The Sacra Infermeria in Valletta was known to be one of the finest hospitals in Europe. However, the hospital did not only receive the sick and the wounded but also unwanted babies. During the time of the Order of Saint John this matter was taken seriously. So much so, that at the hospital there were a number of staff members dedicated to taking care of these babies.
The Ospedaliera was in charge of taking care of the foundlings as soon as they were removed from the “ruota”, visit our previous article “Historical Perspectives on Foundling Care and Abandonment Practices” for more information. A lead pendant with the seal of the Holy Infirmary used to be placed around the neck of foundling so that they could be recognised. The Ospedaliera was also in charge of the wet nurses and the foster mothers. Every Easter they used to inspect the babies to make sure that they were being taken care of and being well fed. Helping her she also used to have the Sotto-Ospedaliera.
The wet nurses used to reside in the part of the hospital known as the Casa dei Figlioli e Figliole. They were available round the clock in order to breastfeed the babies.However, there were times where there were too many foundlings, and these nurses could not cope. In such a scenario goat’s milk was used. Before being employed at the hospital the wet nurses used to undergo several examinations by the hospital physicians to make sure they were healthy and free of diseases. They were also constantly supervised by the Ospedaliera to make sure that they were doing their duties. By 1779, it was also customary for the Infirmary to provide breastfeeding services to the legitimate offspring of mothers who suffered from insufficiency of their breast milk.
In addition, by 1574 it was common to engage foster mothers, who were required to be honest Christians and persons of integrity, that were appointed by the infirmarian. On a regular basis they were also required to bring the infants back to the Infermeria to be inspected by the Grand Hospitaller.
Some of the foundlings were eventually given up for adoption, however, those who did not find a new home were brought up by the Ospedaliera at the hospital until they reached a certain age. At the age of three girls were usually sent to live with the cloister nuns in Mdina until they reached the age of marriage. On the other hand, boys stayed at the Infermeria until they turned seven, when they would be apprenticed to learn a trade of their choice. All expenses were covered by the Treasury of the Order of Saint John.
Evidently this matter was given great importance, even though some argued that this might have encouraged the abandonment of children. However, this system also reduced the rate of infanticide, whilst also saving the souls of babies who would otherwise have died without receiving baptism.
The latest development in the long history of the Sacra Infermeria came only last year, when a new virtual museum, titled ‘Reliving The Sacra Infermeria’, was inaugurated. The idea of a virtual museum, which brings together history and technology, was brought about by the need to satisfy visitors’ curiosity about the building’s former history without interrupting ongoing conferences or theatre performances that are regularly held here. Now, by downloading a mobile application that makes use of augmented reality, one can once more relive the building’s former days as a hospital.
Re-Living the Sacra Infermeria is a project co-financed through the European Regional Development Fund.
Cassar, P. (1983). From The Holy Infirmary of the Knights of St John to the Mediterranean Congress Centre. Malta
Cassar, P. (1978). Female Employees in the Medical Services of the Order of St. John in Malta. Melita Historica, 7(3), 225-233.
Savona-Ventura, C. (2016). Social Services for Unwed Mothers and their Children. Malta