16 Mar Medical Care on Hospitaller Rhodes
Medical Care on Hospitaller Rhodes
Disease was prevalent throughout the medieval period, as indeed it has been throughout history. With the current COVID-19 pandemic, we know that too well. The Hospitallers took on the role of caring for the poor and sick long before they had a military function. In Jerusalem, Acre, Rhodes and Malta, the hospital was one of the first edifices. Even during transitory stays, such as at Limassol or the Papal States, the Hospitallers created medical facilities.
The First Hospital
The Hospitallers came to Rhodes with nearly 200 years of experience in medical matters. They built their first hospital between 1314 and about 1356. However, on their arrival at Rhodes, they used an existing building as an interim hospital, as on Cyprus. In 1311, the statutes mention ill men from the hospital and to sick Hospitaller brethren eating at the infirmary table. This was possibly an infirmary specially reserved for sick brethren, mirroring the arrangement at Acre. The building initially used as a hospital was immediately outside the Collachium, between the borgo walls and the barbican. It was by the sea where pilgrims and others would disembark, not far from Villeneuve Gate (aka Marina Gate).
Pilgrim traveller Niccolo da Martoni visited Rhodes between 1394 and 1395 and described the old hospital as follows:
There is a large hospital with beds for pilgrims and the sick in which there is great charity, with doctors always on duty and all necessities for the sick. Thrice weekly the hospital or its governor gives meat and bread to fourteen paupers at the said hospital in a great hall in which the Hospitaller brethren eat. On three other days they give bread to pilgrims and paupers at the said hospital.
The New Hospital
On his death in 1437, Grand Master Fluvia left 10,000 florins for a new Conventual hospital. Work began in 1440, but the old hospital remained in use until completion. Despite financial difficulties, the hospital opened its doors in 1483. On the ground level there was a courtyard and storage areas. To increase income, the Hospitallers also leased shops that faced out onto the street. Medical matters took place upstairs in a great open two-aisled ward, with an alter or chapel in it. Cubicles were built into the walls. There was a smaller hall, refectory, kitchens and private rooms.
New Hospital Description
In 1493, a Czech pilgrim who lodged at the Hospital described it thus:
The house, the infirmary, is all built of cut stone and the inside is a straight square. And windows great and broad all around, that there is little wall between these windows: but one window next to the other, so that one may look into the house, and all of it finely painted. Now the Master of Rhodes has endowed that house, that any man being Christian, of whatever lowly or great rank, who shall come there, if he be sick and ask for it for God’s sake, should at once be taken in; and there he is at once provided with medicine and other necessities, to wit food and drink and bed clothes. If an important person, he is given a room of his own; and if any lesser man, then there is a fine hall, very long, and in it made beds in double row, and on some of them sick people are lying. And these beds are well made with clean white bedclothes, and on each bed there is a red cloth blanket, for there it is not as cold as in Bohemia. And near each of these beds a door opens upon the balcony, so that any of these sick can go out to take the air, whenever he chooses, upon that balcony; and there too he has a privy. Also in that house is a great kitchen, and in it several cooks, that prepare food for the sick. Also it is ordained, that each of these sick has a servant that looks after him and serves him, whatever he needs. Also two doctors are ordained for this who look after the sick twice each day: once in the morning and once again in the evening. And there these doctors having in the morning examined his water, if anything from the Pharmacy be needed for him for his illness, they at once put to paper what he needs. There is next a Pharmacy endowed by the same Master. The officials appointed for this at once take this at the Pharmacy, though it be several florins’ worth. And for that medicine the sick need pay nothing. Further the same doctors write a paper, what sort of dish should be given him, and when; and there the officials appointed for this must so provide this, what time these doctors write and order for it. And these things are entrusted to three men: one Knight of the Order and two clerks, all of them being on oath for this. Also at that time I saw how the sick were served their meals in silver dishes, and they drink too from silver spoons. And none need pay anything for his stay there, except he freely of his goodwill gives anything to the servant that has waited upon him.
So we learn that the Hospitallers knew that air, light, hygiene and diet were important. Doctors had morning and afternoon rounds, much as they do today. There was also a garden at this hospital, probably for the cultivation of herbs and other plants used in treatments.
How did the Hospitallers prevent the spread of disease?
In Rhodes town, legislation of 1509 mentions two domini sanitatis or health commissioners, one Latin and one Greek. Elected annually, they imposed strict measures against plague. This included control of landings from shipping and sometimes isolation for forty days. There were licences for burials and segregation arrangements for lepers. A map of 1495 shows a separate church for lepers outside the town, St. John’s lepro forum, near Acandia Bay. Also measures existed to keep rubbish out of the sea, something we need today!
Adaption and extension on Malta
The Hospitallers transferred and extended many of the measures on Rhodes to Malta. Two knights headed a commission that was responsible for quarantine control. No goods or passengers could leave a ship until the port authorities had granted them permission. If you didn’t adhere to the regulations, harsh punishments followed, including death. Officials brought goods ashore for disinfection and passengers were purified. Infected passengers went into isolation in a special area called the Lazaretto.
Essential Further Reading
Anthony Luttrell, ‘The Hospitallers’ medical Tradition’
Charles Savona-Ventura, Knight Hospitaller Medicine in Malta (1530-1798)