An institution in the city of Jerusalem, initially for the accommodation of pilgrims, that developed into a facility for the infirm under the care of a dedicated military order, the Knights of St. John (or Hospitallers).
The hospital was founded in the middle of the eleventh century by a group of merchants from Amalfi in Italy as a hostel for pilgrims visiting the holy places in Jerusalem. It was situated in the Christian quarter of the city, near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Italian monks staffed the hostel, which they dedicated to St. John the Baptist. After the First Crusade captured Jerusalem in 1099, making it safer and more attractive as a pilgrimage center, the hostel was expanded to cope with the influx of pilgrims. Archaeology has revealed an ambitious building program in the middle of the twelfth century.
Travelers described an institution that could house up to 2,000 patients in the 1170s. When Saladin captured Jerusalem in 1187, he was so impressed by the hospital that he allowed it to remain open for a year so that it could dispose of its affairs in good order. Documents from a few years before confirm the exceptional size of the hospital, though its maximum capacity may only have been achieved at the expense of the brethren’s own beds. Pilgrims were received into the wards of the hospital. There were ten general wards and one for the weakest patients. All were housed in comfort, with sheepskin covers and dressing gowns. Salaried staff comprised four doctors, a physician for the weakest patients, and three or four surgeons, plus blood- letters. The hands-on nursing was done by sergeants of the order, though the hospital regulations stipulated that the knights should also be prepared to take on menial tasks.
Interior of St. John’s Hospital, Jerusalem. (Library of Congress)
The most important recourse was the power of prayer (“celestial medicine”). Almost equally important was dietary regulation. In accordance with the science of the time, the patients were prescribed strengthening foods to counteract the cold, moist humors of old age and infirmity. Their diet included luxuries such as wine, sugar, and almonds, as well as meat, vegetables, and white bread. Much less is known about medicines administered. Surgery was important after battles, and one source claims that the knights had first-aid stations on the battlefield, from which the wounded were brought back to the hospital. A separate women’s facility (dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene) had female attendants and wards for lying-in and for the care of foundlings.