To oenophiles, Beaune is the uncontested wine capital of Burgundy. Inhabited by wine growers and merchants, it stands on cellars holding millions of gallons of its famous wines, surrounded by thousand acres of vineyards. Yet a majority of the wine tourists and buyers who descend on the prosperous historic town each year may not realize that it owes its wine fame and affluence to a medieval charity hospital.
A Palatial Lifeline for the Poor
When in 1443, Nicholas Rolin, Chancelor to Duke of Burgundy Philip the Good, founded the Hospices de Beaune, the country was emerging from the Hundred Year War, a period of conflicts that had pitted against each other the crowns of France and England and their respective allies for over a century. Unrest, plague and famine had decimated the countryside. It was to attend to the most destitute population of the area that Rolin and his wife Guignone de Salins created a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, inspired by the most outstanding hôtels-Dieu (charity hospitals) of Flanders, a province that had recently been annexed to the Duchy of Burgundy. Rolin, who had extensively observed these hospitals, charged Flemish architect Jacques Wiscrère to create a “palace for the poor” in Beaune.
An unassuming gate in the somber stone façade topped by a Gothic high-pitched slate roof leads into the vast rectangular courtyard of a stunning Burgundian-Flemish architectural complex. There, the elegant roofline of steep dormers is covered by intricate lozenge patterns of varnished tiles in shades of yellow, red, green and black. Around the courtyard, the layout of the buildings is especially designed to efficiently support the life of the charitable institution. Inside, the most striking feature is the 50-meter (160-foot) long Grand’Salle.
This main hospital ward still displays 15th century furnishings, including the 28 red-canopied and curtained beds used by patients five centuries ago. The beds seem quite spacious for their time, until it is pointed out that they were expected to accommodate up to three patients each. At the far-end, the chapel is an integral part of the hall, so that patients could attend mass from their bed. A magnificent 15th century polyptych of The Last Judgment by famous Flemish master Roger Van de Weyden, which then hung over the altar can now be admired in all its glory in a dedicated room of the museum.
There is also a separate, smaller ward with only 12 beds and its own chapel. It was an intensive care unit before its time, designed to separate patients “in danger of dying” from the merely sick. Other parts of the Hospices include an extensive apothecary with its beakers, mortars and earthenware jars, and a vast kitchen with an imposing gothic fireplace. Additional halls once dedicated to the care of orphans and the elderly as well as the refectory, library and other common areas are now an impressive museum that showcases treasures bequeathed to the Hospices over the centuries.
A Foundation for all Eternity
A savvy businessman and diplomat, Nicholas Rolin used his vast knowledge of charitable hospitals to make his Hospices an institution capable of sustaining itself through the centuries. He established an unambiguous charter for the establishment: to care for the sick, elderly, orphans, women about to give birth and the destitute. He then set up endowments to support his foundation, and promptly placed it under the spiritual authority of the Holy See, thus freeing it for all times from the oversight of the local bishop and any other clerical coercion. His business model worked. The Hospices even managed to survive the French Revolution (1789) relatively unscathed. The institution continued providing services to the local population until 1971, at which point it became a museum and its medical functions were transferred to a modern facility.
And this is where we get to the wine. The Hospices received their first gift of a vineyard In 1457, a tradition that continued for five centuries and grew to include farms, woodland and works of art. Today, the vineyard estate is around 60 hectares (150 acres), entrusted to 22 vintners selected by its manager. It produces some of the most prized vintages of Burgundy. Since 1859, the town of Beaune has hosted an annual wine auction held at the Hospices on the third Sunday in November. Nowadays, this most famous wine charity auction in the world is organized by the renowned Christie’s auction house. All proceeds are used to support the new hospital facilities as well as the conservation of the historic Hospices.
Good to Know
- Getting there – By car. Beaune is 310 kilometers from Paris via highway (A6) and 45 kilometers from Dijon (A31). By train. It’s a 20-minute non-stop connection from Dijon to Beaune with frequent departures throughout the day. From Paris, take one of the many for the high-speed train (TGV) from Paris-Gare de Lyon to Dijon and connect to Beaune.
- Visiting – The Museum of the Hospices de Beaune, Rue de l’Hôtel-Dieu, 21200 Beaune, France is open every day from 9:00 am to 6:30 pm. Contact: tel. +33 (0)3 80 24 45 00, email firstname.lastname@example.org.