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The history of the Karkonosze laborants

Among the centuries the Karkonosze area was underpopulated, but since the Middle Ages the local people knew and made use of the Karkonosze herbaceous plants’ medicinal properties. In the Renaissance the human being aroused his interest in the surrounding nature, while the appearance of herbals and herbal studies had a significant impact on the herbal medicine’s popularization. The first written mentions associated with herb gathering in the Karkonosze derive from the XVI century. A dozen or so herbariums and Silesian herb descriptions had been published till the beginning of the XVII century. This shows how popular were the Karkonosze’s herbs among even eminent persons belonging to the Renaissance medical world. Caspar Schwenckfeldt have written in the Cieplice Śląskie and its vicinities botanical description (published in 1607) that one may then have very often met root-men and herbalists, who frequently went in for unlawful medical practices. In 1622 or 1623 a group of Czech protestant refugees settled in Karpacz. One of them was Georg Werner – a chemist born in Kłodzko, who was to form the Karkonosze laborants’ centre and relay his knowledge to his son. The Karkonosze laborants chose a mythical Karkonosze ruler – the Mountain Ghost – as their patron and decorated their herbal stalls with its images. Selling the medicaments, they were telling stories about the Mountain Ghost, also called “the root-man”, who gained the whole knowledge about the Karkonosze herbs properties and, furthermore, was their keeper and guardian. Doing so, the laborants were trying to drive the outsiders away and tried not to reveal the secrets of their herb sites and medicines production. As the time went by, the laborants’ biggest centre became Karpacz, however their activities might have been seen within the whole Karkonosze region. According to one of the legends, around 1700 the two founders of this centre (located at the foot of Śnieżka) were the University of Praha medicine students: Mikołaj and Salomon. They decided to live in Karpacz and chose medical science and the nature’s medicinal properties as two cornerstones of their medical practices. Thankful for the society’s hospitality, they relayed their knowledge to local inhabitants and built them their first chemist shop. Around 1700 the herbalists from Karpacz and its neighbourhood created their own guild. Within the guilds the laborants were the master masons and they were supported by apprentices and journeymen in drug production. In later years Karpacz started to be called “the chemists’ village”. In the XVIII century, when Prussia occupied the area, the conflict between traditional medicine – a “competitor” to the laborants – and the Karkonosze herbal medicine arouse. The Prussian constitution of 1740 restricted the number of legal laborants in the Karkonosze to 30 people, and in order to start herbal activity one must have obtained an official license. In 1796 the Karkonosze laborant guild had 27 members living in Karpacz, Miłkowo, Głębock and their vicinity. From the same year, the Prussian government allowed the Karpacz laborants to produce and sell only 46 medicaments. In spite of the fact that the Karkonosze’s medicaments fame was constantly growing, administrative limitations caused the fall of the local herbal medicine. The last known laborant was Ernst A. Zwölfel, who, through act of exceptional clemency, was permitted to produce herbal medicaments to the end of his life. His death (2.04.1884) ended the history of the Karkonosze laborants.