Hilbrandt Meyer’s description of St. Jørgen’s Hospital in 1764

Hilbrandt Meyer (1723–1785) was a senior official writer and merchant. He was also Mayor of Bergen from 1763 until his death. Meyer spent a lot of time studying the city’s history and collecting historical sources, and his most famous work is his description of Bergen: Samlinger til den Berømmelige og Navnkundige Norske Handel Stad Bergens Beskrivelse.

In this book, he outlines the city’s history, and describes several of the city’s important buildings and institutions. The descriptions are illustrated with ink drawings and watercolour paintings by city architect Johan Joachim Reichborn. One of the institutions described is St. Jørgen’s Hospital.

Drawing of St. Jørgen's Hospital from 1768, by Johan J. Reichborn. Photo: Ingfrid Bækken. Bergen City Archives.
City architect Johan J. Reichborn’s drawing of the east side of St. Jørgen’s Hospital, facing what is now Kong Oscars gate, in 1768. Hilbrandt Meyer’s handwritten original text with Reichborn’s drawings can be found in the Bergen City Archives.
Photo: Ingfrid Bækken.

Briefly about the description
Meyer provides an account of the hospital’s history and of its buildings, and, in very complimentary terms, describes what the conditions at the hospital were like in his own time. Here we have included the part of the account that sets out the conditions for the residents.

As mayor, Meyer was responsible for overseeing the operation of the hospital, and perhaps that is the reason for his positive description of the conditions at the hospital. It may also be that the residents made an extra effort during the mayor’s inspections. Many of the phrases used may strike us as odd and exaggerated today, for example when he says that the residents were without sorrow and worries. Although the hospital may well have been the best option for many of the residents, life as an incurable leprosy patient in the mid-18th century must undoubtedly have been full of both sorrow and worries.

At the hospital, order prevailed with prayer and songs of praise every morning and evening, and a public sermon every Sunday and Friday. The residents had ‘well-furnished rooms, free subsistence, supervision and care,’ and therefore lived in a carefree state of peace, according to him. He describes how those who were able worked. The men made things like shoes, wooden buckets, wooden tubs and birdcages, while the women spun rope and yarn and washed clothes. The residents were very industrious, and even happy and cheerful when they worked. ‘(…) in all this they set about their work with much delight,’ writes mayor Meyer.

Handwritten text from Hilbrandt Meyer 1764. Bergen City Archive.
Chapter 26 of Hilbrandt Meyer’s description of Bergen from 1764 is about St. Jørgen’s Hospital.
Photo: Ingfrid Bækken. Bergen City Archives.

Read excerpts from Hilbrandt Meyer’s original text
Below you can read an excerpt of Meyer’s chapter on St. Jørgen’s Hospital. We have selected the description of what life was like for the residents in the 1760s.

Excerpts from chapter 26 of Hilbrandt Meyer: Samlinger til den Berømmelige og Navnkundige Norske Handel Stad Bergens Beskrivelse, 1764.

In dealing here with the residents of this hospital, I must also make a study, which will perhaps not be unpleasantly received, and can be counted among what is worth consideration and examination, namely:

What might their fate and illness be like? When one reflects on their illness, and their hideous blemishes, thinking that these have excluded them from other people’s company, then it must be admitted that their fate seems to be hard and their circumstances regrettable; but if one continues to reflect, then one must find that this in itself may not be as hard as it may appear, and that the divine economy, as in all things else in the world, has shown itself to be remarkable in its sacred oversight, by alleviating one thing after another.

If you look at those among these residents who, in the midst of their illness, can be on their feet and have some strength left, then you see that the vast majority of them, in their own way, are found to be industrious, and in the midst of their work to be cheerful. They make many things with their hands, and find honour and pleasure in what they thus can produce. For the vast majority of those I have spoken to, I have noticed a devotion of the kind that one cannot behold without astonishment.

Their illness they regard as something that cannot be changed, as something to which they are subjected, and therefore they are found to be worried for no longer than upon parting with their friends and a few days after, then they become quiet, and then, under the circumstances, satisfied and cheerful, and resort to some work or another they have learned, so that they can be found in their droves, some making tubs and buckets, and some making birdcages etc. And there are others who make shoes for farmers and other common people; in short, when you enter this hospital at those times, you would imagine, looking at all the working men and also quite a few of the opposite sex, whose work consists of washing clothes, spinning and twisting thread and yarn etc., that you were entering a factory and not a hospital. And in all this they set about their work with much delight.

When we then add to this what they enjoy the benefits of the institution; the order found in what is called God’s service with prayer and songs of praise every morning and evening; a public sermon in their church every Sunday and Friday; well-furnished rooms, free subsistence, supervision and care; then all this means that the majority of them spend their days in a carefree state of peace, and are free from what is otherwise known as sorrow and worry.

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