Medicine Among the Hutterites

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As the article Medicine has already demonstrated, there was a distinct difference between the medical experiences among 16th-century Anabaptists in general and the unique practices of the Hutterites. Their settled and well-developed community life in Moravia and Slovakia almost necessitated attention to medical care and hygiene, and thus led to developments which singled them out among all the rest of the nonurban population of early modern times. Since the situation has been given careful historical study, a fairly correct picture can be offered in the following.


The Brethren were among the earliest to conduct what today would best be called boarding schools. Accordingly, much attention was directed to have these schools (from nursery age to about 14 years of age) on their Bruderhofs well controlled and supervised. Peter Walpot issued his famous school discipline in 1568, in which almost modern principles of hygiene were set forth to be strictly obeyed. The Brethren were sensibly aware of contagion; thus particular care was directed to an early discovery of children's diseases, whereupon such children were separated, their clothing and linen as well as their food being kept completely from that of the rest. There were sicknesses like scurvy, eczema, even syphilis, and attention was needed to prevent epidemics. The enemies accused them of negligence and claimed a high child mortality (see Handbüchlein and Fischer, Chr. A.), but the Brethren defended themselves effectively, and actually could point to their numerous strict regulations for such group living.

Bathing and Bathhouses

The 16th century in general experienced a decline in bathing. Bathing for cleanliness was deemed by the Hutterites not necessary more than once in four weeks. But for health's sake bathing found quite elaborate attention among the Brethren. To quote the archfoe of the Hutterites, Christoph Andreas Fischer, who involuntarily had to admit the fame of these Hutterite bathhouses: "Every Saturday their baths are packed full of Christians [i.e., Catholics]. And not alone the common people but also noble persons come running to them if they ever need treatment, as if Anabaptists were the only ones who possessed this art in the entire region" (Fischer, 54 Erheblkhe Ursachen 1607, "32. Ursach," p. 85). These bathhouses were administered by professional "Bader" (caretakers of the baths), who also functioned as barber-surgeons and generally replaced physicians, as these latter were a rather rare profession in the 16th century. These Bader must have been quite numerous among the Hutterites of the later 16th century, again a proof that the Anabaptist way had great attraction for all walks of life.


Although generally highly respected the Bader nevertheless had to conform to the general pattern of communal life of the Hutterites. Apparently this posed a real problem for these rather independent people who quickly gained also a clientele outside the brotherhood. Thus it is not surprising that strict regulations, called "Bader-Ordnungen," were issued from time to time, particularly during the 17th century when a certain decline in discipline set in. The earliest regulation is no longer extant, but we hear of such documents of 1592, 1633, 1635, 1637, 1654, and 1657 (with the exception of the first named they all come from the period of Bishop Andreas Ehrenpreis. The Bader-Ordnung of 1654 was published in an English translation, MQR 1953, 125-127). They insisted on cleanliness, asked the barber-surgeons to continue in the study of pharmacy and other medical knowledge, regulated the practice of blood-cupping, and so on. Special emphasis is laid upon the proper behavior of these important brethren: there should be no arrogance among them and no overbearing, in spite of the fact that they enjoyed certain privileges which differentiated them from the rest on the Bruderhof (e.g., horseback riding).

When traveling from Bruderhof to Bruderhof, these barber-surgeons often carried along a whole wagonload of extracts, pills, electuaries, ointments, etc. Needless to say, the Bader were also much in demand outside the Hutterite communities, which made their exceptional position even more difficult. They received payment for their services, and these sums, too, presented a temptation. As the rest of the brotherhood were largely rural in character, the adjustment of these men posed a permanent problem.


The Hutterite Chronicle mentions at least three doctors or physicians among the Brethren: Georg Zobel (died 1603) of Nikolsburg, who was called twice to the Imperial Court of Rudolph II at Prague (the first time, 1581, he stayed six months and is said to have cured the emperor; the second time, 1599, he was supposed to help to stop an epidemic in Prague); Balthasar Gollar (died 1619), likewise of Nikolsburg, the personal physician of Cardinal Dietrichstein, who otherwise fought Anabaptism by all means at his disposal. In 1608-1609 Gollar was also the personal physician of the Imperial Ambassador, Count Herberstein, on his trip to Constantinople. At the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War, Gollar was slain in Nikolsburg and his pharmacy was destroyed. The third was Conrad Blössy, a former citizen of Zürich, Switzerland, who in 1612 went back to that city and rendered great assistance in fighting an epidemic there.

The number of barber-surgeons mentioned in the sources is quite considerable. One, Sebastian Dietrich of Markgröningen in Württemberg, even became head bishop or Vorsteher of the entire brotherhood (1611-19). (For more names of such barbers see Friedmann, 130-135.)

Training and Education

Very little is known about the training of the physicians. Most likely they got their training before joining the brotherhood, although the profession of barber-surgeon could also be learned at certain Bruderhofs, e.g., in Nikolsburg, or at the places of their bathhouses. It is also known that Paracelsus, the most famous physician of his century, lived in Moravia 1537-1538 on an estate where Hutterites also were admitted. But no sources about possible contacts have become known. It is, however, highly revealing that the Hutterian Brethren of today have preserved two very old medical books. The one, of 1575, was bought by Andreas Ehrenpreis in Sobotište, Slovakia, in 1638 from a Hungarian book peddler. It is a manuscript book of 230 leaves octavo, entitled Antidotarium, Composita oder Recepta der Schaden- und Wundarzney, etc., by Lienhard Gargasser, 1575. The other, called Arzney Handbüchl, vieler Krankheiten Zustande Causam et Curam, etc., is also handwritten, copied by the Hutterite barber-surgeon Johannes Spengler in 1635 while practicing his art at the mineral bath of Trenchin-Teplic, Slovakia. It comprises 470 octavo leaves, containing mostly prescriptions of remedies and good counsel as to how to cure ailments. The name of Paracelsus is mentioned in it at many places; unfortunately the original from which this book was carefully copied is no longer known. Both books are now in the possession of the Hutterites in Western Canada.

Later Period

The tradition of having doctors or barber-surgeons around on the Bruderhofs was never abandoned. The Klein-Geschichtsbuch (380-381), for instance, expressly mentions for the year 1780 (when the brotherhood had settled in the Ukraine) that the Brethren wished to have again a trained doctor with them, and accordingly dispatched the young and able brother Christian Wurz to study with the French house physician of Count Rumyantsev, the protector of the Brethren. At first Christian kept rigidly and faithfully to his Hutterite background, but after a while he got "to love the world," even put on a wig, and soon became fully secularized. He later went to Moscow. The chronicle states sadly, "In a few years three members left our faith; they were among the most skilled and learned ones."

Again in 1792, the same chronicle reports the death of a barber-surgeon. "Thus the brotherhood had no one any more who would understand blood-cupping and other medicail practices. This fact became a real concern to the brethren" (Klein-Geschichtsbuch, 388). In 1814 again the death of another brother-medicus Zacharias Wipf is reported. He had served his brotherhood for 16 years both in the pharmacy and in the art of medicine (Klein-Geschichtsbuch, 423).

In America

In America, naturally the need for doctors has been more easily met than at any time before. Nevertheless the Brethren continued to have their own "bonesetters" (chiropractors), experts in medicinal herbs, and, of course, experienced midwives. Joseph Eaton reported that some of these bonesetters and masseurs were so much in demand that the Brethren set up a special office for one of them. It seemed that they were not especially trained in their art but practiced it rather out of a certain natural gift and intuition (Eaton, 164, 170). All Bruderhofs have plenty of house remedies for all emergencies. As to psychic disturbances, the friendly atmosphere of the community and the opportunity of talking confidentially to the preacher work strongly toward a high level of mental health.


Eaton, J. W. and R. J. Weil. Culture and Mental Disorder, A Comparative Study of the Hutterites. Glencoe, IL, 1955.

Friedmann, Robert. "Hutterite Physicians and Barber-Surgeons." Mennonite Quarterly Review 20 (1953): 128-136.

Loserth, Johann. "Der Communismus der mährischen Wiedertäufer im 16. and 17. Jahrhundert: Beiträge zu ihrer Lehre, Geschichte and Verfassung." Archiv far österreichische Geschichte 81, 1 (1895): chapter "Die Arzneikunst und Bäder der Wiedertäufer." 275 ff.;

Sommer, John L. "Hutterite Medicine and Physicians in Moravia in the 16th Century and After." Mennonite Quarterly Review 20 (1953): 111-27 (with an English translation of a Bader-Ordnung).

Zieglschmid, A. J. F. Das Klein-Geschichtsbuch der Hutterischen Brüder. Philadelphia, PA: Carl Schurz Memorial Foundation, 1947.

Author(s) Robert Friedmann
Date Published 1957

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Friedmann, Robert. "Medicine Among the Hutterites." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. 20 Mar 2023.

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Friedmann, Robert. (1957). Medicine Among the Hutterites. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 20 March 2023, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 553-555. All rights reserved.

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