THE OTHER SISTER RESEARCH SEMINAR: Working in Premodern Hospitals

By Gustave Ineza and Meghan Lescault

On October 27, 2020, the Other Sisters research group hosted a research seminar on the topic of women working in premodern hospitals. Three chapters written by the invited speakers were circulated beforehand: 

Adam Davis’ “‘In Service of the Poor:’ Hospital Personnel in Pursuit of Security” from his book The Medieval Economy of Salvation: Charity, Commerce, and the Rise of the Hospital (Cornell University Press, 2019).

Lucy Barnhouse’s “Mainz’s Hospital Sisters and the Rights of Religious Women” from her forthcoming book Houses of God, Places for the Sick: Hospitals in Communities of the Late Medieval Rhineland.

Sharon T. Strocchia’s “Care and Cure in Renaissance Pox Hospitals” from her book Forgotten Healers: Women and the Pursuit of Health in Late Renaissance Italy (Harvard University Press, 2019).

Alison More began by introducing the three speakers, who proceeded to elaborate on their research as presented in these chapters. 

Adam Davis, Professor of History and Director of the Lisska Center for Scholarly Engagement at Denison University, spoke about the emerging commercial economy of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, stressing the symbiotic aspect of charity and commerce with the hospitals of Champagne as a case study. He pointed out that work in medieval hospitals went beyond healthcare and noted that the role of the sisters working in the hospitals extended to cleaning work, gardening, and agriculture. Davis introduced the multiple relationships that existed between hospital staff members who lived in community, and he discussed the permeable boundaries between the hospital workers and those for whom they cared as well as the spiritual and social web of need and assistance in which they were all entwined.

Lucy Barnhouse, Assistant Professor of History at Arkansas State University, discussed the religious identities of hospital sisters in Mainz. She presented hospitals as total entities in evolving urban areas and underscored the manipulation of the identity of those healthcare institutions. Barnhouse noted that the sisters originally belonged to a mixed-gender community but later were pushed to join the Cistercian Order. They resisted this pressure and formed an independent community dedicated to Saint Agnes in which they continued to serve as hospital sisters. These women combined charitable and practical services, for example, acquiring properties nearby that would allow them to create bakehouses for food production.

Sharon T. Strocchia, Professor of History at Emory University, focused on women working at the Florentine pox hospital called the “Incurabili” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a topic that she approaches through the lens of labor, rather than religious, history. Strocchia discussed the silences in her sources that prevent us from knowing how skills were acquired and transmitted. She noted the methodological issues that have arisen due to historians’ prioritization of cure over care, and she emphasized the idea of approaching the topic of care through sensory regimes. Strocchia concluded by noting that historians have been occupied with investigating the precise juridical status of non-cloistered religious women and by asking our group to think more about the “in-betweenness” of such women. She posed two specific questions about these women working in premodern hospitals: 1. Does this in-betweenness allow hospital sisters to tend the bodies of strangers publicly? 2. Does this in-betweenness serve them well in administering to these strangers? 

It was this idea of in-betweenness that primarily animated the subsequent conversation, launching a robust discussion on the topic in terms of the women’s relationship to religion and canon law, the hospitals, and wider society and culture.

Appropriately for a meeting sponsored by a group devoted to the study of women who straddle the boundaries between the religious and the laity, these female hospital sisters often had ambiguous or fluid religious and canonical statuses. Barnhouse highlighted the religious fluidity exhibited by the hospital sisters of Mainz, explaining that while the sisters opted to form their own independent community rather than join a Cistercian house, as was suggested by the city council and religious men of Mainz, they nevertheless did not shy away from calling themselves Cistercians when making requests to archbishops. Moreover, they followed neither their own rule nor the Rule of Benedict, but—at least in theory—the Rule of Santo Spirito, a papally approved rule for a religious community serving in a hospital. While these women of Mainz straddled the boundaries between religious orders, the Florentine women studied by Strocchia straddled the boundaries between the religious and the laity. Strocchia explained this by noting that while these women took a pledge rather than vows, that pledge was based on a monastic model, as it was a promise of chastity and stability. Moreover, although the women were secular, they were called “sisters” by 1600.

Davis highlighted yet another ambiguity that revealed the idea of in-betweenness within the hospitals—the unclear line between who is caring and who is receiving care. He noted that there were some brothers and sisters who likely saw the hospital as a safety net where they could live and receive care if the need arose. Strocchia reinforced this idea, noting that these caregivers knew that they would eventually be taken care of by the institution to which they had devoted their lives.

Although the hospital sisters may have pledged and planned stability within the hospital, this did not preclude continued contact with the outside world. Rather, they needed to maintain a position between the hospital and wider society. Strocchia discussed the disruptive nature of visitors that appears as a theme in her sources. Davis, however, presented a more positive view of visitors, referring to thirteenth-century papal indulgences that encouraged people to visit hospitals and make donations. This need for donations relates to the idea of contact with various societal forces being required for survival and development, as noted by Isabelle Cochelin. She noted the need especially for women, whether cloistered or not, to navigate negotiations with bishops, powerful lay families, and local kings. Barnhouse illustrated this phenomenon in her comments on the Mainz hospital sisters’ relationship with the local laity. The sisters were able to garner lay support when they were resisting affiliation with the Cistercians, but they also were forced to relocate due to a struggle, likely a competition for land, with the laity. Strocchia attested to the presence of this societal in-betweenness in her own sources and attributed to the hospital sisters the function of “cultural brokerage.”

This theme of in-betweenness tied in very nicely to the overall project of the Other Sisters in its attention to women who cannot be placed easily into one category. 


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