Diseases and Ailments of the Biržai-Dubingiai branch of the Radziwiłł Family in the 16th-17th century Grand Duchy of Lithuania

People have always been suffering from various illnesses and ailments, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania of the 16th-17th centuries being no exception. Diseases knew no caste, creed, or sex, they found their way into the mansions of the rulers and the nobility as well as into the shacks of their servants and the poor. There is a witty story recorded about Alexander Jagiellon and a hunter discussing the topic of health. During the last years of his life the ruler was often sickly. Once, during a hunt in the Lithuanian forests he met a hunter, who at an advanced age of 100 was still sprightly and strong. “Have you ever been ill?” asked the ailing ruler. “Never, Your Royal Highness, has a disease visited me, I am of no use to it”. The old man might have overdone it bragging about his health; yet it is clear that high social status did not guarantee a long and healthy life. Because of the low level of medicine at the time, genetically determined or infectious diseases were disastrous for the elite members of society.

However, there was a certain relationship between social class and disease. Hunger and poverty-stricken people, who lived in poor sanitary conditions, were attacked by infectious diseases. The poor were the main victims of plague and other epidemics while the rich, who used too many animal proteins, suffered from the “royal” rheumatic diseases and tooth decay caused by abundantly used sweets. The Biržai-Dubingiai Radziwiłł branch can serve as an illustration of specific ailments and diseases that plagued the elite members of society in the 16th-17th century GDL.

The secret of Radziwiłł family disappearance

The Vilnius castellan Jerzy Radziwiłł (ca. 1480–1541) is considered to be the progenitor of the Biržai-Dubingiai Radziwiłł branch, whose last representative was Liudwika Karolina Radziwiłł (1667–1695). Here are some facts about the biological potential of this branch. Its six generations saw about 50 representatives of the family – 19 husbands and sons and 31 women (16 wives and 15 daughters). It is likely that there were more Radziwiłł born but part of them could have died in early childhood. According to the traditions of the time, the children of noblemen who died in infancy were not considered to be important enough to be entered in the genealogical history of the family.

Except for several family members who reached old age, the average age of the family members was around 36 years.

The natural growth of the branch was low, every other child born would not reach adulthood. The Radziwiłł families were not large, with 3-4 children growing in them, which determined their rather short two century existence. The Radziwiłł pursued an active policy of marriage. There were no single members of the family and they married young. The noblemen looked for their wives in further regions, not related by kinship. Bogusław Radziwiłł, the Master of the stables of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was an exception, he married his cousin Janusz II’s daughter Ana Maria with whom he had one and only daughter Liudwika Karolina. Unsure that their children will reach full age, the Radziwiłł did not try to limit births. They were more concerned about the possibility of there being nobody to inherit their wealth and holdings.

The representatives of the Radziwiłł family were not sickly, they were free of genetically transmitted or mental diseases.

All of them cherished health and were afraid of suffering caused by diseases. In 1578 the Vilnius voivode Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Red wished his sick nephew “recovery or speedy death.”

Slight ailments and serious desease

The youngest children of the Radziwiłłs died from the same diseases as did the children of other noblemen. They suffered from cramps and constipation, measles, chickenpox, colds, and parasitosis. For example, the three-year old Elżbieta, the daughter of Krzysztof Radziwiłł the Thunderbolt had worms. The father’s cousin Mikołaj Krzysztof Radziwiłł the Orphan understood what was ailing the girl because his brother, Cardinal Jerzy Radziwiłł, in his childhood suffered from the same problem.

Quite frequently, poor health and sometimes death of the Radziwiłł women was caused by miscarriages.

Some noblewomen (e.g. Radziwiłł the Thunderbolt’s second wife Katarzyna Ostrogska) died immediately after delivery. Barbara Radziwiłł suffered from a severe disease (uterine infection or cancer).

There is some data concerning infectious diseases of adult members of the Radziwiłł family. Almost all of them complained of fever, frequent headaches, sore throat, cough. Acute and short fevers indicate seasonal virus respiratory infections. In 1548, while accompanying his sister in her trip to Krakow, Radziwiłł the Red caught cold, which did not interfere with the trip –he managed to do yet another 10 miles to meet the Bishop of Krakow; because of the rain, however, he returned not on the horseback but in the bishop’s carriage. Radziwiłł the Thunderbolt, who boasted strong health, could have died of some acute virus infection, influenza-induced complications, perhaps, after he caught cold while visiting his first granddaughter. Several members of the branch were treated for acute purulent inflammation. Krzysztof II Radziwiłł often suffered from headaches, he could not eat and had chills. In 1609 Jonušas I caught a bad cold in Venice. The best doctors of Venice and Padua gave up on him but, contrary to their prognosis, the nobleman survived.

The ailments of the rich and the dishonourable disease

There is reason to believe that Janusz Radziwiłł had a sexually transmitted disease. He could have contracted it in 1595-1597 during his studies or, perhaps, on his return to the GDL. Like his father in his young days, he must have been a ladies’ man. In 1598 he started complaining of constant headaches and melancholy.

The “dishonourable disease” was difficult to treat; the nobleman went through several crises.

In the summer of 1610 Janusz was taken care of by Gulelm Fabricius Hildanus, who was called the father of German surgery. The patient was weak and emaciated, nothing but bones and skin, sores spreading over his body. Frequent trips to foreign resorts did not help. In 1620, broken by continuous convulsions the nobleman “answered God’s calling.” It is likely that the chronic disease (late syphilis, perhaps) affected Radziwiłł’s heart, which caused his death.

Rheumatic diseases, called the scourge of our times, seldom affected this branch of the Radziwiłł family. The Vilnius voivodes Albertas Goštautas and Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black, the GDL Deputy Cupbearer Eustachy Wołłowicz and a number of other noblemen of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were afflicted with gout, which was called the disease of the rich, and other locomotor disorders. The disease would make them suspend their political life for some time.

Pedro Ruiz de Moros, a priest, poet and author of legal writings wrote in his epigram about the gout of Sigismund II Augustus: the disease plagued “our Jupiter” and was killing him.

Two women of the Biržai-Dubingiai branch of the Radziwiłł family – Elżbieta Ostrogska and Zofija Dorohostaiska suffered from a more severe joint disease. Other representatives of the family seldom mentioned this kind of problems; they used preventive measures like a very popular medicinal lignum-vitae, the so called “Indian tree” brought to Europe at that time. Its resin and fat have some anti-inflammatory properties and were used in treating gout. The diseases of the more-advanced–in-years Radziwiłł constitute a separate group. Katarzyna Iwinska, who was over 80 years of age, died of paralysis in 1586. The same disease was fatal for her grandson Krzysztof II Radziwiłł in 1640.

They, also, complained of various ailments, suffered from severe or milder diseases.

Literature: R. Ragauskienė, Z historii biologicznej magnaterii WKL: linia Radziwiłłów na Birżach i Dubinkach w XVI w., Sic erat in fatis. Studia i szkice historyczne dedykowane Profesorowi Bogdanowi Rokowi, pod red. E. Kościk, R. Żerelika, P. Badyna, F. Wolańskiego, Toruń, 2012, p. 88–101.

Raimonda Ragauskiene