Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Orthodox Christian Medical Care in the Eastern Roman Empire

“From their origins in the fourth century until 1453 Byzantine hospitals were conceived as expressions of Christian charity. They carried out in the real world the orthodox doctrine regarding philanthropic medicine. When Basil the Great opened his extensive charitable institution—his ptochotropheion—outside Caesarea, he saw its medical services as the deepest possible expressions of philanthropia. As Greagory of Nazianz phrased it, one could see there love put to the test in their treatment of disease. John Chrysostom built his hospitals in Constantinople 'for the glory of Christ' and staffed them with ascetics who viewed their service to the sick as a religious duty. Sampson, the legendary physician of the Eastern capital, founded his hospital on the principles of the physicians’ profession and on the divine laws which Christ laid down. Even after Justinian introduced the archiatroi of the ancient pagan profession in the Christian xenones, a step which encouraged lay professionals to enter hospital service at all levels on the staff, the religious mission of the nosokomeion was never forgotten. When, about 800, Theodore Stoudites described a large nosokomeion with a complete staff of physicians and nurses, he emphasized that all the doctors from the chief physicians to the practical nurses strove to follow the divine plan of philanthropia. When John II Komnenos established the Pantokrator Xenon in the twelfth century, he prayed that it would always be a fountain of mercy, a refuge for men and women, a pure offering to the Lord. Moreover, John hoped that the philanthropia which he displayed in founding this hospital would attain for him the forgiveness of his many sins. The emperor also reminded the physicians, medical assistants (hypourgoi), and servants of the Pantokrator that they should never neglect patients, since Christ, the Creator of All, considered these sick his beloved brethren. Thus, John wanted the monks and the lay staff of the Pantokrator complex to care not only for the buildings he had built—the lifeless temples—but especially for the patients of the hospital—the living temples of God.”

Note: Philanthopia – “love toward mankind”

Source: Timothy S. Miller, The Birth of the Hospital in the Byzantine Empire (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 61-62.

(The image is a copy of the Hippocratic Oath from the Byzantine Empire.)