Špitolė: from Shelter to Hospital | Orbis Lituaniae
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Špitolė: from Shelter to Hospital

Shelters of the Middle Ages at the advent of Christianity

Špitolė (derived from the Latin hospitale) was a name given in the Middle Ages, as well as later, in new times, to church institutions providing help to people who due to old age, health condition or other causes could not take care of themselves. In the neighbouring Poland and other European countries špitolė started to be established more actively in the 12th century and in the 13th century they emerged in bigger cities, too. Due to late baptism of Lithuania špitolė reached the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) in the 16th century only. The first one was founded in Losice in 1511 by the Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland Sigismund the Old. Seven years later the first špitolė was set up in Vilnius by Marcin Dusznikow, a canon of Vilnius cathedral and a medical doctor (in the 16th century medical doctors did not have to know much about medical practice; they could have considered the unicorn horn powder to be the most effective drug).

Helping the poor or self-promotion?

In the 17th century the number of špitolė kept increasing. They were established not only in the cities of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, but also in the provinces at parish churches. However, their actual network was finally formed around the middle and the second half of the 18th century. It was not only the rulers of GDL and the nobility but also the clergy and wealthy townspeople. Not only Catholics but also representatives of other confessions – Uniates, Orthodox, Protestants – ministered to the needs of their unfortunate coreligionists. Similar establishments operated at synagogues, too. There could be different motives for founding a špitolė.

The Catholics, Uniates and Orthodox were not so much interested in resolving a problem i.e. in noticeably reducing the number of the poor and sick as in showing mercy, in doing a good deed, which would presumably be rewarded after death. A špitolė would usually accommodate several or several dozen of the poor. The Protestants, however, saw špitolė as a means to resolve social problems.

In setting up špitolė, the founders would not only obligate the future wards to pray for them but sometimes they secured themselves against possible rigours of life. Thus when funding a špitolė in Antakalnis, at the church of St Peter and Paul, the Vilnius citizen Andrziej Wonend and his wife specified: “If it be the divine will of our Lord to send on us an infirmity which will not allow us to take care of ourselves, we shall be given a place and five dozen of auksinas every year as is prescribed to the founders by the perpetual right”.

Body and soul healing centre for the unfortunates

Most špitolės were run at parish churches and were supervised by parsons. A big part of them were subordinate to various monastic orders, whose members either looked after and nursed the occupants or would take greater care of their spiritual health. There were also fraternities whose members were obliged to perform, together with the occupants, religious rites and maintain order in the špitolė. Some of them had specific purposes. For example, the German Catholic špitolė, which was administered in Vilnius by St. Martin fraternity, was to provide help for Germans who had converted from Protestantism to Catholicism, as well as to Catholic Germans, Italians and French arriving in Vilnius. In the diocese centres in Vilnius and Varniai there were several špitolė subordinate to the bishop and the diocesan chapter. Compared to other European countries there were in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania only a few špitolė run by the town or city. The magistrate appointed pharmacists out of its members – office holders responsible for the property and selected the priest preposite to minister to the inmates. During special sessions of the špitolė the Magistrate would discuss various issues related to leasing the property, appointing the pharmacist and other similar matters. The majority of špitolė operated as shelters – people were provided a roof over their heads, food, some peace of mind and relief from anxiety about tomorrow.

Sometimes a barber would drop in to ease the ailments. He would do some bloodletting and perform procedures typical of the representatives of the profession.

Špitolės established later by the Bonifratres, the Merciful Brothers of St Roch and the Sisters of Mercy were oriented toward healing diseases, which was also combined with the functions of a shelter for foundlings, orphans or sickly old people.

Among the margins of society, prayers spoken for the souls of the founders

To protect themselves against possible outbreaks of some disease, špitolė in cities would be built at or outside the city walls or gates. This had a clear symbolic meaning – the residents of špitolė found themselves on the margins of active social life. In provincial towns, špitolė founded at parish churches were small wooden houses near the church or the churchyard gates. This is what a traveller saw in Veliuona township in the winter of 1677: “… the špitolė is built on a hill by the river; there are two rooms in it: one, accommodating eight paupers, has two small windows, the door and a box room; the other one, recently attached, is doorless and windowless”. In some špitolė there would be several large infirmerija (halls which could be an equivalent of the contemporary ward), which, together with the monastery, the church and the outbuildings constituted the entire complex. The funds necessary for long-term functioning were acquired from different sources. The will of Piotr Klet (1667), a merchant from Vilnius, read as follows:

“… I am leaving to two Catholic špitolės, the St. Stephen and the Holy Trinity, two shocks of groats so that they would pray for my soul.”

In the 17th and especially in the 18th century it was quite customary to do so, which provided additional income for špitolė and, on the other hand, soothed those awaiting impending death. Larger špitoles owned houses, bridges, pubs, bathhouses, estates and villages, and the money received for the rent facilitated their activities. Well-off people would bequeath considerable sums of money to špitolė, which would be paid a certain percentage of the amount every year. It was quite common to lease part of the premises to townspeople. For example, a certain Jan Saltonowicz was known to have occupied a separate room in the St. Redeemer špitolė. Parish špitolės often housed curates, organists and parish schoolteachers. Of course, not all špitolės had some property; therefore, their charges had to rely on the mercy of people or their own work.

Taking care of the most vulnerable members of society, ministering to the sick, offering prayers for benefaction and leasing property made špitolė an inalienable part of the daily and spiritual life.

Literature: Kamuntavičienė V., „Parapijų prieglaudos Lietuvos Didžiojoje Kunigaikštystėje XVII a. II p.“, LKMA metraštis, t. 17, 2000, p. 59–74.

Martynas Jakulis