Medical Remedies and Cures, their Production and Use

Ailing residents of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were treated with various medicines, which differed in their form, shape, and peculiarities of their production. They were prescribed to the patients by medical practitioners working in the GDL. Minor ailments were taken care of by the sick themselves using homemade remedies, whose recipes were spread by word of mouth or by copying them from one another. An important role in the production of medicaments was played by public pharmacies, which started operating in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania at the beginning of the 16th century. Apothecaries compounded medicaments and provided therapeutic raw materials to city residents.

Oddities in the apothecary’s mortar

Medicines used in the GDL territory were produced not only from local materials, but also from stuff, exotic at times, brought from the farthest corners of the world: from North Africa, various Asian countries, and, from the beginning of the 17th century, from North America.

Preparations for treatment were produced from vegetable and natural (various minerals and precious stones, and naturally derived chemical substances) raw materials. Small and bigger animals and parts of their bodies were used for therapeutic purposes: horns, hooves, nails, fat, blood and even animal excrements. The ancient medical practitioners maintained: “Dog excrements can cure mouth ulcers. [you should] boil it in apple juice with cloves, add some vinegar and rinse your mouth with the mixture – it will help”. The GDL medics of the 16th-17th centuries believed in the efficacy of substances of human origin and used nails, hair, saliva and urine in compounding medicaments.

Medicines were prepared by treating medicinal substances in various ways (drying plants and animal parts, pressing oil and juice, grounding horns and hooves etc.) and mixing them in different proportions.

The variety of the forms and shapes of medicines used by the inhabitants of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 16th-17th centuries did not fall behind much compared to modern medicine.

To overcome health problems, all kinds of decoctions, teas, mixtures, salves, aromatic oils, powders, ointments were used. Skin problems and wounds were treated with plasters made from various plants and animals.

Strange names for unknown diseases

In the GDL of the 16th-17th centuries, drug production technologies and the healing properties attributed to medications were determined by the people’s knowledge about the human body and its functions as well as by the popular interpretation of the causes of diseases. Understanding of wounds, minor ailments e.g. common colds and gastrointestinal disorders was rational and their treatments were effective. Usually, simple remedies were used, whose therapeutic properties were well known. Many of them are even today recognized by the current folk and scientific medicine. Garlic, for example, which has antibacterial properties was used to treat various colds and minor skin sores, infusion of marigold flowers was applied to calm festering wounds and ulcers, while plum decoction was used to ease constipation.

It was more complicated when it came to treating unexpected illnesses, whose causes were not evident, such as mental disorders, internal organ diseases, sudden loss of vision or paralysis.

The old medicine did not know what brought about such diseases and often saw them as God’s punishment, as manifestations of supernatural forces, or use of black magic against the sick. In treating them various remedies were used consisting of strange ingredients – human or animal body parts. For example, to cure loss of vision ox liver and pigeon blood were applied, while in severe cases like paralysis, epilepsy, festering wounds, ailing liver, infectious diseases attempts were made to cure them with very expensive human mummy powder. Medical practitioners of the time did not know the real effect of such substances. All the properties attributed to them were imaginary and were based on belief in their miraculous efficacy.

Theriac – the universal cure

Another peculiarity of compounding medications – the multicomponent approach – can also be related to poor understanding of the causes of diseases. It was believed that the more various, strong smelling components the medication contains, the more effective its curative power is. Medical practitioners in GDL suggested treating severe, long-lasting headache with “caraway, wild caraway, Italian anise, wild fennel, nigella, nutmegs, almond blossoms, cloves, cardamom, English pepper, cinnamon, cubeb, mint, clary sage, chamomile – all this must be grounded, adding common yellow wax, and mixed together. [having made it] the plaster should be placed on the head”. In most cases the healing preparations made in this way did not have the desired effect. At the end of the 18th century they were criticized by representatives of scientific medicine, which claimed that an effective drug can contain only one or two active agents.

A medical theory that emerged and gained popularity at the turn of the 16th century had a significant influence on the production of medicines in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. According to it, all diseases and poisons have one common cause that could be treated when a universal drug has been found. Medical doctors looked for a panacea against all diseases and tried to improve those existent.

The most important cure, surrounded by numerous legends, was theriac, used as a universal remedy and antidote. The original drug recipe consisted of snake meat, a small amount of snake venom, 70 vegetable substances and several materials of animal origin. In the 16th-17th centuries theriac was extremely popular throughout Europe, where it was believed to protect against numerous diseases and against poisoning. During its long history, the composition and manufacturing methods of theriac kept changing. Eventually, many variations of the product came into being and its name no longer meant a universal but just an efficacious drug or medicinal substance that helps to heal several illnesses. Garlic, having antiseptic properties, was called the “theriac of the poor”. Medicinal preparations called theriac could still be found in Lithuanian pharmacies at the end of the 19th century.

The range of medicines and their production properties did not change much until the end of the 18th century. Numerous experiments conducted in the science of medicine and the discoveries made at this period allowed a better understanding of the healing properties of various substances and led to major changes in the production of medicines.

Literature: Ramonaitė M., Vaistinė Lietuvos Didžiojoje Kunigaikštystėje: nuo magiškos panacėjos gamintojos iki gurmaniškų marcipanų pardavėjos, Naujasis židinys-Aidai, Nr. 2, Vilnius, 2012, p. 122-127

Monika Ramonaitė