The Healing Mission

But the true mark of Christian self-denial was to give help continually to others; and, especially, voluntarily to touch and treat the foul bodies of the sick poor. Jesus had taken up a healing mission as evidence of his care for all others, even those beyond his religion's sacred boundaries, while noticeably not taking a great deal of care of himself, in defiance of Roman fashion. St Augustine had also felt a charitable Christian love for the poor and dispossessed. The rising numbers of sick poor, and those without kin or homes to help them in need—slaves, soldiers, travellers—were increasingly visible all around the remotely administered Empire. From these new if barely perceived needs came the development of the last major public building of the classical world, the only one specifically devoted to medicine itself, the Roman hospital. The first Roman military hospitals (valetudinarium) started in the first century ad, and set high standards of medical equipment and architectural design; but most civilians (and slaves) were treated at home. The first civilian hospitals appeared after Christianization in the mid-fourth century ad; there was one in Rome but far more in the eastern Empire, and in the great Christian capital of Constantinople in the eastern Empire. In Constantinople in ad 388 Olympias turned her wealth over to the Church, and her palace over to sick poor relief—gardens, bakery, baths and all;while St John Chrysostom, the charismatic Patriarch of Constantinople, spent most of his revenues on the city's hospitals, thus earning his later title as one of the Doctors of the Church. By ad 500 a sixteen-volume Galenic canon had been adopted, probably used in the civic hospitals and monastic infirmaries, with further well-written compilations in the sixth and seventh centuries showing evidence of continuing research. By ad 600 Constantinople and Antioch had large hospitals with a total of 600 beds, divided into male and female wards; three centuries later the hospital movement continued to flourish within the Islamic Empire, with hospitals sponsored by wealthy rulers, pious women, and local citizens.35 The healing mission was perhaps the greatest single legacy of the late Roman ascetic Christian faith.

The monastic Church therefore nurtured the classical medical traditions in western Europe and kept them alive. The Holy Roman Church itself was also very much alive and growing— the barbarian invasions of Roman Europa were closely followed by an evangelical and military campaign of Christian religious conversion. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church of Rome was steadily accruing wealth through its growing monastic lands and labour, at the same time as the well-endowed Orthodox Church based in Constantinople emerged as the standard-bearer of the ancient civilized life. When barbarian or pagan leaders were converted or submitted to Christianity in Europe, what the Church represented to them, above all, was the potential for economic and social development.36 Later on, they settled down and started producing great artistic and cultural icons of their own. Asceticism was eventually tamed: nowhere had such excellent baths and latrines as the grand medieval monasteries.

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