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The Sick Bow in the Church: Medical Care and Surgery in the Village of Oplinter / Brabant, Belgium (14th-16th century)

by Bart Minnen (Wezemaal/Belgium)

One of the most curious medieval rural parish churches in the former duchy of Brabant is the church of St Genoveva in Oplinter, a village near the town of Tienen (Belgium, province of Flemish Brabant). From the early 14th century onwards, the Romanesque church was replaced by a new Gothic building, with some unusual features for a rural parish church: it is the only medieval hall-church in Brabant, and has two beautiful decorated side porches from the middle of the 14th century. This new construction is closely related to the reputation that Oplinter enjoyed since at least ca. 1300 as a pilgrimage site for sick people who hoped to obtain healing of the dreadful disease of ergotism. The disease, at that time known as St-Anthony fire, holy fire, or Saint Genoveva fire, was caused by eating cereals infected with mother corn, a poisonous parasitic fungus. The disease particularly struck during the autumn months, after the grain harvest. Patients suffered from severe spasms accompanied by mental disorders, or gangrene, in which the extremities of the affected limbs turn black and die. The two most important healing saints were St Anthony's Abbot and St Genoveva (ca. 422-c. 500-510), the patron saint of Paris: her reputation as a healing saint against ergotism started in 1129, when her miraculous intervention put an end to a major epidemic which then ravaged Paris and the whole of northern France.


A big difference with leprosy was that ergotism was not transmitted by infection. That is why victims were not thrown out of the community and confined to leprosy asylum, but treated within the community: in a hospital or, as in Oplinter, even in the church itself, both in the middle of the village. Already in the 14th century sick people were cared for in sick beds within the church and sometimes were even buried in the church building. These sick beds stood in two annexes on either side of the church tower, each with two floors (Figure 1). These annexes are described in 1515 as 'houses', each having three rooms. The southern annex is an integral part of the earliest construction campaign of the new church (early 14th century; Figure 2). This means that this annex, with its clearly non-religious function, was part of the architectural concept from the very beginning. The northern annex was added at the beginning of the 15th century.

 

Oplinter Tower and Annexes

Figure 1: Frontal view of the St Genoveva church at Oplinter (1943).
The two annexes on the north and south sides of the tower contained rooms for sick pilgrims.

In addition to these six 'sick rooms' in the church, patients were also cared for in a small hospital, which was managed by the church wardens, and was located behind the church, on the site of the current presbytery. We do not know how many beds the hospital and the six rooms in the church counted. A rare account dating from 1527 shows that during each autumn month six to eight patients, both men and women, were cared for in the hospital. The hospital had its own brewing installation. Officially, the supervision of the medicine care in Oplinter was entrusted to the hospital governess, who was appointed by the village lord. But a recently discovered judgment from 1515 shows that she had to endure the competition of a surgeon. The document includes a list of names that goes back to about 1450, containing as many men as women. Sometimes a parent passed on his knowledge to his child, as was the case with Catharina (+ ca. 1511), who practiced surgery for more than thirty years and involved her daughter Stevenijne from an early age. When, at the death of Catharina, the village lord nevertheless appointed another woman as hospital governess, this led to fierce protest within the village community because Stevenijne could boast of years of expertise. Catharina and Stevenijne not only treated ergotism, but also all kinds of other diseases and ailments 'such as bad legs, breasts and other matters of surgery'. The repeated use of the term 'surgery' seems to indicate that the Oplinter surgeons, including the women among them, amputated patients who suffered from gangrene. The reputation of these skilled village surgeons was a major attraction for sick pilgrims from a vast surrounding area. The case of Oplinter offers interesting perspectives for further research into local medicine care in late medieval and early modern rural pilgrimage sites.

 

Oplinter Nave + Annex

Figure 2: The southern annex as seen from the southern aisle to the west.
Through the window on the first floor sick pilgrims were able to follow mass.


This post was written for 'Parishes and Migration', the 18th Warwick Symposium on Parish Research in May 2018

Holbein Pedlar 1538