The Order of Saint John contributed greatly to the islands. One of the greatest investments was in the medical sector, particularly the building of the Sacra Infermeria in Valletta. The hospital was opened in the year 1570 and it became one of the best hospitals in Europe. The Infermeria used to welcome men from different backgrounds irrespective of their nationality, race, or religion. After all, despite their military successes the Knights were originally a hospitaller organisation and one of their main purposes was to care for the sick, wounded and the poor.
The Sacra Infermeria
Furthermore, the Infermeria also received babies, born out of wedlock as well as unwanted infants. At the time of the Order a high number of prostitutes used to be found in the harbour area, therefore apart from venereal diseases there was also a number of illegitimate children more often than not considered as an inconvenience. Due to this, children were usually abandoned to the state or church authorities. Another reason for abandonment was poverty, which made it very hard for parents to raise their children.
Mainly inspired by religious values in Medieval times, it was a European custom that foundling homes and orphanages used to be opened. For instance, in 1198, Pope Innocent III announced the opening of the church sponsored establishments in Rome, since unwanted infants were being thrown into the river Tiber. By the 14th Century these institutions became fairly popular, often administered by civic governments, confraternities, and guilds.
Most of the time the abandoned children were illegitimate, however due to extreme poverty legitimate children were also being abandoned, since their parents could not provide for them. This was mainly common with single mothers who were usually slaves, servants and prostitutes who did not have the adequate resources to raise a child. Also, there were cases where parents used to give up their children so that they could provide a better future for the older siblings. Hence, the ideal option was to leave the children at the foundling hospitals where they could be offered education and shelter. Florence’s famous Ospedale degli Innocenti took in no less than 375,000 children between the 15th and 20th centuries.
Ospedale degli Innocenti
In Malta the establishments for unwanted children were introduced during the late Medieval period at the hospital in Rabat. When the Knights came to Malta in 1530, foundling care services were being offered at Birgu where the Knights settled, and later at the Sacra Infermeria in Valletta.
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
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