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The Somborne & District Society

Health in Medieval Winchester



An illustrated talk by Graham Scobie, 23 April 2008


At the April meeting of The Somborne Society, members heard a fascinating account of “Health and Healthcare in Medieval Winchester” from Graham Scobie, Heritage Information Officer from Hampshire Museums Service.


Graham described aspects of Winchester`s urban environment and their effects on the general health of the city`s inhabitants. He also outlined the roles of the major hospitals in Winchester - St Cross, St John`s and St Mary Magdelen Leper Hospital.


Initially, St Cross and St John`s were both really “hostels” rather than “hospitals”, caring for the deserving poor, who could well be relatives of monks and nuns,  rather than the sick and ill. They owed much to their religious foundations and spiritual care was very much more important than medical, although along with other religious institutions they would often have an infirmary in situ.


It was not until later that these hospitals played any significant health role in the general life of Winchester and in the early medieval period, health care owed much to the work of individual practitioners and apothecaries. The records of the time show a limited number of such people in the city, some clearly more highly regarded than others. Often medical attention was given by barbers and midwives – and they were not of great social standing.


Graham Scobie focused on the lives of two characters in the early 14th century, John Tyting and Stephen de Monte– each from very different backgrounds but both living in the Brooks area of the city. John, a merchant, seemed to have a much more “middle class” life as evidenced from the excavations of his property, including his lavatorial habits. Archeological work has shown that his diet was rich in meat, game and fruit. In contrast Stephen`s diet was poor in meat and showed no game and very little fruit, other than that from hedgerows.


The contrast in the diets of these two individuals points to one of the principal health issues of the day – poor diet for most people, leading to illnesses such a rickets. In many cases this led to both stomach and bone problems and early death.


Returning to the City`s hospitals, Graham described how each came into being.  St John`s is one of the oldest charitable foundations in the country, initially dating to St. Brinstan, Bishop of Winchester in 935.  Re-founded by John Le Devenish in 1289 it has continued to provide relief to the poor and needy ever since.  The present almshouses, on both South and North sides, date from the mid-nineteenth century and continue the tradition of care.


St. Cross Hospital has provided sheltered accommodation for elderly gentlemen since its foundation in 1136 by Bishop Henry of Blois, initially supporting “thirteen poor men” and feeding another one hundred destitute visitors. Interestingly, from its re-founding in 1446, the definition of the “poor” became somewhat corrupted to cover those of noble birth who had fallen on hard times.


The third great Winchester hospital was St.Mary Magdelen, outside the City boundaries, founded in 1180. This was set up to look after nine lepers although this number quickly increased. Leprosy was common throughout Europe in the medieval period, although the definition of the disease often covered other serious and disfiguring skin complaints. Excavations have unearthed the bones of those afflicted by these unpleasant symptoms and often show widescale physical damage – the mental effects are left to the imagination!


Graham Scobie`s talk showed how, despite widespread ignorance of medical matters and also many examples of civic corruption in medieval times, Winchester has a record of care and service to the needy that is second to none.



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