century as it served as sewage for the hospice. When you think sewage system, you may think of food disposal for example. But that is not broad enough. You should also think of body parts disposal! Yeah, cool!?!
The kitchen where all the meals for the patients were cooked is next and comes as a bit of a relief!
The kitchen is followed by the laboratory where ointment and other potions were made.
Last, you will find the Saint Louis Room, where patient with military origins were treated. It now displays tapestries, painting and furniture. From there you will gain access to the room dedicated to the Rogier van der Weyden altarpiece.
The Last Judgement, polyptych by Rogier van der Weyden – 15th century – was original placed above the Altar in the Chapel. Moved to be preserved from the 1789 revolution, it is now hosted and protected in a dark room which atmosphere adds to the beauty of the scene.
Another polyptych can be seen in such room. This one shows Nicolas Rolin on one side and his wife Guigone de Salins on the other side.
At the end…
You will probably be a little glad to come back in the courtyard after your visit!
On one side, I wished we were able to see more than the ground floor. Things like where the nuns lived and maybe get to learn more about the wine history at the hospices.
On the other side, hospitals are just not my thing! There is a vibe, a feeling, a chill down my spine that I have a hard time shaking off. So going back in the courtyard and admiring the colorful and shiny roof definitively helped!!
The Technical Bits:
There are 2 or 3 ‘official’ tourist sites (for the Burgundy region, the town, the hospice themselves), but I thing the most interesting one is the first one, at least in English: www.beaune-tourism.com
If you speak French: hospices-de-beaune.com
The audio guide is nice.
Wine testing on week-ends only but if you are in Beaune during the week, don’t worry because you can do wine testing in the whole city. There are so many cute little restaurants, Beaune is a wine paradise!
The Hotel-Dieu at Beaune or the affiliated link I told you at the begin gin of this article.