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The Béguines, so well known in Flanders, seem to have existed as hospital-sisters in the seventh century, and to have been settled in communities at Liege and elsewhere in 1173. They wear a particular dress (the black gown and white hood), but take no vows, and may leave the community at any time-a thing which rarely happens.
No one who has travelled in Flanders, visited Ghent, Bruges, Brussels, or indeed any of the Netherlandish towns, will forget the singular appearance of these, sometimes young and handsome, but always staid, respectable-looking women, walking about protected by the universal reverence of the people, and busied in their compassionate vocation.
In their few moments of leisure, the Béguines are allowed to make lace and cultivate flowers, and they act under a strict self-constituted government, maintained by strict traditional forms. All the hospitals in Flanders are served by these Béguines. They have, besides, attached to their own houses, hospitals of their own, with a medical staff of physicians and surgeons, under whose directions, in all cases of difficulty, the sisters administer relief; and of the humility, skill, and tenderness with which they do administer it, I have heard but one opinion ;* nor did I ever meet with any one who had travelled in those countries who did not wish that some system of the kind could be transferred to England.
In Germany, the Sisters of Charity are styled “Sisters of St. Elizabeth,” in honor of Elizabeth of Hungary. At Vienna, a few years ago, I had the opportunity, through the kindness of a distinguished physician, of visiting one of the houses of these Elizabethan Sisters. There was an hospital attached to it of fifty beds, which had received about 450 patients during the year. Nothing could exceed the propriety, order, and cleanliness of the whole establishment. On the ground-floor was an extensive “ Pharmaci,” a sort of apothecaries' hall; part of this was divided off by a long table or counter, and surrounded by shelves filled with drugs, much like an apothecary's shop; behind the counter two Sisters, with their sleeves tucked up, were busy weighing and compounding medicines, with
* A recent traveller mentions their hospital of St. John at Bruges as one of the best conducted he had ever met with. “Its attendants, in their religious costume and with their nuns' head-dresses, moving about with a quiet tenderness and solicitude, worthy their name as ' Sisters of Charity’; and the lofty wards, with the white linen of the beds, present in every particular an example of the most accurate neatness and cleanliness."
such a delicacy, neatness, and exactitude as women use in these matters. A physician and surgeon, appointed by the Government, visited this hospital, and were resorted to in cases of difficulty or where operations were necessary. Howard, in describing the principal hospital at Lyons, which he praises for its excellent and kindly management, as being “so clean and so quiet," tells us that at that time (1776) he found it attended by nine physicians and surgeons, and managed by twelve Sisters of Charity. “There were Sisters who made up as well as administered all the medicines prescribed ; for which purpose there was a laboratory and an apothecary's shop, the neatest and most elegantly fitted up that can be conceived." *
Louise de Marillac-better known as Madame Legras,—when left a widow in the prime of life, could find no better refuge from sorrow than in active duties, undertaken "for the love of God." The famous Vincent de Paul, who had been occupied for years with a scheme to reform thoroughly the prisons and hospitals of France, found in Madame Legras a most efficient coadjutor. They constituted on an, improved basis the order Hospitalières, since known as the Sisterhood of Charity.
* Howard also mentions the hospitals belonging to the order of Charity, in all countries, as the best regulated, the cleanest, the most tenderly served and managed of all he had met with. He mentions the introduction of iron bedsteads into one of their hospitals as something new to him.—(In 1776).
Within twenty years this new community had two hundred houses and hospitals; in a few years
; more it had spread over all Europe. Madame Legras died in 1660. Already, before her death, the women prepared and trained under her instructions, and under the direction of Vincent de Paul, had proved their efficiency, on some extraordinary occasions. In the campaigns of 1652 and 1658, they were sent to the field of battle, in groups of two and four together, to assist the wounded. They were invited into the besieged towns to take charge of the military hospitals.
They were particularly conspicuous at the siege of Dunkirk, and in the military hospitals established by Anne of Austria, at Fontainebleau. When the plague broke out in Poland, in 1672, they were sent to direct the hospitals at Warsaw, and to take charge of the orphans, and were thus introduced into Eastern Europe; and, stranger than all! they were even sent to the prison-infirmaries, where the branded forçats, and condemned felons lay cursing and writhing in their fetters.
It is not, I believe, generally known in this country that the same experiment has been lately tried, and with success, in the prisons of Piedmont, where the Sisters were first employed to nurse the wretched criminals perishing with disease and despair; afterward, and during convalescence, to read to them, to teach them to read and to knit, and in some cases to sing. The hardest of these wretches had probably some remembrance of a mother's voice and look thus recalled, or he could at least feel gratitude for sympathy from purer, higher nature. As an element of reformation, I might almost say of regeneration, this use of the feminine influence has been found efficient where all other means had failed.
At the commencement of the French Revolution the Sisterhood of Charity had 426 houses in France, and many more in other countries; the whole number of women then actively employed was about 6,000. During the Reign of Terror, the Superior (Madame Duleau), who had become a Sister of Charity at the age of nineteen, and was now sixty, endeavored to keep the society together, although suppressed by the Government, and in the midst of the horrors of that time, it appears that the feeling of the people protected these women from injury. As soon as the Consular govern