Public Health in pre-University Cambridge; monastic communities
Today, the ancient church of St Benedict – known as St Bene’t’s – is the oldest surviving building in Cambridge. Even before the establishment of the University some 800 years ago, Cambridge – or Grantabrycge as it was known – was already a significant settlement and an important centre of spiritual learning.
The existence of a thriving monastic community is central to the story of public health in Cambridge.
During the thirteenth-century, an Augustinian Friary stood on the neighbouring site, containing its own cemetery and gardens. When this site was excavated around 1910, several skeletons were discovered with brass buckles, leather belts and fragments of woollen habits still clinging to them.
Monasteries provided the only form of social security to the ordinary man in the street, as those in religious orders were expected to work for the community, offering shelter to all travellers and pilgrims and caring for the sick, poor and the elderly.
Most religious houses also had their own infirmary for sick and aged monks, and a separate hospital for the public. This included not just the local population, but also the vast numbers of vagrants, beggars and unemployed people who thronged the streets of Cambridge. The monasteries provided these people with clean clothing, comfortable bedding and fresh food, as well as prayer and spiritual comfort, as an intrinsic part of their medical care.
Although the practice of medicine differed greatly from that of today, monastic infirmaries undoubtedly gave help and hope to thousands of otherwise destitute people.
St Bene't's Church