The province of Saskatchewan, as we speak, is having a sudden bad run of reported COVID-19 numbers. The good news is that the new cases aren’t mysterious in nature, and aren’t a random pervasive threat. The bad news, disclosed this week, is that a lot of them are tied to the communal life of the pacifist Hutterian Brethren, who seem to have turned up with cases in many different colonies since mid-June, and who are now being tested aggressively for the virus.
Hutterites live lives of agricultural enterprise divided from their individualistic rural neighbours (except in trading relationships), educating their own children and circumscribing the use of modern technology and fashion. On some colonies, this includes hostility to vaccination and other public health measures.
In Saskatchewan the self-reliant Hutterites have a panel of community health experts and first responders, the Hutterian Safety Council, that represents believers and protects their interests in interactions with the provincial health ministry. Last month the Council published a letter in which it admitted that “there have been challenges” getting some colonies to take measures against COVID-19. The Hutterites eat in mess-hall style and have their own hymnal tradition; they may have been slow to add social distancing to religious services and funerals.
They were considered particular experts in pharmaceuticals and control of infectious disease, being called in by authorities — who were busy persecuting them as dangerous radicals the rest of the time — for advice when epidemics broke out. There is even some reason to believe that Paracelsus, the 16th-century Swiss physician sometimes credited with the invention of toxicology, may have been influenced by Hutterite medical practices.
If you think of the Hutterites as being picturesque, ignorant anti-moderns, this will be hard to fathom. But it fits the historical context. In the tumultuous environment of the Reformation, the Hutterites created schools whose appearance was unfamiliar in the 16th and 17th centuries, but which would seem very natural to us: everyone was thrown together in customized classrooms that increased in size as the pupils got older. They also pioneered the idea of communal bathing for health purposes, which would take off in the Victorian period, and it was the professional caretakers of their baths, the “Bader,” who evolved quickly into their most sought-after physicians.
As innovators in communal living, early Hutterites must have gotten a lot of practical, probably cruel experience in understanding and limiting infectious disease. Their children were examined closely for signs of illness before they were admitted to the Hutterite schools, and their extant medical texts from the era, though not said to be otherwise prescient by today’s standards, emphasize cleanliness and hand-washing. Other Anabaptists and early-modern religious radicals like the Socinians don’t seem to have attained the standing in medicine that the Hutterites enjoyed.
Of course I am writing this mostly to show off. It’s a fact that, on its own, is not of much contemporary consequence, any more than the knowledge that the Arabs invented algebra or that Jews once dominated professional basketball. What’s important is to know that facts like this exist. An instance of seemingly innate cultural superiority can be circumstantial and temporary, more so than a person trapped within one lifetime might suspect.
In a Globe and Mail article on the current Hutterite health crisis, a professor is quoted as having observed, perhaps a little scornfully, that Hutterites believe “they have the wisdom and experience … to help their people make the right decisions” about health. It might be worth remembering that in 17th-century Moravia, the educated elite would all be listening to the Hutterites for health guidance and ignoring the academics.