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Spells, Herbs and Surgery: Medical Care in a Provincial Balkan Town in the 19th Century (1)

January 9, 2008

By Dejan Ciric

In the first of a three-part series, Serbian historian Dejan Ciric digs through the unknown archives of Pirot to shed light on medical practices in the Pirot of yesteryear.

Our attitude towards our own body, and that of the other, has through the centuries reflected cultural heritage and social norms. It is the result of long lasting behavior and the fruit of climatic and geographical circumstances, but at the same time, and almost to an equal measure, it has been the consequence of the economic situation and opportunity for the successful use of cultural influences and the surrounding nature. The town of Pirot in southeastern Serbia, along with several other small towns in the region and many villages, were under the constant influence of their geographical location on one of the main transport routes in Southeastern Europe. This influence not only affected material culture; it also have very deep roots in the mental structure of the local population and therefore in the attitude to the physical side of their existence.

The period 1800-1914 in the region along the Nisava River (Central Balkans) is interesting for research in itself, due to the many changes in politics, economy and of course in the everyday life of the local population. Even during a first reading of the official governmental documents, memoirs, journey accounts, journals and newspapers and brief notes in the margins of old manuscripts and printed books, we can see the slow changes of cultural standards which were passed from Oriental to Central and Western European models throughout the last decades of the 19th century.

As in other Balkan regions before the national revival at the beginning of the 19th century, folk medicine in Pirot County was predominant. What is more, some elements were significant even during the first decades in the 20th century. The art of healing was usually transferred by the oral tradition and very often was found on the edge between spells and old herbal therapy. However, there was also written medical knowledge in use. The oldest medical manuscript in Pirot County is The Pirot Lekarusa (Pirot Healing Manual) created at the end of the 18th century.[i]

This small manuscript (17×10 cm) is one of the most important in the Pirot Museum‘s collection. This book is an interesting source of medical knowledge in the region and at the same time for local dialect research. The manuscript has been protected in a cover of brown leather and soft cardboard. It consists of 64 paginated sheets, almost half of them damaged on the bottom. The book has two parts: the first was written at the end of the 18th century, the second at the beginning of the 19th century. Originally, the Pirot Lekarusa was the property of Hadzi Pavle, a Greek who moved from Constantinople to Pirot. The first part of this short medical manual content has directions for drug-making in the Serbian tradition, but in the second part, there are Turkish folk medicine instructions as well.[ii]

Even during initial readings, it becomes clear that the authors of the Lekarusa did not have wide-ranging medical knowledge. What is more, their terminology is very unclear and changeable in accordance with time, place and cultural circumstances. Terms for diseases and drugs are very often folk names and descriptive phrases using many Greek and Turkish words.

In the text, recipes for cures are not systematically arranged in the frame of certain groups, so no system or order can be established throughout the manuscript. Drug recipes for the same or similar diseases are situated sometimes in two or three places in the Manual and often by using very different substances and diverse procedures. We cannot find the terms “drug’ or “healing’ because the authors always use several Turkish words or some descriptive phrases.[iii] It is very hard to be completely sure of the meaning of descriptive phrases such as “when the heart is aching,’ “when the navel are running,’ “for thundering ears,’ “for a child when his ball is falling,’ “when the breasts are hurting,’ “when the head is puffing up’ and “when the heart is puffing up.’

These phrases became the accepted ways to describe certain medical problems which were not called by a specific title because the medical knowledge was very simple and limited at that time. For instance, we find different recipes for drugs prescribed for eye pain at the beginning and at the end of the Manual, while for headache there are two identical recipes. For throat pain the Manual suggests something that is to us a very strange healing procedure: catch a frog, cut it along the body, add some yellow sugar and ammoniac-chloride and put it on the throat for 24 hours. Against toothache, the manuscript suggests burned deer horn powder and burned onion seeds.[iv] Amongst many interesting recipes, there are simple ones against back pain[v], against breast pain[vi] and earache[vii]. Recipes for drugs against high temperature are situated on three pages and the most interesting, suggests applying a compress on the feet, made of yogurt, rakija (Serbian brandy) and garlic[viii].

There are special remedies for eye and mouth infections and bleeding of the gums.[ix] In the Pirot Lekarusa, there are also uses given for rose jam- even nowadays a well known drug and a sweet for mouth pain in the Pirot region.[x] A wide range of infection diseases constantly threatened the local population, and there are directions for making two drugs against syphilis.[xi] Pirot’s folk doctors in the 19th century used drugs for yellow fever, rabies and smallpox,[xii] scarlet fever, deafness, crusts, suffocation, vomiting, diarrhea and nocturnal urination[xiii].

In the Manual there are recipes for plenty of drugs, emulsions, herbal teas and directions for healing; the manual even prescribes remedies against hair loss. One of them says that first the head should be washed well and then be smeared with smashed blackberry leaves.[xiv] There are also several recipes for burns, frostbites and a remedy for every kind of injury.[xv]

The use of folk medicine in the Pirot region was, however, much wider than what can be gleaned from the Lekarusa`s pages. Further evidence can be found in ethnographic sources or in other written documents, though they are rare and tend to be very short. For example, in the Psalm Book of a village teacher, Mane Pesic, there is a handwritten note giving brief directions about healing epilepsy.[xvi] Aside from the so-called hechim (Turkish word for doctor) who were recognized as skillful in medical problems in the town, in surrounding villages there are many various healers, magicians and spellmakers. Local people often visited monasteries, churches, various cult locations such as water sources, trees, cliffs and cemeteries. According to a widely disseminated public belief, there was a water source in a certain cave near the town of Trn (now in western Bulgaria) capable of healing eye illnesses, snake poison and madness. Amongst people who were looking for health in that water were many Pirot inhabitants.[xvii]

Fake medicine was not an extraordinary phenomenon in Pirot and particularly for surrounding villages even during the first decades of the 20th century, so the fact that a certain local woman, a religious pilgrim, was well known in the town for healing powers during the 1880s is easily accepted. According to her story, she had visited Jerusalem and brought back miraculous icons, parts of saint’s bodies and diverse amulets and miraculous water from a spring in the Holy Land. In her house, she built a sort of chapel and healed many people. All of her healing usually consisted of a little powder from the alleged body of the saint, prayers, spells and a recommendation of abstinence. Records show that this woman was punished several times during the 1870s, but because of this “persecution’ she became even more respected amongst uneducated people. All of her substances and equipment were sent to Belgrade by a local doctor, Yan Sienkiewicz, as evidence of the low level of medical culture in 1883 in Pirot.[xviii]

At that time, there was also a barber who wrote on his workshop window that part of his main craft was surgery. He also performed this job in the nearby villages. The barber tried to cure scrofulous to a 20-year-old boy, but it instead caused an infection and required three months of difficult recovery. Despite the chronic wariness of the local Orthodox Christian population towards the Muslim inhabitants, Pirot citizens in the 19th century very often turned for help to a certain local Muslim priest, called “Sheriff.’ According to contemporary accounts, he protected children from spells and heart attacks and pulled out teeth with his hands. This man was so popular that people visited him more frequently than an educated doctor.[xix]


[i] Regarding Serbian medicine from the early Middle Ages to the modern period see R.V.Katic, Srpska medicina od 9. do 19. veka, Beograd, 1967.


[ii] Dejan Ciric, LekaruˆšÃ–¬°a, Gate of the East, Gate of the West (CD) (Also:


[iii] Pirot Lekarusa, sheet 11b.


[iv] Ibid, sheet 8ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆž.


[v] Ibid, sheet 9b.


[vi] Ibid, sheet 9ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆž.


[vii] Ibid, sheet 22b.


[viii] Ibid, sheet 23b.


[ix] Ibid, sheet 15b.


[x] Ibid, sheet 31b.


[xi] Ibid, sheet 3b, 9b.


[xii] Ibid, sheet 12b, 15ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆž, 26ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆž, 43ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆž.


[xiii] Ibid, sheet 4b, 6b, 7ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆž, 17ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆž, 22b, 47b.


[xiv] Ibid, sheet 47b.


[xv] Ibid, sheet 6b, 17ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆž, 24ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆž.


[xvi] ˆšÃªÂ¬üˆšÃªÂ¬ˆˆšÃ«Â¬Ã„ˆšÃªÂ¬Ã¦ˆšÃ«Â¬Ã‡ ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆ ˆšÃ«?ˆšÃ«Â¬Ã„ˆšÃªÂ¬ÂµˆšÃªÂ¬ˆ‘ ˆšÃª?ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆˆšÃ«Â¬Ã ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆžˆšÃªÂ¬‰¤ˆšÃ«?ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆ«ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆ 1801-1883. ˆšÃªÂ¬Ã¬ˆšÃ«Â¬Ã„ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆžˆšÃ«Â¬Ã­ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆž I, ˆšÃªÂ¬üˆšÃ«Â¬Ã„ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆˆšÃ«Â¬Ã„ˆšÃªÂ¬ÂµˆšÃªÂ¬Â¥ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆˆšÃªÂ¬Ã¦ ˆšÃªÂ¬Ã². ˆšÃª?ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆˆšÃªÂ¬ˆ«ˆšÃªÂ¬Ã¦ˆšÃªÂ¬ÂªˆšÃªÂ¬ˆˆšÃ«Â¬Ãµ, ˆšÃªÂ¬üˆšÃªÂ¬ˆˆšÃ«Â¬Ã„ˆšÃªÂ¬Ã¦ˆšÃ«Â¬Ã‡, 1981, pp. 182-83.


[xvii] B. Lilic, The Chosen Works, Pirot, 1998, p. 179.


[xviii] ˆšÃªÂ¬üˆšÃªÂ¬ˆˆšÃ«Â¬Ã„ˆšÃªÂ¬Ã¦ˆšÃ«Â¬Ã‡ ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆ ˆšÃ«?ˆšÃ«Â¬Ã„ˆšÃªÂ¬ÂµˆšÃªÂ¬ˆ‘ ˆšÃª?ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆˆšÃ«Â¬Ã ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆžˆšÃªÂ¬‰¤ˆšÃ«?ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆ«ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆ 1883-1893. ˆšÃªÂ¬Ã¬ˆšÃ«Â¬Ã„ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆžˆšÃ«Â¬Ã­ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆž II, ˆšÃªÂ¬üˆšÃ«Â¬Ã„ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆˆšÃ«Â¬Ã„ˆšÃªÂ¬ÂµˆšÃªÂ¬Â¥ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆˆšÃªÂ¬Ã¦ ˆšÃªÂ¬Ã². ˆšÃª?ˆšÃªÂ¬ˆˆšÃªÂ¬ˆ«ˆšÃªÂ¬Ã¦ˆšÃªÂ¬ÂªˆšÃªÂ¬ˆˆšÃ«Â¬Ãµ, ˆšÃªÂ¬üˆšÃªÂ¬ˆˆšÃ«Â¬Ã„ˆšÃªÂ¬Ã¦ˆšÃ«Â¬Ã‡, 1982, p. 18.


[xix] Ibid, p. 18.

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