Beaune. The first modern hospital in History is in Burgundy
At the hospital of Beaune
-2-3 together in one bed; No matter what their illness was?
-What wonderful hospitals we have today!
I know it sounds scary, but think that we are talking about the first modern hospital in History.
If you happen to be in Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, don’t miss the chance to visit the neighbouring town of Beaune.
There, you’ll see what we could call the first modern hospital of all times.
And, at the same time, one of the best examples of Northern Renaissance civic architecture: the Hospices de Beaune.
The austere exterior doesn’t prepare you for the splendid interior
A historic institution
It was founded in 1443 as a hospital for the poor and remained a hospital until the late 1970s! Now it’s a museum.
In 1443, the Hundred Years’ War had recently ended, leaving the majority of the population destitute. Additionally, the area had recently suffered from the plague.
Nicolas Rolin, the Chancellor of the Duke of Burgundy Philip the Good, and his wife Guigone de Salins, decided to build a hospital for the poor. The complex was consecrated in 1452.
That was a cutting edge hospital in its day. At that time, sick people called a doctor to visit them at home – if they could afford it. Otherwise, they died.
A dedicated building where doctors checked on several patients at a time was quite an innovation.
The hospital has uninterruptedly welcomed elderly, disabled and sick people, orphans, women about to give birth and the destitute, from the Middle Ages until today.
The Hospices boasted a bakery, pharmacy, kitchen and living quarters for the nuns.
The golden roofs of Burgundy
Entering the courtyard, you will see the first remarkable sight.
Three of the buildings around it have glazed-tile roofs. This technique probably has its origins in Central Europe but quickly became a trademark of the architecture of Burgundy.
There are four colours of tiles, (red, brown, yellow and green), forming interlaced designs.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
In the interior
Let’s enter the ward now.
On the ceiling, the exposed painted frame is in an upside down boat-skiff shape. Each beam has sculpted caricatures of important inhabitants of Beaune.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The room is furnished with two rows of curtained beds, hard as rocks. As we said above, in the old days there were 2-3 people in one bed.
On one hand, they believed that illness was a punishment from God. On the other hand, doctors had no idea that disease could spread by contact.
So, it was pretty much down to luck as to who you got stuck into a bed with and what was wrong with them.
Men and women were mixed in the beds. Until Louis XIV visited the hospital in 1658. The sight shocked him and he donated money to ensure separation of the sexes.
People slept sitting up in the beds. Because they believed that if they laid down and fell asleep they would look dead, and Death could creep up and take them.
At the sides of the beds were toilets and bodily functions were out in the open.
In the centre of the ward, there were benches and tables for meals.
In one of the large rooms, they conducted the operations. It needs a strong stomach to see the instruments that were used knowing that anaesthetic was unknown.
In the floor, there is a hole under which the river runs. Here they threw the blood and cut off body parts. Those were carried away by the water and turned up in… the lavoir down the road.
A masterpiece of painting
After the ward is the chapel, located so, that the bedridden could attend mass from their beds. The chapel was the original location of the Roger van der Weyden polyptych altarpiece. Now it’s in the museum.
The polyptych of the Last Judgment, open
The polyptych of the Last Judgment, closed. At the two edges, the hospital’s donators
This polyptych, depicting the Last Judgment, is quite possibly the world’s first interactive artwork. An immense and colourful work, with several flaps which can open or close according to the mood of the day.
Its aim: encourage patients to reflect on their bad behaviour -which caused their illness- and clean up their act.
Although it was a huge advance for its time, we must feel grateful for our modern hospitals, even if they don’t have glazed-tile roofs.
Don’t you think so?
Beaune beyond the hospital
But apart from the hospital, Beaune has also other things to offer, as a walk in the town will show you.
About the author
Hello! I am Denis, an architect based in Athens, Greece. I teach history of art and architecture in higher education. That’s one passion of mine. The other one is hiking, in and out of town. If you follow me, I’ll share my discoveries with you.
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