The Monastic Infirmary at Worcester Cathedral Priory

The building and gardens of the monastic infirmary at Worcester have now completely vanished. They almost certainly stood where the Cathedral’s west gardens now are.  The infirmary was in part a ‘hospital’ as we know it today for sick brethren, but it was also akin to a ‘hospice’ caring for the aged monks or those with an enduring condition[1].  Given its importance in Worcester’s monastic history what clues can we piece together about this building and of Benedictine medical care from the surviving documents?

 

Infirmarer’s roll for 1378-79. WCM C241. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

Although a handful of Worcester infirmarers’ account rolls survive from the late fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, many of these rolls have been damaged at some time in the past, with the result that it is difficult to take much information from them. Nevertheless, most were conserved in recent years thanks to a grant from the Wellcome Trust and enough of them remain to allow some suppositions to be drawn about the infirmary building.

While without a ground plan it is hard to say how many patients the monastic infirmary would have been able to accommodate but 47 monks were listed for the election of Bishop Bransford in 1317, so in theory the maximum capacity would have been around this number. In reality, it was probably many fewer. Of the first six on this list, five are in the infirmary, and if the monks are listed by seniority then these are probably the oldest monks suggesting that when monks were too old or infirm to do the job, they ‘retired’ to the infirmary[2]

 

Infirmarer’s roll for 1397-98. WCM 426. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

We can also begin to build a picture of the building itself. For a start we know it was warm, as in 1391/92 the infirmarer John Lyndesey paid a stonemason to install a chimney or stove in the infirmary, the fuel for which was brought up from the River Severn every year[3]. From the same source, we know that the walls were not bare stone but plastered as he also had plasterers there for five weeks[4]. The patients would have comforts as well, both bodily and spiritually. The cellarer built a shaving room in the infirmary in 1379[5], a washerwoman to look after the patients, as well as the professional physician[6]. In 1411-12, infirmarer Thomas Dene recorded paying for a barber[7]. The barber could also be the man who did the bloodletting.  Bloodletting was a routine practice done for healthy monks and it was understood that in the few days after a bloodletting, the patient would be weakened so the monk would be given a few days off to rest, and be given extra food too[8]!

A reference in the accounts of 1380-81 mentioned the making of a door leading into the infirmary garden[9].  No doubt it allowed the monastic infirmarer and his servants to grow medicinal plants and provided a space for some patients to sit outside in the summer months. The infirmarer also bought medicines for the sick as Richard Duddeleye did in 1397-98[10].

It wasn’t the infirmarer that treated patients, they had their own physician and in 1329 the priory entered into a contract for ‘medical attendance’ with a John de Bosco. For this service he was given food, drink and a room in the Infirmary and was paid a not inconsiderable 80s a year[11].

 

Doctor’s contract, 1329. WCM A5 f.135r. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

Most important were the spiritual needs of the patients and the infirmary had its own chapel. This was particularly important for any monk patients who would be unable to join their brethren in the Cathedral. In 1378-79, the infirmarer John Gloucester oversaw repairs to the chapel’s windows[12], whilst in 1391-92 John Lyndesey paid for bread and wine for mass to be said[13].  

The infirmarer did not forget his personal comforts though, he had his own clerk and a groom. The infirmarer John Grene purchased timber and hired two carpenters to improve his room[14].

In the sixteenth century, the infirmarers were recording for how many weeks specific patients stayed with them, but not what their illnesses might have been. In 1531-32, infirmarer Roger Neckham noted that brother John Crowle stayed for nineteen weeks and brother William Fordham for nine weeks[15].

 

A German woodcut of a doctor from 1475. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

After the dissolution of the priory, two houses for canons were built on the site of the infirmary complex, each house using a surviving wall of the infirmary[16]. They were demolished in 1843 and 1873 respectively[17]. The parliamentary survey of 1649 records that one of these houses was lived in by Revd. Canon Dr. Nathaniel Giles. It lay to the north of the dormitory near the Bishop’s house and the Cathedral. This house was by no means small, measuring 18 foot by 51 foot and contained a hall, dining room and study, as well as a kitchen, buttery and larder. There were also several other smaller ‘chambers’, probably bedrooms, an attic and attic bedroom for the servant and it had its own garden.

Hopefully, at some time in the future further exploration of this important area of the Cathedral complex will allow historians, archaeologists, and the public to understand more about Worcester’s early medical history.

 

Vanda Bartoszuk and David Morrison

 

Bibliography:

Worcester Cathedral Muniments

Barbara Harvey, Living and Dying in England 110-1540 The Monastic Experience, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1996.

Joan M. Knowles, College Green – Worcester 1800-1900, Worcester Cathedral Publications no. 4, Worcester 1995

Thomas Cave and Rowland A. Wilson (eds.), The Parliamentary Survey of the Lands and Possessions of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester made in or about the year 1649, Worcestershire Historical Society 1924.

 


[1] Barbara Harvey, Living and Dying in England 110-1540 The Monastic Experience, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1996, p.108

[2] WCM A5 f. 83

[3] WCM C414a

[4] WCM C243

[5] WCM A12 f.77v

[6] WCM C242

[7] WCM C247

[8] Barbara Harvey, Living and Dying in England 110-1540 The Monastic Experience, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1996, p.97

[9] WCM C242

[10] WCM C426

[11] WCM A5 f.135r

[12] WCM C241

[13] WCM C243

[14] WCM C242

[15] WCM 414c

[16] Joan M. Knowles, College Green – Worcester 1800-1900, Worcester Cathedral Publications no. 4, Worcester 1995, p.14

[17] Knowles, College Green, pp.28, 30.

 

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