The Raeapteek (Town Hall Pharmacy) is the oldest pharmacy in Europe that has continuously been in business in the same building. It is also the oldest commercial enterprise and the oldest medical establishment in Tallinn. The exact opening date is not known, but in 1422 the pharmacy already had its third owner.
During the long history of the Raeapteek many honorable men have been pharmacists here. However, in 1580 a Hungarian named Johann Burchard Belfry de Sykava took up an apprenticeship in pharmacy, and for almost 300 years from that time (1582-1911), the pharmacy belonged to the ten generations of the Burchart family. The tradition of the family was that the eldest son was named Johann and he studied to be a pharmacist. So for three hundred years, the owner of this pharmacy was named Johann Burchart.
During the plague years there was not a single doctor left in the town, and so the apothecary had to be a doctor too. In 1725, as Peter the Great lay dying, he sent a messenger to the Revel (Tallinn’s former name) town doctor, Johann Burchard V. Unfortunately, the doctor arrived too late.
Johann Burchard VIII has a leading place in Estonian cultural history since he not only had art exhibitions in the rooms of the town pharmacy, but he also laid the stone for the local history museum ‘Mon faible.’
The medieval pharmacy was not only a place for fortifying body and soul but also a meeting place where people drank wine and chatted, comparable to today’s cafe where people have a cup of tea or coffee, hear the news and pass the news on to others.
Cakes, paper, playing cards, torches, sealing wax, ink, gunpowder, spices, and all sorts of remarkable concoctions were for sale. A special item was Mart’s bread, which in the rest of the world was known as marzipan. Marzipan was thought to have the power to relieve heartache and restore memory.
A price list TAXA of pharmacy goods of 1695 gives an idea of what was sold in the Raeapteek in the Middle Ages. The price list includes 54 different types of water, 25 fats, 32 balsams, 62 preserves, 128 different oils, 20 tinctures, 49 ointments, and 71 medicinal teas. In addition, there were such peculiar goods as burnt bees, stallion hoofs, burnt hedgehogs, earthworm oil, blanched dog feces, and human fat.
The spicy wine claret was made from a centuries’ old special recipe of the town apothecary and was also well known to the monks. This drink fell into oblivion for centuries and has been recently been reawakened to new life. It not only contains numerous healing herbs but also has a pleasant taste and also lifts the spirits.
Between the years 1911-1940, the Raeapteek belonged to the Lehbert and Schneider families. In 1907 Rudolph Lehbert started to produce an anti-anemia preparation ‘Ferratol’ in a corner of a laboratory. That can be considered as the pioneer product of Estonian pharmaceutical industry.
The apothecary was not allowed to treat the sick or change a prescription or even find fault in it. He received a prescription from a doctor and accordingly had to prepare the medication in his laboratory. So he might as well have been called ‘the doctor’s cook.’
He was not allowed to sell potent drugs or make up complex prescriptions without the knowledge of a doctor, nor could he consult with foreign doctors. The strength of the ingredients and their proper storage was checked annually by the town doctor and a few councilors.
The Tallinn Council apothecary was obliged to send, every year at Christmas and New year, sweets and wine to the councilors and officials ‘for free tasting, and a sign of friendly recognition.’ The Council members entertained distinguished guests of the town with these and took them as precious gifts abroad.
During the 16th century, some burghers of Tallinn procured specialist literature for themselves, among them, medical works. They started to compose their own prescriptions according to the list in these books and to order these mixtures from the chemist. In 1596, the current Burchard apothecary grew indignant about this and said that every woman who has read a German book regards herself immediately as wise. ‘One should take these books and heat the stove with them and give the women spinning wheels so that can spin.’
The apothecary of medieval Tallinn was a distinguished burgher and dealt with all the ranks in the town. Up to the 18th century, one could purchase medicine from the apothecary around the clock, seven days a week. Here, on the outskirts of Europe, there were few trained doctors and chemists, and so the burden of the apothecary was huge, and he was released from taxes and other duties. Although it was not properly his job, he sometimes had to stand in for the town doctor and also for the barber. the town apothecary had a monopoly for a long time – until the 17th century.
According to the prescription books that are still existing, medicines in the Middle Ages were composed using 90% herbs from healing plants. The herb garden in the town apothecary was mentioned for the first time in the 15th century, when it was in front of Harju Gate, then later in front of Nunnavärav (Nun’s Gate).
The most important rival of the apothecary were drugstores and spice shops. They sold not only medicines but also dangerous poisons. The Council allowed the old women who sold herbs to be driven from the marketplace, but still the apothecary complained again and again that ‘in the market every day there are crushed and uncrushed wild herbs and other medicines on offer.’ In the 17th century, the Tallinn Council dealt with this problem by allowing only drugs and herbs which belonged in the kitchen or on the table to be sold in the market. It was not so easy to deal with the women, who moved from the marketplace to Saiakäk. Finally in the middle of the 18th century, at the request of the Council and the apothecary, they were driven out of the town to ply their trade beside the town hay barn.
Pain was an inseparable companion of humanity in medieval times. Before the 13th century, medicine was learned in the monastery, and after that in universities. The medical personnel arriving in Tallinn had been educated in Europe and brought with them the newest methods and discoveries, Thus medicine here was of the same standard as in the rest of Europe.
The learned physician of the Middle Age was no practitioner. His knowledge was a mixture of philosophy, religion, astrology, magic, and anatomy. The real practitioners, until the 18th century, were the barbers, who functioned as surgeons. The doctor was an expert in human anatomy and was in a position to explain medical interventions, but his only physical contact with patients was to take the pulse of the sick person. He concerned himself only with handling ‘inner’ sickness.
The doctor received patients in his home or made home visits. To arrive at a diagnosis he examined the patient’s urine and blood. The look, the smell and even the taste of the urine were authoritative in determining the health of the patient and the treatment necessary. For blood-letting, the doctor was accompanied by the bath attendant. Blood-letting was an overall treatment method, which was recommended to be performed six times per year. The astronomical system dictated the time and place for the procedure.
One needed a scalpel to open the vein, a tourniquet, and a candle. In a dark room, a candle was placed so that the shape of the vein would show up distinctly. The amount of blood to be let was determined by the patient or recommended by the bath attendant. Usually, it was two or three pounds of blood, measured with an ounce glass. A diagnosis was then determined, based on the color and coagulation of the blood.
If necessary, the doctor wrote a prescription, according to which, the apothecary produced the medicine. The first doctor in Tallinn was probably Conradus Medicus Senior in the 1340s. In the 15th century, there was a town doctor, Johann Molner, under the Council jurisdiction. His task was to treat Council soldiers and officials, to work as a forensic expert, to visit chemists and hospitals, conduct the war against the plague, and establish precepts for order in the town. He was not allowed to leave the confines of the town without the permission of the Council. To take on his office there was no examination required. One had to produce documents and take an oath of office.
Council apothecary Johann Burchart wrote: “When all is said and done, the inhabitants of Tallinn would rather die than let anything be done for their health. And when medical help is given the only reward is bad language.”
Surgery was a bloody handicraft which the doctors left entirely to the barbers. The first guild of barbers in Tallinn was established in the 15th century. The statute refers to them only as surgeons, from which one surmises that the bath attendants performed jobs like cutting hair and beards.
The scope of the barbers was considerable: removing tumors, setting bones, letting blood, and pulling teach. At festival time there was additional work, since ‘some heads had been broken in two and arms torn from bodies, so the barber had enough to do day and night.’ At his house, a pole for hanging shaving bowls showed where the barber was to be found, mostly in popular places like the neighborhood of the harbor or the marketplace.
Barbers also made house calls. There were 4 to 6 barbers in Tallinn in the Middle Ages, of whom the most skillful was promoted to the post of town barber or Council surgeon. He was not allowed to leave the town without the town doctor’s permission. He did not have to pay taxes, received a salary and accommodation expenses and got still more for every first dressing applied. To his assignments belonged surgical assistants to the Council soldiers, officials and prisoners and performing post-mortem examinations for forensic purposes. In times of crisis such as wars or epidemics, barbers were scarce.
The role of women in medicine was concerned with helping at births. The first mention of a midwife in Tallinn was in the 14th century. As with the barbers, the custom was that the best of the midwives became a Council employee. The old records show that the work of Estonian midwives was appreciated.
In addition to selling modern pharmaceuticals, the pharmacy also sells mementos of times past.
Perhaps you’d like a bottle of claret?
Make sure you explore the back room, where you will find an exhibition on medicines and the pharmacy’s stocks from the 17th to the 20th centuries.
The most famous of herbs and their history are displayed in the museum.
In the basement, you can test various herbal tea blends, picked from local fields.
Younger apothecaries can try being apprentices and fulfill the same tasks as in the olden days.
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