HOSPITALITY IN MEDIEVAL TIMES, aka THE ORIGIN OF HOSPICE CARE

Godfrey of Bouillon (1060 – July 1100) was a medieval Frankish knight who was one of the leaders of the First Crusade from 1096 until his death. This stained glass window in the cathedral of Brussels depicts the Siege of Jerusalem by the Crusaders in the 11th Century. This window was created in 1866, no property release is required.

The Crusades. Ugh. For anyone like myself who identifies as a Christian because I put my hope and trust in the Messiah who teaches us how to love our enemies – the Crusades are a hard reality of my religious history.

The Crusades are a series of wars that took place during medieval times and lasted over two centuries throughout the Middle East. These conflicts are characterized by zealous violence initiated, supported, and sometimes directed by the Christian church in the period between 1095-1291. The fervor fueling the Crusades was the mania to secure control of holy sites and combat anyone seen as enemies of the Christian faith. The barbaric conflicts that characterize the Crusades still influence cultural and political views held today.

Hospice – one of modern medicine’s oldest disciplines – was established during this tumultuous time.

In the Middle Ages, the relentless battles of the Crusades dramatically increased travel. Not travel for leisure, rather soldiers on foot returning home, displaced people searching for a place to live, and pilgrims journeying to visit holy sites. In response, lodging houses were set up along well-used routes by monasteries, guilds, and private citizens. They were places where weary people could rest, eat, and perhaps have minor wounds cared for. As the wars continued, these lodging houses also became places of hospitality for the sick and the dying.

These resting places were called “Hospes” – the Latin word for host and guest, as well as “one who provides entertainment (or care) for a guest or visitor”. The modern hospice is deeply rooted in the practices of these Hospes through the work of offering rest and care to people at the end of their life journey, as well as accompanying the patient’s loved ones on their journey of grief.

One of the great ironies of hospice work is that the best preparation for caring for the dying and the grieving are the experiences we gain from intentional living. This is why the practice of hospitality over the span of many years is an exceptional educator for my professional career. Sharing life around my table teaches me how to be present with the dying at their bedside, and how to accompany grievers on their uncertain path.

Just as it was in medieval times, the practice of hospitality still transforms our homes into a place of Hospes by inviting visitors to our table as a place of rest and care wherever they are on their life journey. Providing nourishment to both the body and the soul by feeding hungry bellies, as well as tending to emotional and spiritual wounds. Offering the gifts of community and companionship without judgement or expectations. Allowing pain and beauty, joy and sorrow, loss and celebration to exist simultaneously. Sharing with openness and authenticity. Affirming every guest’s value and worth. The practice of hospitality mirrors the deeper practices of hospice work.

Gathering with others around the table or around a bedside both invites us to learn and grow by sharing life. End of life experiences are about so much more than death. They are how we live until our physical bodies take their final breath. Likewise sharing a meal is about so much more than eating food. It is rest and care for the body, mind, heart, and soul.

Hospice and hospitality both guide us into an experience of Hospes on this journey called life. As Ram Dass said, “We are all just walking each other home.”

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