After the arrival of the Order of Saint John in 1530, the medical field in Malta went through a complete transformation, especially after the new major hospital in Valletta, known as the Sacra Infermeria was built. The Sacra Infermeria gained a reputation as one of the best hospitals of the time. This was due to the high standards of medical care as well as the expertise of the medical, surgical, and nursing staff employed there.
The origins of the Knights of St. John also known as the Knights Hospitallers, date back to the early 12th Century. Back then a group of individuals founded a hospital in Jerusalem to provide care for the sick and injured pilgrims who made it to the Holy Land. By time the organisation also became a military as well as a religious Order. However, what distinguished this Order from other similar institutions was its continued hospitaller character and mission. The Order took this vocation seriously, so much so that they used to set up hospitals and provide medical care wherever they went.
The Sacra Infermeria was the responsibility of the Grand Master who was the head of the Order. However, the administrator of the Infermeria was known as the Grand Hospitaller. This role was one of the most privileged roles within the Order of Saint John. This reflects the importance the Knights gave to their hospital.
The position of the Grand Hospitaller was always reserved for the head of the Langue of France. The French Knights were proud of the privilege given to their nationality and strictly guarded the rights enjoyed by the person who held this position. The Grand Hospitaller was the only Knight who could enter the hospital without following the usual procedures.
Langue of France
One of the main duties of the Grand Hospitaller was appointing an Infirmarian. This was usually a senior Knight who was responsible for the day-to-day administration of the hospital. The role of the Infirmarian was also always occupied by a Knight from the Langue of France. His job included visiting wards day and night to ensure that all members of staff were at their posts and that everything was in order. This also included the meal schedule and the quality of the food.
The Infirmarian used to live onsite at the Sacra Infermeria, in the Infirmarian’s Apartment. This room originally formed part of the hospital’s upper floor and it was known to have been decorated with the coat of arms of the 18 Knights who served as Infirmarians between 1681 and 1765. Unfortunately, this part of the hospital was completely destroyed during an air raid during the Second World War.
The Infirmarian’s Apartment
The Infirmarian would also have two assistants known as Prud’hommes. Their main responsibility was to supervise the expenditure and the accounts of the hospital. Assisting them they would also have the scrivano, or secretary. There was also a person in charge of the linen, laundry, and other hospital equipment, known as the linciere, whilst the bottigliere was the individual who supervised the food and wine supplies.
Another prominent role was that of the armoriere, who was responsible for the safekeeping and cleanliness of the silver. The Knights spared no expense to give the highest level of medical services. Due to the antimicrobial qualities of silver, the food used to be served using silver plates, soup bowls, cups, and cutlery. By 1725, the Sacra Infermeria owned 1,150 pieces of table silver, hence it was the responsibility of the armoriere to make sure that nothing went missing.
It was the responsibility of the armoriere to make sure that none of the silver went missing.
There were also other employees who contributed to the running of the Infermeria. More information about the employees within the Infermeria could be found in the second part of this blog. (Human Resources at the Sacra Infermeria Part 2)
The latest development in the long history of this historic building came only in the recent years, 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. You can try out a free trial at home by downloading the application from here (IOS) or here (Android).
If you have any problems trying it out, reach out to us on Facebook!
Cassar, P. (1983). From The Holy Infirmary of the Knights of St John to the Mediterranean Congress Centre. Malta
Zammit, T. (1919). The Medical School of Malta. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 12(Suppl), 133-142