If you are ever in Burgundy and close to Beaune, then don’t miss out on a visit to the famous Hospices de Beaune (also known as L’Hotel Dieu de Beaune). You may have heard of it because of the famous wine auctions that are held there each year but there is far more to this unique museum than that.
An amazing building that is fabulously preserved, a fascinating history, a museum that is a treasure trove of the past and an incredible piece of living history awaits you…
Hospices de Beaune, Burgundy
The first stone was laid on 4th August in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, the wealthy Chanceller of Philip the Good, ruler of Burgundy. Nine years later the first patient was admitted to what was a cutting edge hospital in its day. At that time the normal treatment for a sick person was to call a doctor to visit them at home – that is if they could afford it. A dedicated building where doctors could check on several patients at a time was quite an innovation in patient care – particularly for the poor.
The man whose money founded the Hotel Dieu did it not just for altruistic reasons but as a way to show much money he had and how important he was. He also hoped to find salvation from God for himself and his wife by doing such good works. The Hospices boasted a bakery, pharmacy, kitchen, living quarters for the nuns and a lavoir, a place to do the washing. However one of the nuns fell in and drowned so it was filled in and never used again, you can see it in the corner of the courtyard still.
Your eyes will be drawn to the incredible roof – the glittering, jewel like tiles are magnificent, one of the finest examples of this type of distinctive ancient old roofing that exists in France.
The large hospital room is surrounded by ancient beds which look as hard as rocks. In the old days there would have been 2-3 people to a bed. It was believed that getting ill was a punishment from God, doctors had no idea that disease could be 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 in 1658 and was shocked at the fact – he donated enough money to ensure separation of the sexes.
People slept sitting up in the beds, not because they were so uncomfortable but because they thought that if you laid down and fell asleep you would look dead, and “Death” could creep up and take you. At the sides of the beds were toilets, bodily functions were out in the open and people were not embarrassed about it (or, it seems, bothered by hygiene).
Weirdly I saw a TV set on the altar in one of the chapels which prompted me to ask what it was doing there. Astonishingly, I was told that this place was still a working hospital until recently and the television had been left behind when it closed! How incredible to think that this ancient hospital had been functioning for well over 500 years.
In one of the large rooms, operations were conducted, and that doesn’t bear thinking about when you see the instruments that were used and know that anaesthetic was way off in the future. A hole in the floor under which the river ran, was the recipient of blood and body parts which were swept down and carried away by the water – carrying diseased body parts to turn up in the lavoir down the road.
It wasn’t all bad though. If you were a patient here you could certainly admire the beauty of the building and the breath-taking tapestries and paintings that the patron provided. The polyptych of The Last Judgment by Rogier van der Weyden is a unique masterpiece and quite possibly the world’s first interactive artwork. An immense and colourful work, it has several flaps which can be opened or closed according to the mood of the day and was intended to encourage patients to reflect on their bad behaviour and clean up their act.
The kitchens and pharmacy exhibits are exquisite with jar after ancient jar of medicines and powders and fabulous long water taps shaped like heads of snakes that feed into an enormous sink. This place is beautifully preserved and restored and is well worth the visit.
Allow at least an hour and a half to see this exceptional museum and afterwards enjoy a wander round the pretty town of Beaune with its lovely shops and cafés and plenty of wine tasting venues.
Website: Hospices de Beaune
Visit Dijon, capital city of Burgundy and not far from Beaune