The Bonifratres – Monks Caring for the Sick

In the first half of the 16th century the Portuguese Jonas Ciudad (who later became Saint John of God) founded the Bonifratres (Brothers Hospitallers) Order, whose main mission was to care for the sick. The Order was successful in its activities. Already at the beginning of the 17th century one could meet the Brothers in many cities of Europe and South America. Like in other similar monastic organizations, members of the Bonifratres order added to the three solemn vows of religion a fourth, the vow of serving the sick. Among the members of the Order there were people who had earned a name in the medicine of those times. Brother Gabriel Ferara, for example, not only set up bonifratres monasteries and špitolės (infirmaries) in Europe but he also wrote treatises on surgery. It was in the 17th century, during the most intensive development of the Order, that the Good Brothers emerged in Poland and the Great Duchy of Lithuania. In 1609 a monastery and a špitolė were founded in Krakow and in 1635 the bonifratres established themselves in Vilnius. By the end of the 18th century another four monasteries were founded in the GDL – in Navahrudak (1649), Minsk (1700), Grodno (1728) and Vysoko-Litovsk (1785).

Priority is given to treatment of diseases and not to care

The Vilnius convent was the main centre of bonifratres in the GDL with the biggest monastery, a špitolė and a novitiate for the postulants coming from the GDL. Bonifratres prayed all day long, they worked in the infirmary or collected donations. Order preserving was the responsibility of Brother Infirmarian, who was assisted by several other brothers. Each new patient was met, as prescribed by the superiors, “with great love and reverence” and recorded in the carefully managed patients’ register.

The entry would look like this: “The year of our Lord 1709, November 5, Jurgis Eidzelevičius was admitted to our infirmary; born to the family of Juozapas and Ieva from Vilkmerge, 22 years of age, suffering from consumption. His clothes: a blue blaize jacket, another old cotton jacket, a shirt, a blue cap, an old white belt. He left in good health on the 15th of November.”

Each entry would be accompanied by the number of the bed to make it easier for the brothers to remember who received the treatment, how and for what disease he was treated. The number of patients seldom changed – there would be about 14 of them at a time; only in exceptional cases the number could go up to 20. Bonifratres believed in quality over quantity, unlike other similar monastic orders in the GDL, whose špitolė were often overcrowded. In bonifratrian infirmaries there were no inmates who would stay for many long years just to be taken care of, without getting any medical treatment. The bonifratres did not care for orphans and foundlings, and it was quite seldom that a handicapped person would be admitted to the infirmary.

Restored to health or on the path to it, people had to leave the infirmary.

Disease does not choose the nation or caste

Men of different ages not only from Vilnius or its surroundings but also from the farthest corners of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, from near and far in Europe – Poland, Prussia, Russia, Hungary, Germany, Denmark, Italy – sought help in bonifratres infirmaries (the Brothers were not allowed to treat women). One could hear different languages spoken there and meet people of different origin and professions, both nobles and commoners, soldiers, artisans, students, apothecaries, barbers, doctors and clergymen (Catholics, Oorthodoxs, Uniates). It was not seldom that the monks, who attended to the sick, would themselves fall victim to one or another disease.

There were two things common to all the people in the špitolė – disease and poverty (they could not afford to pay for the health treatment).

Patients in the Good Brothers’ infirmary were treated for various health conditions: different forms of fever (acute, bilious, three-day fever), dysentery, cough, common colds, pneumonia, gangrene. Bone fractures and injuries were also taken care of (e.g. a certain nobleman Dominik Stefan Neciecki suffered them during a fierce duel). Patients suffering from mental illnesses made up a separate group. Actually, the door of the infirmary was not open to all sick people; those suffering from venereal diseases had to look for help elsewhere.

What is common between monks and barbers?

The level of medicine in those times was not high; therefore, the Grim Reaper would sometimes knock on the door of the infirmary. After a patient had died, a skull-and-crossbones or an entry mortuus est (dead) or obiit in Domino (went home to be with his Lord) were added to his name. Even though in many bonifratre monasteries there would be monks who, prior to their monastic life, had been one way or another involved in medicine, this seems not to have been common in the grand Duchy of Lithuania. In the novitiate register, only a certain Jakub Teodorowicz was mentioned – a barber, who wanted to become a bonifratre. However, he did not complete the novitiate – what irony! – because of exacerbation of hypochondria (the persistent conviction that one is or is likely to become ill, often involving symptoms when illness is neither present nor likely).

Bonifratres were usually helped by doctors and barber-surgeons, who could offer a more professional help to the patients, leaving to the Brothers everyday nursing and minor procedure duties. The Vilnius bonifratres patronized the bathhouse attendant and barber guild, founded in 1721, whose members attended mass in the bonifratre church and prayed at the altar of St John of God. They took vows in the bonifratre monastery, and the Register of the members of the guild was kept there. Barber-surgeons and bathhouse attendants who fell ill and could not afford medical treatment had the priority of admission to the špitolė. Some of the necessary medicines were supplied by apothecaries, some by barbers, part of them were made of different herbs by the monks themselves. These would be various mixtures, emulsions and syrups (e.g. anise, liquorice syrup), herbal decoctions or just common aqua vitae (strong distilled alcohol), which the Brothers acquired in 1691 to treat the patients for headaches. When the earthly cures and treatment did not help, favours from the allegedly miraculous image of the Blessed Virgin Mary hanging at the main altar in the St Cross church would be prayed for. There was a well in the basement of the church the spurting water of which was believed to cure various ailments ( eye diseases especially).

The bonifratres contributed to the development of medicine in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania by both their almost two hundred year long activities and by introducing špitolės, infirmaries of a kind, performing, for the first time, a different function, the function of treating diseases.

Literature: Janonienė R., „Vilniaus buvęs bonifratrų vienuolynas ir Šv. Kryžiaus bažnyčia“, in: Lietuvos vienuolynai. Vadovas, sud. R. Janonienė, D. Klajumienė, Vilnius, 1998, p. 309–313.

Martynas Jakulis