How the Black Death & the Best Wines Created ‘The House of God’ in Burgundy

Inside a Medieval Catholic Hospital for the Sick Poor

By Harry Stevens

At the close of the Hundred Years War, France was a devastated nation.  The French, particularly the poor, were at the meager mercy of marauding soldiers bent on destroying and plundering the countryside.  Though the 1435 Treaty of Arras had essentially brought the Hundred Years War to a close for Burgundy, her poor were still pitifully vulnerable to the marauders, their misery underscored by the intermittent assaults of the Black Death. 

The House of God in Burgundy

Into this bleak landscape stepped Nicolas Rolin and Guigone de Salins, his third wife. Seven years after the war ended, the Rolins built L’Hotel-Dieu (“The House of God”) a hospital to serve and protect the poor and destitute, the sick and dying in Beaune, in the midst of the rich Burgundian wine country.

Nicolas Rolin was a political man, the chancellor for the Philippe le Bon (”the Good”) the infamous Duke of Burgundy. (It was Le Bon who handed over France’s beloved heroine, Joan of Arc, to the English, who tortured and killed her.)  

L’Hotel-Dieu, like all of Rolin’s charitable contributions, was a combination of public display and genuinely pious action.  In the founding charter Rolin stated that L’Hôtel-Dieu was established to exchange earthly goods for celestial ones; to ‘exchange the impermanent for the eternal.”  

The hospital was a papal favorite. Pope Eugene IV gave his blessing and the hospital was consecrated on December 31, 1452.  The next year, Pope Nicolas V  granted L’Hotel-Dieu full independence from the local archbishop, placing it under the jurisdiction of the Holy See. Pope Calixtus III made indulgences for visitors to L’Hotel-Dieu on the five feast days of the Virgin and during the Easter Octave;  Pope Pius II reaffirmed these indulgences.

The Hospitaller Sisters of Beaune 

A religious order served the hospital called the Hospitaller Sisters of Beaune.  (Later, workers were not required to be members of the religious order.)

The woman workers at the hospital were treated with respect, and rules were written to protect them.  They had to be between eighteen and thirty, unmarried, with good reputations.  While employed at the hospital they were to remain chaste.   They were of course always free to leave to join a monastery or marry if they wished. 

The regulations stated that the sisters were to be gently and well-treated by the mistress, with discretion and prudence, without criticism, negative speech or jealousy.  Rules established how often the sisters were to confess, take communion, and pray for the souls of the founders, Guigone and Nicolas. 

Life was good for these sisters, and all the care givers of the poor and sick for over 500 years.  L’Hotel-Dieu served the sick until the 1970s.

”I, Nicolas Rolin (…), recognizing the grace and the belongings which God, source of all good, has gratified me; from now on, for ever and irrevocably, I found, construct, and date in the town of Beaune, in the diocese of Autun, a hospital to receive, serve and house the sick poor, with a chapel in honor of God the Almighty and of his glorious mother the virgin Mary, in memory of and to venerate Saint Anthony, abbot, dedicated to him and his name, to give it the belongings which God bestowed upon me.”

A Safe Haven

L’Hotel-Dieu provided the poor and destitute with a safe haven in an often perilous world. Diseases such as the black death, smallpox, and typhoid were endemic and epidemic.  The brunt of these diseases fell harder on the very young, the very old, and those whose resistance were weakened by poor diet, hard labor, or the ravages of other diseases. 

L’Hotel-Dieu served this population well, giving shelter to the wounded, employment to women and widows, and Catholic services to all for over five centuries. 

“And the king answering, shall say to them: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least breathren, you did it to me.”
Matthew 25:40

MAGNIFICENT COURTYARD VIEW: The roof of the L’Hotel-Dieu is made of glazed tiles in bright colors: brown, yellow, red and green.

PERHAPS THE BEST EXAMPLE OF GOTHIC ARCHITECTURE IN FRANCE,  L’Hotel-Dieu buildings form a rectangle centered around a large courtyard. In the mid-1400s, It took nine years to finish, employing many artisans from near and far.

THE ROOM OF THE POOR contains sickbeds with red velvet curtains for privacy. The beds face the chapel so the patients could hear Mass.  

MEDIEVAL HOSPITAL KITCHEN: The interior rooms are composed of a gothic chapel, a kitchen, and a pharmacy, plus Saint Hugues’ infirmary. Saint-Nicolas’ room was used to prepare the dying for their journey Home.

VIEW FROM A SICKBED:  Today, L’Hotel-Dieu is a tourist attraction and museum, attracting about 400,000 visitors yearly to see its over 5,000 collectibles, including beds, trunks, wardrobes, tapestry, sculptures, and paintings from the Middle Ages.

THE PRICELESS ALTAR PIECE of the Last Judgement by Roger Van der Weyden and the mural paintings of the 17th century in the Salle St Hugues are several magnificent works of art.

THE BEAUTY OF BURGUNDY: The first donation of vines to L’ Hotel-Dieu dates from 1457.  For hundreds of years people continued to donate vines, hoping to atone for their earthly sins.  

RENOWNED WINES: Today, wine from L’Hotel-Dieu’s Les Cave is renowned in the wine world.  L’Hotel-Dieu currently owns 60 hectares of vineyards, which helps pay for the upkeep. A charity wine auction by Christies is held yearly in November, on the third Sunday. 

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