BOOKS HAVE THEIR OWN FATE
- LOGICAL CHOICE
- THE ORIGIN OF PRINTED BOOKS
- HISTORY OF PRINTED WORD
- The year 1997 was the anniversary of Martynas Maþvydas’ Catechismus, the first book
in Lithuanian, published in Königsberg in 1547. Marked down on UNESCO’s list of
important dates, it was also celebrated in Prague, Torun, Helsinki, and at the Library of
Congress in Washington.
- One of the events marking the 450th anniversary of this book was the exhibition “Early
Books of Lithuania from the 16th to the 18th century” organised by Vilnius University
- From October 1997 until February 1998 the exhibition, with its 129 exhibits, was on show
at the library of Tartu University, at UNESCO headquarters in Paris and at the
Staatsbibliothek in Berlin.
- Thanks to this touring exhibition these original copies of old Lithuanian books were
introduced to foreign audiences for the first time. The culture of the period is reflected
in the history of the Lithuanian book, which shows that at that time Lithuania played a
full part in European culture.
By Alma Braziûnienë
- In the 16th and the 17th centuries Lithuania was an equal partner of western European
nations. It adopted and inspired scientific ideas, created works of fiction based on
literary traditions dating back to antiquity and on Christian versions of these
traditions,” says Eugenija Ulèinaitë, a Vilnius University classics professor.
A recent touring exhibition aimed to survey the development of
printed books in Lithuania, the rise and the evolution of printing in Lithuania Minor and
in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL), to mention Lithuanian printing presses and to show
the thematic variety, design and binding of these books.
- Vilnius University library was chosen deliberately. The greater part of the Lithuanian
cultural heritage is kept here: about 180,000 books from the 15th to the 18th centuries,
about 200,000 manuscripts, 8,000 old engravings and many other valuable items.
- At the present time the library has 5.3 million printed items. The size of the
collection equals the Jagieùùonian Library in Krakow and the National Library in Prague.
- The library dates back to 1570 when Vilnius Bishop Walerian Protasewicz invited the
Jesuits to the city to fight the Reformation. He set up a college and a library which in
1579 became the library of the Jesuit Academy. The first books were gifts and private
collections bequeathed to the academy.
- The collection of the Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland, Sigismund Augustus
(1520–1572), was especially famous and is thought to have consisted of 5,000 volumes.
The king was a true bibliophile. Many European rulers knew of his passion for books and
used to give him books as presents.
- This was how his library, consisting of the books on medicine, law, exact sciences and
works of ancient literature, was formed. It was to be left in his will to the Jesuit
- Unfortunately the will was not executed properly and not all the books were passed on to
the college. The king’s family divided some of the books between themselves, some were
given to their courtiers. The library was plundered during wars and times of civil unrest.
- Some books were taken to Russia after the 1830–1831 uprising when Vilnius University
was closed. Now the university library, the lawful heir to Sigismund’s collection, has
only 14 books comprising 20 different titles.
- Besides this collection, the library has also inherited the private collections of many
famous Lithuanian statesmen and scientists. There was a tradition among Vilnius University
professors to leave personal books to their alma mater.
- In the 17th century the library was widely known. By the middle of the 18th century it
had 11,000 books, and in the 1820s there were 60,000 books.
THE ORIGIN OF PRINTED BOOKS
- The oldest surviving Lithuanian documents are kept in foreign archives. Copies of
letters from two Lithuanian rulers had to be sent from German archives specially for the
- One of them was an assurance written on parchment by Grand Duke Mindaugas, who died in
1263, to Livonian merchants, on the occasion of his coronation in which he stated that
Lithuania was a safe country for trading with.
- The second is a letter by Grand Duke Gediminas (1316–1341), the founder of Vilnius,
offering protection and privileges to merchants and artisans who accepted his invitation
to settle in Lithuania.
- The exhibition also included a facsimile edition, prepared by historians, of the
Lithuanian Statute, a landmark in Lithuanian law, that was adopted in 1529 and went
through three editions (a manuscript version in 1566 and a printed version in 1588).
- There was also a reproduction of a copy of the privileges offered to Jews, one of the
most important documents relating to Jewish history in the GDL, issued by Grand Duke
- These and other exhibits show how the need for the printed word grew. Unfortunately, an
original copy of the first book, Agenda, compiled by a Vilnius cleric Canon
Martinus, has not survived in Lithuania (two copies are kept in libraries in Poland). It
was published in Gdansk in 1499. There were no printing presses in Lithuania at the time
and the book had to be taken abroad for printing. Agenda, Lithuania’s first book,
written in Latin, will be 500 years old next year.
- Around 1520–1522 Belarussian educationalist Franciscus Skorina came to Vilnius from
Prague, where he had already published his Bible, and established the first printing press
in the GDL. Two books were printed here: A Small Travel Book in 1522 and Apostle
- There is only one full copy of the Travel Book complete with its colophon (an
inscription placed at the end of a book giving details of its publication), at the Royal
Library in Copenhagen. Before it was discovered there, it was thought that the first book
printed in Vilnius was Skorina’s Apostle, an original of which was in the
exhibition. This is kept at Vilnius University library.
HISTORY OF THE PRINTED WORD
- Even now scholars find more and more Lithuanian phrases and prayers included in
16th-century Latin, Polish or German books. It is clear that at the beginning of the 16th
century the need for printed books in the national language started to grow. Martynas
Maþvydas, a 16th-century evangelical pastor, an educated person who dreamed of spreading
the word of God in his native Lithuanian, was honoured with this mission. His name
nowadays is regarded as a symbol of the printed word in Lithuanian.
- He was not the only compiler of the book, but he played the main role. In 1546, because
of Catholic persecution, he went into exile from Vilnius to neighbouring Prussia. In 1547,
with financing from Prussian Duke Albrecht von Brandenburg, he printed his Catechismus.
- The appearance of Maþvydas’ book was not overdue and it was not unique among
countries in the region. In 1513 the first book in Polish was printed; in 1517
Belarussian; in 1530 Yiddish; in 1543 Finnish; and in 1545 Prussian (also in Königsberg).
The first book in Russian appeared only in 1564.
- Other parts of the exhibition showed the particular way the first Lithuanian books were
printed in the GDL and in Lithuania Minor (a part of neighbouring Prussia inhabited by
- The first grammar of the Lithuanian language (Königsberg, 1653), by Daniel Klein, and
the first full edition of the Bible, in 1735 (although it had been translated in the 16th
century), were published in Lithuania Minor.
- Several fragments of a translation of the Bible from Dutch into Lithuanian made by
Samuel Chylinski in the 17th century have survived and are kept at the British Library.
They were found in a pile of waste paper in 1893.
- Only one copy is left of another important publication in Lithuanian. Catechismus was
compiled by Mikalojus Daukða and printed in 1595 at the Vilnius Academy. It was the first
Catholic book in Lithuanian published in the GDL and appeared almost half a century later
than its Protestant analogue. A copy of this small book is at the library of Vilnius
- Printing presses in the GDL were widely represented at the exhibition. Between the 16th
and 18th centuries there were presses in 22 places. The books printed at Protestant
presses are now extremely rare because over the centuries many were destroyed.
- The exhibition also showed the thematic scope of Lithuanian books and at the same time
the development of Lithuanian science and art. It included poetry by Mathias Casimirus
Sarbievius (1596–1640), who was one of the most famous baroque poets not only in
Lithuania but throughout the rest of Europe (in the 17th century his poetry was published
41 times). There were works on rhetoric by Professor Þygimantas Liauksminas (1597–1670)
that were published in different European cities and used as textbooks. The Great
Art of Artillery, by the 17th-century creator of multistage rockets Kazimieras
Semenavièius, published in Amsterdam in 1650, continues to surprise visitors with its
- There were handsome volumes by Vilnius bookbinders in brown leather or parchment, as
well as books from Sigismund Augustus’ library.
- The organisers of the exhibition wanted to provide a full review of Lithuanian culture
from the 16th to the 18th century and to show the source of the vitality of this culture
– existence within the general stream of European culture.
(From LITHUANIA IN THE WORLD, No 2, 1998)