The “Almighty” Balvers (Barber-Surgeons)

Archaeological discoveries (healed bone fractures, trepanated skulls etc.) indicate that in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the pagan and the transitional period toward Christianity there were self-taught medics, who would be called surgeons today. Among the first of them was Duke Skirgaila. In 1386 he cured the wounds of the duke of Smolensk Sviatoslav’s son Jurgis, who was held captive. The hot-tempered Skirgaila would sometimes injure his drinking spree companions, and on the following day he would carefully dress their wounds … The qualification of a surgeon has always been in demand. The incidence of injuries increased during wars and hunting seasons. Thus, in March 1426, during a hunt, Grand Duke Jagiełło broke his leg. The medics attending to the injury were referred in the sources as doctors (possibly due to the high rank of the patient).

Balvers (Barber-surgeons)

People with vocational training in the sphere of interventional medicine were first mentioned in the sources on the Grand Duchy of Lithuania at the end of the 15th century – the beginning of the 16th century. They were usually called surgeons or barbers (Lat. Barbitonsor, Pol. Balwierz, barwierz). The term balveris was the most popular. Sometimes one and the same person, like the German Hanus, who worked at Alexander Jagiellon’s court and Sigismund II Augustus’s courtier Liudwik Werada were called both balveris, ciriulnik and surgeon.

Balvers belonged to the middle tier of medical staff.

There was a lack of professional physicians with university education; therefore, barber-surgeons were the most common and the most popular group of medical practitioners.

They attended on the sovereigns and the nobility; in bigger towns and cities they established their guilds or worked individually. Their activities were considered to be more a trade than a profession. They were called upon to perform a wide variety of tasks: minor surgical procedures like bloodletting or pulling teeth, cupping, setting fractures, giving enemas, lancing abscesses; they attended to wounds and ulcers, restored dislocations, amputated limbs. They performed all the surgical operations known at the time (except hernia, cataract, bladder stone removal). Besides, they cut hair, shaved beards. In a word, they performed the functions of the present-day surgeons, odontologists, dermatologists, traumatologists and even forensic pathologists.

Necessary to sovereigns as well as peasants

The social status of barber–surgeons depended on the skills acquired and the place of work. The best paid were barber-surgeons serving sovereigns and noblemen. At the courts of the ruling elite there would be from one to three of them. The representatives of the Vasa dynasty had quite a big number of them. Among barber-surgeons serving prominent rulers there were Germans and Italians (Lukas Wolf, Jan Heš, Gerhard Breitsprach, and others). The pay of barber-surgeons serving the nobility was not much lower. While the former were paid from 40 to 100 złoty, the average pay for the latter was 60 złoty per year. This is what the barber-surgeon Jurka serving the Vilnius voivode Mikołaj Krzysztof Radziwiłł the Orphan was paid at the beginning of the 17th century. As can be seen in Radziwiłł’s accounting books that have survived, Jurka was paid a separate 1 to 3 złoty remuneration for additional work like making and placing medical adhesive tapes, preparing medicines, treatment of the estate staff. Noblemen usually had only one balver to attend to their problems. The health condition getting worse, several of them were hired. During trips abroad, it was not always that the court balvers accompanied their masters. At the beginning of the 17th century, the Vilnius castellan Janusz Radziwiłł, while seriously ill in Germany, was taken care of not by his own balver Matys but by Gulelm Fabricius Hildan, who was considered to be the balver of German surgery. There were a number of foreigners among the balvers attending on the monarch and the nobility. For example, at the end of the 18th century, at Kurtuvėnai estate, which belonged to Count Nagurski, people were treated by Onufry Mickiewicz, Kramatsteter and others. Urban population and even rather well-off peasants found the services of balvers working in the cities and towns of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania more accessible.

The education of balvers: some knowledge of medicine and razor sharpening skills

Balver guilds were established in several places. The first guild of the kind was founded in 1509 in Vilnius, followed by another, set up in Kaunas in 1545. At the beginning of the 17th century guilds were already active in many cities: Brest, Minsk, Grodno, Sluck, and in 1705 it was set up in Klaipeda. The statute of the Vilnius guild indicates that at the top of the hierarchy were masters, followed by apprentices and pupils. A master could train one apprentice and two pupils at a time.

A balver was supposed to know “how to sharpen his razor and scissors in accordance with the requirements of the trade, to prepare the brown and the Russian unguents as well as the black and green ones and the powder to mend a broken bone.”

He was expected to know quite a few things in medicine related to wounds, fractures and ulcers. After three years of training a pupil would rise to apprenticeship and a year later, having passed an examination, he could become a master. After a master’s death his wife was entitled to continue in the trade. The Vilnius guild had about 30 members.

The guild symbol, a copper plate on the door informed the local people that there was a barber-surgeon working there. The copper plate symbolized bloodletting practiced in treating almost all diseases.

Predecessors of professional medics

From the end of the 16th to the end of the 18th century balvers practiced in many Lithuanian towns of today. Having established themselves in bigger towns, they attended to the problems of people in the surrounding areas. In Kėdainiai, for example, they appeared at the beginning of the 17th century. There would be four to five of them practicing at a time. All of them were well-off townspeople. For example, there is some information about the barber-surgeon Tomas, who in 1624 had a plot of land in Kaunas street and a manor in Vilnius street, and Aleksander Katerla, who donated a silver utensil to the Lutheran church. Other balvers e.g Lewek Jakubowicz, Dawid Hirsza, and others, who worked in Kėdainiai in 1634-1686, also owned houses. The balvers of Kėdainiai did not form guilds, their activities were regulated by other legal acts. The regulations of the owners of Kėdainiai Janusz and Boguslaw Radziwiłł of the years 1652 and 1666 required that balvers report to the magistrate every incident of persons who had sustained injuries in a brawl or in an armed clash and whose injuries they had attended to.

When in 1785 Vilnius University started training professional surgeons, barber-surgeons, or balvers as they were called, were gradually replaced by qualified, academically trained, diploma-holding specialists, who performed the same functions.

Literature: Aurimas Andriušis, Lietuvos medicinos istorijos apybraiža, 2006, Vilnius.

Raimonda Ragauskiene