It’s diffcult to imagine a modern world without the two institutions—universities and hospitals—which, by the early Middle Ages, were already contributing substantially to the shaping of civilized society in Christian and Islamic cultures alike (libraries came earlier and museums lagged far behind). Care of the sick was a sacred duty strongly felt by adherents of both religions, and in this spirit a pious merchant from Amalfi founded a hospital for Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem, an institution that survives to this day as the worldwide Order of St. John. Two centuries earlier the quasi-mythical Blessed Sorore, a cobbler from Siena, began what was eventually to become the Ospedale di Santa Maria della Scala (Saint Mary’s of the Stair), so named for its position across from the grand steps leading to the Duomo. The institution expanded during the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries, continually enriched...


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