Sunday, 2 February 2014

The Chancellor, his Soul, His Wife, and the Hospital.

Nicolas Rolin was a man of some importance in the 15th Century.
Born at Autun into an upwardly mobile family (his birthplace is now a museum), he became a lawyer in Paris, and from there rose to become the Chancellor of Burgundy, and right-hand man to the reigning Duke (Philip the Good). 
Very much the far-sighted politician, he helped Duke Philip steer Burgundy through the final, particularly dangerous period of the Hundred Years War, remaining allies with England despite the sudden death of Henry V, and then changing sides to join the French after the victories of St. Jeanne d’Arc.

Nicolas was a clever man.

A wily man. 

A cunning and sometimes duplicitous man.

And as time passed, a very wealthy man.

(Here he is in about 1435 when aged about sixty) in a detail from the painting 'The Virgin with the Chancellor Rolin' by Jan van Eyck)

He was at the peak of his career.
He had three sons to carry on the family name. He had plenty of money and property
Twice widowed, he was now married to wife number three and all was right with the world. 
He was content.
Or was he?
Something was wrong. 
Something continually jogged his conscience and it was his wife who made him realise what it was: the state of his Soul.

He began to wonder what would become of him when he died. 
After all, he was in his sixties and thus already an old man.  He could die at any time!
How would God view him and his life?
He did not want, as Jacob Marley did, to look back upon his life when it was too late and realise that:

“Mankind was my business.  The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business!”
(A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens)

In this belief he was spurred on by his pious wife, Guigone de Salins.  She had been fearful for the state of his soul for some time now.
Yes, they were fabulously wealthy, but Nicolas had thus far done very little in the ways of charity.  Of course he gave alms but was it enough?  Every one did the same.
Could he stand up on Judgement Day and say with all honesty that he had done his best to help those less fortunate?  
He knew that the answer was a resounding ‘NO’!

He thought about the world and the state that Burgundy, and indeed much of France, was now in.  The end of the wars had bought more trouble than peace.
The fabric of social life had been rent asunder.  
Neighbour was suspicious of neighbour.
The ill and destitute were left uncared for.
Villages and even town were in ruins.
People were homeless.
Bands of unwanted and unpaid mercenaries, unable to get home, and angry at having been short changed, roamed the countryside, intent on pillage and rapine. . . and as if that wasn’t enough, plague had broken out. 
Refugees from the countryside were pouring into cities and major towns to seek relief. 

Suddenly Nicolas saw the way forward.  He knew exactly what to do: He would save his soul by feeding the pour, clothing the naked and looking after the sick.

Having made his decision, he discussed it with his wife and together they set to with a good will. 
Nicolas decided to create a permanent base from which his newfound charitable side would operate. 
The town of Beaune was not too far distant (as the crow flies) from his own home town of Autun, and having heard that it was having a very hard time of it in the aftermath of the war, he decided to set up shop there.
Ever the entrepreneurial businessman, he planned everything down to the smallest detail: The interior, the exterior, the furnishings - everything.  If he was going to plough a fair amount of his vast wealth into this project then it had better be done correctly: He was not about to throw his money away.
Having first asked the Pope for permission to begin a charitable organisation, he purchased a large piece of land next to the market place at Beaune.  The beauty of this spot was that a stream ran along side of it. It was Saturday 20 January 1442 and the Hôtel-Dieu (God’s Hospital), a hospice for the sick and the infirm, can be said to have been born.

Meanwhile his wife (with the Pope’s permission) visited various religious communities to see how they operated.  The Rolins were going to found their own religious order to run the operation but they needed to see what worked and what didn’t. 

They soon decided upon a Benedictine model.

Nicolas envisioned his project to be a combination hospital, almshouse, and charity centre.  One that would benefit the many levels of poverty in the area and which, thanks to careful planning and organisation, would be funded by ownership of various profitable businesses.  As a result the Hôtel-Dieu remains in operation to this very day (although houses in more modern buildings nearby.  The old fifteenth century complex is now a museum which anyone can visit.

So let’s go and see it for ourselves!

The outer wall is fairly plain until one reaches the front entrance:

Once you walk into the Courtyard, everything changes:

One enters from the right (where those people are sitting)

The ornate roof is what 'lifts' the building and makes it stand out:

The tiles are glazed and the woodwork is ornately carved.

The plainer stone building is the 'Great Hall of the Poor':

The inside contains the beds that were in use for the sick up until the mid 20th Century:

Each is numbered and had correspondingly numbered equipment, linen, blankets etc - all as per Nicolas' directions so that no bed was without its own things.  Everything was numbered, even the plates the patients used.
Windows were set up high so as to provide good ventilation.
The beds run along both sides of the hall and are set away from the wall so that the intervening space (behind the curtains) between the bed and wall becomes a walkway so that a doctor could examine the patient in private, either before they got in bed or, once the front curtains were drawn, while they were in bed:

This however was the 15th Century and the idea of personal space did not really exist: Thus each bed was made to contain two people.

The roof of the Great Hall is like the inside hull of an upturned boat.  It has been sympathetically restored:

Half of the Hall is a Chapel for the inmates and the nuns who cared for them:

In prior times the tomb of Guigogne  (who died in 1470) stood before the altar, but it was destroyed and her remains also destroyed, during the French Revolution.  A plaque now marks the spot:

The walls of the chapel are decorated and painted with the arms of the Rolin and the Salins families:

Once out in the courtyard again, one can go in through that doorway in the far corner:

This room was set aside for men, on the request of King Louis XIV who visited in 1658.  My photo is unfortunately blurred but you can see how this chamber was laid out 

I think that it was originally a chapel.  Mannequins are dressed in the habits of the nuns that used to tend the patients.  On the table are various pieces of equipment used by the doctors.

A large chambers has been turned into an exhibition hall of sorts that shows the history of the place.  Glazed wooden cabinets are set up with various displays.
Medical equipment:
 Architectural details:

The next set of rooms contains the old Dispensary:
The painting shows Claude Morelot the institution's 18th Century apothecary.

There are some beautiful majolica jars and bottles.  I would love to have some of these:

There are cabinets to store the various ingredients to be used in medicines:

And then there are the kitchens:

Food was prepared here not only for the nuns and the patients, but for those poor people who gathered outside each day for this was a charity centre and while it could not possibly house all those in need it could at least attempt to feed as many as possible.

The final set of rooms on view are those containing institution's treasures: Tapestries and spectacular paintings:

Photography was not permitted in the room with the paintings but you could buy postcards (which I did) as a keepsake.  Thanks however to Wikipedia I can show you the magnificent altar piece that is the star of the collection.  It was painted by Roger van der Weyden during Nicolas' lifetime:

Here is St Michael, weighing the souls of the dead:

Those found wanting go down to Hell:

 Those found to be in good order go up to Heaven!:

The building of the hospital, together with the needs of the patients and sisters provided a huge economic boost to the people of Beaune.  Of course it was going to take time to get everything in order.  The budget blew out (I think we can all relate to this) and various hold ups meant that the completion of the building was behind schedule and not completed until the year 1451 but on the last day of the year (three and a half years later than originally planned for) the Hospital took in its first patient.  Nicolas (now aged seventy-five) and Guigogne were on hand and and the mood was one of great optimism.
The Duke visited and was so amazed at what Nicolas had achieved that he granted the hospital various rights to free firewood.  People began to leave bequests of money to the hospital in their Wills and when Nicolas noticed that the teacher he had employed to teach the nuns was far too strict with them, and with the sick, he fired her and busied himself with writing a Rule for the new order (the Hospital Sisters of Beaune) himself.  In doing this he made compassion his watchword.
Nicolas Rolin died in 1462, aged eighty-six.  There was some unpleasantness for the widowed Giugogne, when her stepson Cardinal Rolin (the local bishop) challenged the Hospital's rights of patronage; but the case was eventually decide in favor of the hospital and Guigogne decided to retire there, dying in 1470.
As I walked around the Hospital and saw and heard all that Nicolas had done I felt that the work had changed him.  He had started out very much the hard-headed businessman, the wily politician, but engaged upon this enormous act of charity, he had become an exceptionally humane person - and that made me happy.

This is what you would see if the alter piece is closed.  Nicolas and Guigogne at prayers:

I hope you enjoyed this little tour of the Hôtel-Dieu.  Perhaps one day you will find yourself in Beaune and then you too can visit and see for yourself this glory of 15th Century Burgundy.

(I got my information from the beautiful guide book we bought there.  I also used a wonderful little book called 'French Architecture' by Pierre Lavedan.  I recommend it for anyone interested in such things)
And if you want to know more and can read French then here is the Hospital's official website.


  1. Hello, Kirk -
    Thanks for sharing your wonderful photos of the Hôtel-Dieu. And its history. We visited here a couple years back, and it is indeed glorious. The tiled rooftops are incredibly beautiful and graphic. I will have to share this post with Tom as he will enjoy seeing your postcard-like photos. We had a lovely time there.

    1. Thank you Loi,
      I think it is the sort of place that, once you have visited it, you never forget. I'm glad you enjoyed it all as much as we did.

  2. Good evening Kirk!

    Well, where do I even begin to comment on this rich post. I just want to thank you for putting in so much work and love in bringing to us a history and photo journal of not only the past, but YOUR experience there. I enjoy reading your style and to go to places that again, I will probably never see. Thank you! Anita

    1. Good Evening to you Anita!
      Thank you for your kind comments. I am glad that you liked this post and my advice to you is 'never say ''never"'!
      Bye for now,

  3. Dear Kirk,

    Thanks for a most interesting tour. Nicolas Rolin sounds like a very modern philanthropist, seeing a need, researching models, and essentially writing mission statements. The rooves are of course spectacular, and the arrangement with the beds must have been very innovative for the time — it's interesting that they were used into the 20th century!

    1. Dear Mark,
      That was one thing that struck me - seeing the photos of the same beds being used in the hall in (I think) the 1960s. I couldn't imagine the rooms being a 'modern' working hospital at that time!

  4. Spouse and I have walked over every inch of the Beaune Hopital and enjoyed it very much. We went on an organised art and architecture tour, and saw some very impressive altarpieces, chapels and buildings.

    But I think the political and medical contexts behind the building of such a large institution tended to be overlooked on our visit. The large chambers and their displays of medicine, majolica and instruments are essential. Ditto the kitchen and the idea of charity outside the hospital. So many thanks for the photos and text.

  5. Thanks for this history lesson Kirk! I loved every bit of it!

  6. Hello Kirk, A fascinating story behind this hospital. They and we are very lucky that the complex survived so intact. Architecturally, I particularly like the Hall of the Poor. I wonder if the woodwork of the beds is original, or a restoration.

    I am fascinated by the displays of medical and pharmaceutical equipment. In Taiwan you can still find many traditional pharmacies with similar wooden shelves and ceramic jars, all still in use.

    1. Dear Jim,
      I had a look in the guidebook that we bought and it would seem (although I may be wrong) that these particular beds were replaced when the Hall was renovated/replaced in 1872.
      Being so used to chrome and glass in 'modern' chemists and apothekes, wooden shovels and ceramic jars would give a place an otherworldly feel that I would like a lot! A herbalist we go to in Melbourne still uses these as well and I feel as though I am obtaining ingredients for potions and spells!

  7. Dear Kirk - what a great read on a Monday morning - you have made history come alive.
    Hôtel-Dieu is a fabulous building both inside and out but I especially love that glorious roof.
    As Nicolas Rolin lived to be such an old man for that period, and spent his later years being benevolent and seeing the success of Hôtel-Dieu that probably became reward enough for him.

    1. Thank you Rosemary, I am glad you enjoyed this post. AGA didn't care for the glazed roof tiles but like you I thought they were fabulous. I was pleased that both Nicolas and Guigogne lived long enough to not only see the culmination of their venture, but its growing prosperity as well. I agree with you in that I got the feeling that as the work progressed and as Nicolas got more and more involved, it changed him, and forgetful of self, he saw the results of being for the greater good of all, not just for the good of his Soul (and that is probably what saved it!)

  8. Oh wow - what beautiful history here. I think I need to add the Hôtel-Dieu to my bucket list :)

    1. Thank you Keith,
      I agree - you definitely need add this name to the list!

  9. Such an interesting story and place to visit Kirk! I like it when there is so much history to a building you visit! I am glad to hear Nicolas Rolin managed to save his soul :-)!

    Happy week!

    Madelief x

    1. Dear Madelief,
      I glad he did too - and I think he did it in style!
      I hope you are enjoying the mild winter weather.

  10. What a fascinating and beautiful place. I thought those curtained beds would be a nice place to rest until I read that they were shared. Never mind. But still beautiful. And that roof!

    1. Thank you Mitchell. It is both beautiful and fascinating. I'm with you regarding the beds. I would want to see who I was sharing with before I got in!

  11. Such a fabulous post, Kirk. Thank you. Nicholas Rolin seems to have been an extraordinary man. I enjoyed reading about him and his wife - it seems three times's the charm. Rolin must also have been an exceptionally healthy individual with amazing genetic material - 86!

    And to think that the Hotel-Dieu is still operational today. Remarkable and such a testament to Rolin.
    This is the sort of life that would make for a terrific film treatment - don't you think?

    1. Thank you Yvette. I was surprised that Nicolas lived such a long time as well but I think that the foundation gave him new life and new things to think about and work for!
      It would indeed make a good movie. An inspirational one at that!

  12. I watched a documentary on the hospital at Beaune a while back. You did a much better job.
    Are the tiles a regional style or specific to the hospital? I think they are glorious.

    1. Thank you Susan, that is kind of you. Those tiles are regional in style. You often see them on houses in that area.

  13. Hello Kirk, This is just flat-out an amazing post! So interesting and your photography is excellent in giving us the full scope. You must have spent a good deal of time here and the result is wonderful. Best regards from Seattle, John

    1. Thank you, John. I am glad you liked this post. I must admit that I enjoyed writing it too!

  14. Wow that is how history is retold.
    Well written (with the right photographs at the right place)
    Was having a close look at those surgical instruments. They were really advanced then.

    1. Thank you, Haddock. That is very kind of you. Yes, medical technique was well on the advance in those days. It was a whole new world they were exploring!

  15. How I love these photos, Kirk. And that one of the hearth with the copper pots in the kitchen? MY dream kitchen!

    Thank you so much for coming by to visit last night! That first photo of the horse with a pink mane! hahahahahha

    Enjoy the LOVE in your life, Kirk! Anita

    1. Dear Anita,
      I do like copper pots. We have a lot of them here and thankfully, these days there are excellent copper cleaners that take all the hard work out it. Can you imagine what it would have taken to have all those pots and pans sparkling clean? Yikes!

  16. I agree with you Kirk, the charity changed Nicolas Rolin. He became a wise, kind man. It once more says of the important role of his wife in his life.

    1. I agree with you, Nadezda. The wife of Nicolas had an important role to play in the founding and administration of this hospital. I think Nicolas owed her a lot!
      I hope you have a nice weekend!

  17. I'm sure it'd not have been any fun being sick and poor in Nicolas Rolin's day, Kirk, but he certainly alleviated much suffering. God bless.