International Nurses Day is celebrated every 12th May to recognise the often vitally important work nurses do. The Coronavirus pandemic has also highlighted the vital role nurses play in society. This has inspired Matthew, one of our Visitor Services team, to find out what was nursing like in the medieval times:

Who was responsible for taking care of the sick in the medieval period? For much of the middle ages the care of the sick, aged and infirm was a responsibility that fell upon the monastic community.

The church taught that it was part of a Christian’s religious duty to take care of the sick and it was the church that provided hospital care. The church also funded the universities where doctors were trained.

The monks or nuns who worked in these hospitals would have only had a basic knowledge of medicine, yet they were probably still the best qualified to do the job. Some considered that the unpleasantness endured would enrich their souls and hopefully ensure them a place in heaven. Many of the monks and nuns that worked in the infirmaries also had other responsibilities within the monastery.

The prevailing view of the time was that most illnesses were a punishment for sin from God. The principles by which the sick were treated went in accordance with this idea. That is not to say that considerable attention and devotion were not given to those who fell ill. Whilst there is no doubt that every effort was made to find a cure for those who suffered, the whole concept of healing was subordinate to religious practice and doctrine. Spiritual healing was more important than physical healing.

The master of the infirmary was responsible for the treatment and medical care of patients. The infirmarian had specific religious duties as well as medical duties. There were a number of different religious houses so the duties expected of you would differ depending on which one you were at. The differing duties and characteristics required of the infirmarian can be seen in Lanfranc’s Monastic Constitutions and the Customs and Observances at Barnwell Priory.

According to Lanfranc, as infirmarian you should personally serve the meals to your patients even if your assistant has cooked them. You were expected to sprinkle holy water over the beds of the sick every day whilst reciting various prayers. At night you should go around the beds of all the sick with a dark lantern and ensure that they remain in their beds. You could also allow music to be played in the chapel for the patients if you thought it would be helpful in uplifting the patients spirts. As certain restrictions on diet were lifted for monks or nuns who were ill, one of your more serious responsibilities was to report any abuses of these indulgences.

If you were hoping to be the master of the infirmary at Barnwell then you must be a gentle, compassionate and good-tempered person who was willing to help the sick at all times. In this role you were expected to endure the often nasty and distasteful aspects of the job without complaining. You should also be of a trustworthy nature as patients will frequently reveal their secrets to you. You would be provided with an assistant who would do a variety of tasks such as serving meals, helping the physician when he was examining the patients’ urine and generally looking after the sick. As infirmarian it was your responsibility to ensure that Mass was celebrated every day for the benefit of the patients. You were also given the task of preparing the dead for burial following the directions given to you by your superior.

For most women there were very limited opportunities to study and work in medicine; being a wet nurse was one of the few jobs that would be available to them. Wet nurses were employed to breastfeed a child when the mother was unable or unwilling to do so herself. The job was an attractive position for women as it demanded respect and paid well. Being employed by the nobility also meant that there were opportunities to improve their social connections.

In choosing a wet nurse the mother or father would examine the habits, health, moral fortitude and temperament of the hopeful candidate. There were two reasons for such careful scrutiny. Firstly, breast milk was seen as being like blood and was thus capable of passing on character traits as well as lineage. Secondly, a child would spend their formative years with a wet nurse, and it was observed that children often learn from example. Parents were careful to prevent their children from inheriting a poor moral character or developing a malicious nature. The family would closely supervise the wet nurse as she cared for the child and ensured that her own health was properly maintained.

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