Sample: pharmaceutical & history translation (Latvian > English)

Valters Feists has translated the below excerpts from Apothecaries of Olden Days by Arnis Vīksna (professor at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Latvia, and member of the Latvian Academy of Sciences). The book is a vivid and scientific account of the history of the pharmaceutical establishment in Latvia from prehistoric days until late 20th century CE.
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Apothecaries of Olden Days
(`Zinātne’ publishing house, 1993, Rīga)


Target language: ENGLISH 


Source language: LATVIAN 

Folk medicine is a pristine beginning from which the science of medicine has sourced quite a few things. Similarly, the roots of pharmacology lie in folk pharmacy. While observing natural phenomena and the contrasts between them, humans realised which substances might be good for preserving good health and which in turn, due to their distinct properties, might help in healing. Nature itself provides us with means for recuperating, but we have to help it along.

Taking medicine is very old. In order to learn the connections between the food one ate and the course of certain ailments, humans observed the behaviour of animals after consumption of specific plants and parts of plants (flowers, roots, leaves and fruits). Even more pertinent was Man’s own experience. Getting to know the positive and negative properties of plants, humans learned which of them are poisonous and which can have other types of subjective or objective impact on one’s physiology, such as causing vomiting, diarrhoea, sweating, nervous excitation or alleviating of pain. [..]

Similar observations were made about eating the meat of animals, birds and fish, which brought blood, fat, liver, bone marrow and similar substances into the arsenal of medicine. Honey was widely used. [..]

Since early times, healing springs, or holy springs, were popular among people. In the case of a mechanical injury, plants were used that helped the wound to close, acted against inflammation, prevented the forming of pus and stimulated regeneration of tissue. The discovery of both poisons and potions in the nature as well as of the fact that, with the change of their concentration, the poisons can act as cures and vice versa, stood at the beginning of pharmaceutical treatment. [..]

But again, the human fear and vulnerability, when confronted with the forces of nature, created a mystical veil around medicine. When the medicine man’s profession became profitable enough, the mystery had to be blown up even further, and the names of medications were encrypted. For example, in the Latvian folk medicine there is a suggestion to use mice droppings to stop bleeding while the remedy was really blackened rye seeds. `Rooster blood’ was a nickname for the red beetroot juice, and so forth.


A tariff of apothecaries was an official document in which the prices of medications were laid down in order to prevent overcharging for them. Later on, it started to include indications of labour costs for preparing certain pharmaceuticals (taxa laborum). [..] Although all apothecaries were privately-owned, their business largely depended on the will of governmental institutions, such as the magistracy of Riga. [..] The 1685 tariff of Riga apothecaries shows usage of 306 medicinal plants, at least half of which were grown locally. Bark was used from only 23 of these plants, while roots are mentioned in connection with 142 plants (mandrake root included); flowers appear 70 and seeds 144 times. Attempts to separate effective ingredients from these raw materials were made by distilling, sublimating as well as dissolving them in various ways.

[..] Among 54 different medicinal waters we find: water of swallows, sleeping water, panic water (acqua contra terrorem), distilled whey, millipede water, tadpole water, snow water, and so forth.

Twenty-five different fats were used for preparing ointments, including human fat, which cost 4 marks per lot, while hare fat was slightly more expensive at 4 marks and 2 groschen. Bear fat was very cheap: just 4 groschen. Snake fat was the dearest, costing as much as 23 marks per lot. [..]

We would also consider unusual the following medicines: dried toads, stallion hooves, hare paws, roasted crayfish, moonstone, mummia essence, mucous membrane of chicken stomach, dried wolf throat and liver, hare heart, swallow nests, dissected earthworms, pike gills and eyes, deer tail, fox lungs, roasted moles (rodents), cobweb, bladder of wild boar, wind powder — whatever could that have been? — pigeon droppings, ostrich eggs, scorpion oil, moon tincture, uric alcohol, Hippocrates’ wine, etc., etc. Probably the most terrible one was a belt made from human skin, which depending on its size cost between two and three thalers.

[..] The next tariff of Riga apothecaries, dated 1740, appears a lot more rational than that of 1685. There are fewer obscure names and, although it still documents use of the human skull, roasted snails, Venus’ hair and hippopotamus tusks, these items do not stand out very much against the rest of the assortment. Even today, most of the pharmaceuticals inventoried in the 1740 Riga tariff still are used.

In these documents (the tariffs of 1685 and 1740), there is yet no mention of the Kunze balsam, also known as Riga balsam, which made the city’s name known in many a faraway place.


Another rather interesting and relevant aspect is the relationship between those practicing folk pharmacy and the urban apothecaries after the invasion of Livonia by the crusaders. The role of apothecaries as heralds of the Western civilisation in the `dark’ pagan lands ought not to be exaggerated. Indeed, the apothecaries had an air of science about them, but when we look at the array of medicines used, the difference was not that significant: more often than not, the potions and, especially, herbal remedies, were exactly the same.


When missionary monks first arrived in the basins of the Daugava and Gauja in the 12th century CE, they brought not only their faith but also some elementary skills in remedying illnesses: every means that could help in converting the pagans to Christianity was to be considered good. In the Chronicles by Henricus de Lettis there’s mention of a brother Theodorich who was active in Turaida and later became a bishop in Estonia. He had modest knowledge of medicine, and a dexterity in applying it. When a Liv asked for his help and promised that he’d accept baptism if he recovered, the monk pestled a remedy whose effect he didn’t really know; however the Liv’s health was restored and Theodorich gained in credibility. When Theorodich needed to travel outside the territory of Livs he packed some medicine and pretended that he needed to visit a patient. Thus, not always was the motivation genuinely humanitarian and the practice of healing was often related to the expansion of the church ideology.

[..] From the year 1289 onwards, the Riga debt registry (the book of debts) has recorded several Rigans under the name of Crudener, Crudenerus or Crydener. [..] The family name apparently has arisen from the word crudus, which used to mean ‘spice’. Moreover, in the mediaeval German tradition — for example as found in Lübeck and Hamburg — the word crüdener denoted a drugstore keeper because the profession then involved the selling not so much of medicine but rather of spice, candy and confectionery. What if one of the early Crüdeners in Riga had indeed been an apothecary? But let us consider this an indirect and unproven clue.

A much more important record, for our purpose, appears in the Riga book of debts on 11 November, 1291.


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