chapter  1
Considerations on the cultural meaning of institutional change
ByMiri Rubin
Pages 12

Some of us, social historians interested in poverty and its relief in the medieval world, have been attracted in recent years to the study of hospitals. In the absence of a medieval bureaucracy engaged in the provision and supervision of relief, and given the dearth of comprehensive documentation relating to poverty and the poor, medieval hospitals seem to provide one of the few areas offering scope for a close study of the experience of poverty and its relief. Medieval hospitals were usually endowed institutions, and since they often existed under the tutelage of the church, they generated a variety of legal and ecclesiastical documentation. In the countryside, these institutions owned land and were involved in the business of parochial as well as manorial administration; in towns, they often acted in the urban property market, leaving their mark in sources related to the purchase and exchange of tenements, in rentals, and in records of ownership disputes. Through the careful juxtaposition of these materials it is possible to trace the institutional histories of individual hospitals, and occasionally, wherever statutes, rules, exceptional law-suits or evidence of benefactions have survived, we are allowed a glimpse into a hospital’s day-to-day life. But these glimpses are rare and, on the whole, do not allow us to recreate a full picture of the nature of life, relief and patronage experienced in the medieval hospital. That this is so is a source of frustration to those of us who have studied hospitals as ‘bridges’ to the poor, as well as of exasperation to some of the readers of our works.1