During the first half of the 17th century, Europe was ravaged by the Thirty Years’ War, which pitted not only Protestants against Catholics, but also Bourbons against Habsburgs, and other religious and secular powers against one another. One of the major consequences of this war, which destroyed entire regions of present-day Germany and other parts of Europe, were the substantial injuries to tens of thousands of soldiers across several countries, including Spain, the German states, and France, often resulting in permanent and sometimes total disability for these soldiers.
In Paris, disabled French veterans of the Thirty Years’ War did not receive substantial protection or benefits. Anecdotal reports had some disabled soldiers being mistreated on Paris’ Pont Neuf, sometimes getting caught up in street fights. After King Louis XIV took over complete control of the French monarchy in 1661, he attempted to give relief to these veterans by relocating them to monasteries for their protection. Perhaps owing to the reduced role of religious powers and the increased power of the nation-states in the wake of the Thirty Years’ War, some disabled soldiers objected to the prospect of living in a monastic environment.
Desiring the loyalty of his soldiers in advance of his plans for conquest, Louis XIV issued a royal edict in 1670 to provide aid and assistance to disabled French soldiers by establishing a major hospital in Paris for veterans with disabilities. He directed that “those who risked their lives and poured blood in defense of the monarchy… spend the rest of their days in tranquility.”
Over the next couple of centuries, the Hôtel des Invalides — the hospital established by Louis XIV — housed thousands of disabled or elderly soldiers. The hospital provided a template for other military hospitals that followed, the first being the Royal Hospital Chelsea in London (1682), and served as the precursor to today’s military medical centers such as the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Today, with more modern military hospitals in place, and a national welfare system that provides substantial benefits to French war veterans, the Hôtel des Invalides, officially known as Institut National des Invalides, no longer holds a central place in the treatment, recovery and convalescence of disabled French veterans. But it still plays a role as a retirement home and medical center for over a hundred French military veterans with disabilities who live on their pensions.
In the shadow of the Eglise du Dôme which houses the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte, the hospital provides a historic environment for its veterans. After we saw Napoleon’s tomb and stepped out into the courtyard, we could see several pensioners in wheelchairs conversing with each other. It felt less like an outdoor hospital lawn, and more like the green courtyard of a typical Parisian apartment building on a nice summer day. As Louis XIV would have put it, they spend “the rest of their days in tranquility.”
Author’s Note: The term “invalid” — a word not generally accepted in North America to describe people in wheelchairs — appears to be used in Europe to describe soldiers who received permanent disabilities as a result of injuries suffered in war. As far as I know, aside from its historical connotations, this word is not in popular usage in Europe.