Hospices de Beaune - Poverty, disease and wine - France

One of Burgundy's perhaps most unexpected historical sights is Hospices of Beauneor Hotel-Dieu de Beaune as it is also called. The Palace of the Poor. God's house. The combined hospital and church from the 15th century.

From the outside, Hôtel-Dieu doesn't look like much. The building is more reminiscent of a rustic fort with its high walls with small windows and simple roofs. But the inside hides a world of grand historic architecture and medical history. I had no expectations at all when I visited the hospital, but left the place with an incredible respect for the hospital staff who, right up until the 1970s, continued to fight here for the sick and elderly.

Life and death in the 15th century

During the 15th century, life in Europe was not easy for the less fortunate. Protracted and devastating wars swept across the continent, leaving destruction and disease in their wake. Those who did not have financial resources had the hardest time, as access to food and medical care was extremely limited.

Worst of all was the plague, which was believed to be God's wrath for people's sins. It was a time of much suffering and many people lived in uncertainty and need. The church was the only consolation for many.

During the 15th century in France, the Hundred Years' War and the plague had hit the region of Burgundy hard. The majority of the town of Beaune's population was extremely poor. However, one man would step forward and change the lives of many townspeople.

A man's dream

Nicolas Rolin was chancellor of the reigning duke Philip the Good and a very wealthy man. The situation in Beaune upset him and together with his wife he went to the Pope in 1441 to get permission to build a hospital for the poor. Rolin was given carte blanche to build the hospital and together with his wife construction began. No expense was spared during construction and the result was an incredibly beautiful building with Gothic details and a magnificent roof in playful patterns.

The hospital opened its doors in 1443. The sick, the elderly and the poor flocked to receive care and medical treatments.

Hospital with chapel

All visitors receive an audio guide that takes you on a journey through time and space. Stories about treatments and patients are mixed with the story of Rolin himself. The audio guide is necessary to be able to absorb the visit, as there are not that many signs to read.

The sick were mainly in La salle des Pôvres - Hall of the poor. The room is lined with sick beds on the long sides and an ornate chapel on one short side. At most, about 60 patients could be treated here at the same time.

Medical knowledge in the 15th century was very low and for many sick people the only option for recovery was to pray to God and hope for recovery. Here in the room, they could lie in their beds and still attend the services. A last hope for many.

The hall is almost a little terrifying. The thought that so many people's lives have passed here over more than 500 years is unpleasant. Even if everything was done for the sick patients, the statistics were bad. Very few of the patients got better, most who came here were already incurable and dying.

The chapel originally contained Judgment Day– a magnificent altarpiece by the Dutch artist Rogier van der Weyden. The painting is incredibly detailed and doom-laden and probably gave the sick people in the room plenty of time to ponder their lives and what they could have done differently.

Today, a copy of the altarpiece is displayed in the infirmary, but you can still view the original altarpiece in a more protected location in another part of the building.

Cures and medicines

At the museum, you can also visit a pharmacy from the 17th century, with a large collection of medicines and remedies from that time. The walls are covered in row after row of unexpected ingredients from plants and animals. It's not so strange that the mortality rate was high, when diseases were cured with cocoa, vanilla, rose and thyme.

Even wine was considered a health-giving drink, which would prove to be one of the hospital's most fortunate incomes even today.

Vineyards and charity

The hospital's reputation for goodness spread quickly and out of gratitude from those treated and survivors, vineyards were donated to the hospital. The area's wealthy people also donated vineyards and land to the hospital. The hospital thus became a large owner of vineyards and also a large wine producer. Today the hospital owns 60 hectares of some of Burgundy's best and finest vineyards and the wines produced are coveted by wine connoisseurs from all over the world.

In 1859, the wine of the Hospices des Beunes was auctioned for the first time, to provide the hospital with increased income. Since then, the wine auction has been held in November every year.

Today, the wine auction for the Hospices Civils de Beaune is one of the most famous in the world and all profits go to charitable projects in healthcare for the current foundation. 85% of the vineyards are classified as premier cru or grand cru, so the barrels sold go for large sums. Here you don't buy individual bottles, but a barrel of the year's harvest from one of the 50 cuvées. Ungraded and raw, in your hands for aging and bottling (in a few years).

Before I return the audio guide and go out into the warming Burgundy sun, I stop at the beautiful courtyard. It is not even possible to imagine that this would be the same house as the facade that met me on the street.

This is a good example of how historic, but quite everyday, places can be preserved and used in new ways for the dissemination of knowledge and conservation. One of Burgundy's absolute must-sees!

How do I get here?

Hospices de Beaune is located in Beaune, in the heart of Burgundy. The city is considered one of the world's wine capitals and has a large selection of restaurants and wine bars.


Read more about Hospices de Beaune and book tickets at their website.

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Travel blogger, gastronaut, photographer and family adventurer with over 60 countries in his luggage. Eva loves trips that include beautiful nature, hiking boots and well-cooked food. On the travel site Rucksack she takes you to all corners of the world with the help of her inspiring pictures and texts.

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