Women with the healing touch
ONE subject area which the Librarian has been keen to extend is the medical history of the Hospitallers, which includes the often overlooked but significant contribution by female members.
A recent addition to the literature is Women in the Military Orders of the Crusades by Myra Miranda Bom (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2012).
By placing the study of women in the medieval Military Orders within the larger context of female monasticism, the author provides a fascinating analysis of an aspect of the Order of St John which deserves wider understanding and appreciation.
The book’s seven chapters comprise: Female Monasticism; Women in Military Orders; The Order of Saint John of Jerusalem; The Lay Sisters of Saint John of Jerusalem; Hospitaller Sisters in the Twelfth Century; Hospitaller Sisters in the Thirteenth Century; The Hospital and its Female Members
There are copious Notes and an excellent Bibliography and Index. Her book continues research published in Hospitaller Women in the Middle Ages by Anthony Luttrell & Helen Nicholson (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2006).
The Knights Hospitaller were not alone in admitting female membership — lay sisters as well as professed sisters — as the author points out ‘current research shows that women attached themselves to most religious military orders, including the Order of Santiago, the Teutonic Order, the Templar Order and the Order of Calatrava’.
Nevertheless, the Hospitallers had more female members than any other medieval Military Order.
Myra Miranda Bom looks at women who took religious vows and became Hospitaller ‘serving sisters’ for life. Some nursed, some acted as commanders responsible for estate management, and others devoted their lives to religious contemplation.
Women were associated as early as 1111 with the hospital in Jerusalem, but the first mention of a sister (soror) is from 1146.
By 1177, the Order started to undertake the foundation of houses specifically for women. One of the best known received the direct support from King Henry II in 1186 at Buckland in Somerset.
In fact, there were two houses placed next to each other: one, a house of sisters also known as Mynchin Buckland or Buckland Sororum; the other, a commandery of brothers — both of which were answerable to the Prior of England at Clerkenwell.
The first Prioress, named Fina, was in charge for 60 years and outlived from the date of her appointment seven successive Masters of the Order.
Some idea of the importance of the sisters’ community at Buckland is given by Gregory O’Malley: ‘Most houses had between one and three resident brethren, the exceptions being Clerkenwell, where there were seven, Buckland, with six, and Chippenham, where four Hospitallers cared for six or seven of their sick brethren in a small hospital.
‘Fifty Hospitaller nuns dwelt at the priory of Buckland in addition to the brethren at the preceptory there.’
When on 10 February 1539 the Commissioners arrived at Buckland, Prioress Katherine Bourchier ‘surrendered’ her house. She and her sisters received in return a pension from the crown.
The light may have been extinguished that day by another Henry, but female care for ‘Our Lords the Sick’ continues to this day in the daily commitment displayed by St John Ambulance volunteers, by the doctors and medical teams of the St John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital Group, and by the nursing staff looking after expectant mothers in the Order of Malta’s Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem.