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 Long ago in Europe there was a world very different from ours. If you walked its streets you could tell that it was utterly stratified, that every person had his or her particular function in the society. You could tell who was most important and who was on the bottom rung. 

The way you could tell all this was by the clothing everyone wore. Here was a mere serf in sacking, here a merchant in sober grey, here a Baron clip clopping by on his horse, velvet clad with his helmeted guards, here an elderly abbott or archbishop weighed down with his rich vestments.   

Well, I thought this world was long gone but in recent months I have discovered that it very much still exists! Within our modern cities there exist neo-medieval citadels that, interestingly, retain their ancient name of Hospital. Their streets, called corridors, are long and straight, their surfaces glistening and well lit. People come and go from dwellings called wards whose doors are always open.  

Up and down these corridors go all the rigidly graded levels of modern medical humanity, their roles defined by their clothing as were their medieval ancestors. Some push carts not unlike the carts their ancestors pushed but made of vastly different material and used for vastly different purposes, purposes which their medieval ancestors would have deemed miraculous if not even divine. 

There they all go, every function from the lowest to the highest, indelibly defined by their dress and function, as in a medieval town. Sit in a chair in one of these corridors and sooner or later they will all pass you, all graded, coloured and labelled. See this person passing? He is a drink pourer, she is a bed maker, he a back washer, she the temperature taker, his the task of pushing beds towards the holy of holies, the halls mysteriously called theatres where the Greatest of all Dramas the play of Life and Death, is hourly and ceaselessly performed by the Surgeon Kings and Queens of this wondrous place where it is rumoured that death itself is denied its prey and the gift of life itself is bestowed.      

Here, too, is the nursing staff. They mingle and weave in and out like members of ancient jealous guilds. Moving among them all are the doctors of every conceivable kind, the Barons and the Archbishops and nobles of this neo-medieval world . Sometimes they move alone, impervious to the presence of others. Some, like ancient Philosophers, are attended by younger acolytes intent on absorbing the Great One's wisdom. In recent years the great difference between the surgeon of the past and that of the present is that the more eminent the surgical magician may be, the more humble his clothes, mere - as some call them - scrubs.

If one looks carefully at all this motley throng one can see strange figures skulking along, keeping close to the walls of the ward or the corridor. They try not to attract attention. They seem desperately anxious to remain unnoticed. They are dressed in a shapeless formless gown, one size of which fits all by the simple method of not fitting anybody, and is open at the back. These figures are called patients. One could be excused for not realizing that these folk are in fact the reason for the existence of this whole vast complex!       


Busy hospital corridor by the nurse's station iStock 504831370