Hospital Patients, or What Was Cured and Who Was Cared For in Hospitals?

Hospitals were only for the “truly” poor who had a recommendation

Hospital patients were people cared for and treated at hospitals (shelters), who made up a small part of the growing masses of the poor. Though the founder of each new hospital would clearly emphasize that he was founded a hospital for the good of the poor, it was not easy to get into one. It was not enough to be living in poverty.

A person who wanted to be admitted to a hospital had to fit certain criteria, i.e. to be a “true poor person” (the opposite of a “lazy beggar”), a person who because of their age, health or other reasons could not earn a living from work.

There was never a lack of candidates, thus the caretakers of the hospitals had to made the difficult choice of selecting the person they would be taking responsibility for (oftentimes for the long-term). For example, in 1672 a provision was approved that in taking in a new patient to the hospital of Vilnius’ Church of the Holy Trinity (upon the death of one of the patients), they had to see that the candidate “had a recommendation” and “would be an upstanding person and not a drunk, who due to weakened health or who is unable to care for himself at the time.” Also for example, only widows who had reached the age of fifty who were healthy and had recommendations could live in the widow house established by the Evangelical Reformed Church in Vilnius: the stewards of the hospital had fewer headaches, knowing full-well what kind of illnesses they could treat and not treat.

There was never a lack of people claiming to be ill who tried to put on the face of an unlucky person burdened by misfortune in life in trying to use the mercy of people and live comfortably in the hospital.

Deeply concerned with the situation in the hospital of Vilnius’ Church of the Savior (Spas), the Uniate metropolitan of Kiev and All Rus’ Antoni Sielawa ordered them to “throw out all who are healthy and can live from their work, with the remaining money allocated to the repair of the church.”

The colourful community of the hospital: impoverished nobles in poverty and journeymen from faraway lands

The people who looked for help in hospitals were of various origins, ages and from various places who came to the city to find a better life. The people being treated in the hospitals made up a varied group according to their social and geographical origins. There were artisans, students and even doctors, apothecaries, priests and poor nobles, beggars, who often were not able to last a day in the hospital before leaving in tears (this happened to a certain Theodor, who was found laying on a street in Vilnius by monks of the order of Brothers Hospitallers, and tormented by fits of twitching).

In the hospital, it was possible not only to meet people from the far reaches of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, but also people of various professions that had come to the GDL from Poland, Prussia, Denmark, Germany, Bohemia and Italy.

The group of patients in the hospitals (shelters) was not so colourful – it was here one could find many commoners, workers with few qualifications, those from more remote lands, among which one could find from time to time an impoverished noble who still had some sort of manor estate racked with debt, but who could not make ends meet anymore.

Some of the inhabitants of the hospitals were neophytes (those who had converted from one religion to another). Jews who had converted to Catholicism often lived at a hospital run by the Sisters of Charity, who became acquainted with the basics of Catholicism and readied themselves for baptism while living in the hospital. Though the occasional patient would have grown children, they were not able to hope for help from them, as often their children were barely able to make ends meet.

Psychotic patients in chains, quarantined carriers of the “French disease” and miraculous healing… from old age

Though the origin of the patients was particularly varied, it didn’t match the great number of illnesses they suffered from.

Most often the poor were tormented by various infectious and internal diseases, various kinds of injuries and other ailments.

A large part of those in the hospital run by the Brotherhood of St. Roch in Vilnius were infected with venereal diseases (in sources described as the “French disease”), who were treated by monks in separate premises.

The brutal methods for the treatment of psychological illnesses that were widespread in Europe at the time, it appears, were known in GDL hospitals. At the beginning of the 19th century, a certain Zablocki wrote a witty two-line poem:

“From the chronic swirling of one’s head/the whip of the Brothers Hospitallers is the first drug of choice.”

A separate room was created in the hospital of the Brothers Hospitallers in Vilnius for the “restless,” with similar facilities built in the hospital run by the Brotherhood of St. Roch in Kaunas for treating women. It was also there that men suffering from psychological illnesses were chained to their bed. There were also miraculous healings that occurred. On January 14th, 1757 a man by the name of Franciszek Pilecki knocked on the door of the hospital of the Brothers Hospitallers. At the time, one of the monks dilligently filled out the book of patients:

“Mr. Franciszek Pilecki, soldier, 89 years of age, disease: old age (infirmitas ejus senectus).”

After a little more than two weeks of treatment, he left the hospital healthy (exivit sanus). Of course, not all treatments were successful, as some patients (for example, one Laurentius Joakim Terps from Denmark) would return for treatment for the same ailments. The period of treatment depended on the nature of the illness and could continue from one or two days up to many months or even years. The patients of the hospitals (shelters) that had particularly difficult illnesses would spend their whole life there, often from their early childhood. Others would begin living in the hospital after reaching a venerable age and would meet the end of their days there.

A difficult daily life in the last shelter for outcasts of society

Though when a hospital was established it was determined that an equal number of men and women were to be cared for, a majority of the patients were women. A large part of them were older, unmarried women with weak health, or widows. The hospitals also did not lack children who were abandoned by their parents or orphans, as well as young women who they tried to marry off, giving them a small dowry. Oftentimes a hospital had internal rules that the patients lived according to (or at least were supposed to live according to). Oftentimes among these rules was a ban on not only leaving the hospital without knowledge of the caretaker, but also to receive guests (even immediate family). The hospital was both a health care facility as well as a religious community, which is why patients would participate in mass every day, and pray for benefactors who would give their sizeable wealth in order to relieve the situation of the poor. Work that was either easier or more difficult in nature was allocated to patients, taking their health into account: tending to the hospital’s garden, sewing or spinning. In some hospitals, the money would be enough for the weekly payments for patients, which they used to buy food and firewood, while elsewhere the financial situation was more difficult, which is why patients sometimes resorted to begging. For example, in 1715 female patients of the hospital of St. Mary Magdalene complained that “in this day and age, we can’t even beg for anything anymore.”

The stewards of the hospitals demanded again and again that the patients keep order and live a calm and pious life. This was not always understood by people who oftentimes had lived on the street long before living at the hospital, among whom one could find drunks, parasites or in general hot-blooded people who had no qualms about using violence against their brothers and sisters in arms.

Literature: „1792. Vilniaus Šv. Nikodemo prieglaudos (špitolės) varguolių sąrašas“, in: LDK kasdienis gyvenimas, sud. A. Baliulis ir E. Meilus, Vilnius, 2001 (p. 509–513); Kamuntavičienė V., „Parapijų prieglaudos Lietuvos Didžiojoje Kunigaikštystėje XVII a. II p.“, LKMA metraštis, t. 17, 2000 (p. 59–74).

Martynas Jakulis