III. THE FIRST LITHUANIAN BOOK


Nemunas - the river separates Lithuania
from Eastern Prussia on the other side

4. The Foreword in Verse


First pagePrevious pageNext pageLast page

The first line of the Foreword "Brothers and sisters, take and read me" has become a poetic cliché paraphrased in an infinite number of ways. At first glance, this Foreword is a collection of primitive admonitions, phrased in an obsolete language that is difficult to understand. It is written in the form of a conversation or argument, with questions and hypothetical answers of an interlocutor. The reader finds himself in the middle of a debate, and is advised to make a decision in favour of the faith advanced by the Reformation. The book addresses three different social strata of readers - the peasant, the landlord and the priest. The greatest part addresses the peasants, for their still need to be convinced to the advantages of the new creed. The advocate of this creed is, naturally, reluctant to permit a free choice between the old pagan gods and the new God. But his interlocutor does not agree with him. He says that the pagan customs, i.e. traditional life , is dearer to his heart. It is noteworthy that in the dispute female pagan deities are opposed to male Christian God to the disadvantage of femininity.

The Foreword to Catechismus, the first printed secular poem in Lithuanian

   Phonogram of the Foreword to Catechismus

The nobility is addressed with the request not only to tell people to attend church, but also to keep an eye on pastors and ensure that they teach people properly; if pastors fail in their duties, the nobility itselves should try to spread the new religion.

But the most important thing is man’s ability to read and understand the truth of faith himself. Earlier, in the absence of printed books, the propagation of faith depended on the will of lords and pastors; now, the simple man will be able to do it himself because he has a book, which is becoming the most important means in the propagation of Christianity. The book marks, in general, the beginning of a new and innovative stage of culture in which the flow of history can be clearly felt, it is the demarcation line between things that were and things that are to be; that is, between the past and the future.


A place of worship
of the Prussian gods

Mosvidius wrote his Lithuanian Foreword in a syntactical-intonational versification system based on the similarity of the syntactical structure of lines, which predetermines the similarity of the intonation, while the number of syllables and the distribution of accents is not exactly defined.

Thus, the Foreword lines today symbolizes today the beginning of the printed Lithuanian word, as well as the beginning of Lithuanian secular poetry. To the historian interested in the history of culture the Foreword offers rich material about the confrontation of Catholicism and the Reformation in Lithuania. To the ethnologist, it gives a much information about old beliefs, and contemporary norms of morality and social relations. It is also one of the earliest attempts to articulate Christian culture in Lithuanian, marking the passage from spoken to written language.

Before the Second World War, the region where Mosvidius had lived belonged to Germany and was referred to as East Prussia. In the history of Lithuanian culture this region was important not only in Mosvidius’ time. In the 18th century, it supported broad Lithuanian cultural activities, publication of religious books, grammars and dictionaries, recording of folkore and so on. The most important cultural event was the publication of The Seasons (1765), a long poem in hexameter and masterpiece of Lithuanian literature by Pastor Kristijonas Donelaitis, who transferred here Hesiod’s and Dellile’s cherished themes into a Lithuanian context.

In the 19th century, Lithuania, incorporated into the Russian Empire after the partitioning of the Polish-Lithuanian state in 1795, was drained by successive, honourable, but hopeless, uprisings. After the uprising of 1863, which sought to restore the Polish-Lithuanian state and was supported large numbers of peasants, the Czarist authorities prohibited the publication of Lithuanian books in Roman alphabet (Lithuanian books were allowed to be published only in Cyrillic alphabet). The ban met with an unexpected and tough resistance that lasted for all of its 40 years: religious and, later, secular books began to be published in East Prussia, where the majority of the population in border regions was still Lithuanian, and smuggled them into the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania. A class of professional ‘book carriers’ emerged. They were cruelly persecuted by the Russian gendarmes - more than 2000 people were punished not only for smuggling books, but also for reading them. This type of resistance, which was at first more religious than patriotic, played an extremely important role: the mutiny against the Russians became not only wider and more popular, but it also made the Lithuanians accustomed to seeing written texts in their own language, and in Roman characters at that. Very soon it became their primary symbol of identifying themselves with Europe.


The first Lithuanian
periodical Ausra

In 1883, twenty years after the 1863 uprising, Ausra, the first Lithuanian periodical of secular patriotic content, was published in Tilsit, a small town in East Prussia on the Lithuanian border, to be followed soon by other publications in Lithuanian. The year 1883 is actually the recognised date marking the beginning of the rebirth of the Lithuanian nation. Thus, Lithuanian national and cultural revival began in a place where Protestant and Catholic cultures intermingled, which is evidence that religious differences were no obstacle to dialogue and projects in common. In one form or another, this situation lasted until the Second World War when the Prussian territory became part of the Soviet Union and the local population, including the Lithuanians who lived in East Prussia, were replaced almost entirely by newcomers from Russia.


Königsberg after
the Second World War

Mosvidius’ Catechismus and his other writings are specially important monuments of Old Lithuanian, and as such they are continually subject to the scrutiny of Baltic linguists. In addition to linguistic information, these texts offer ample material for studies by ethnographers and experts in religious history; the hymns and the forewords written in verse are analysed from the point of view of the history of versification. Mosvidius’ dramatic life, his dedicated efforts to see Lithuanian books published have become popular plots for contemporary Lithuanian fiction. Finally, today Mosvidius and his works, along with The Seasons of Donelaitis, are seen as landmarks reminding us of the vanished country of East Prussia.


Kristijonas Donelaitis'
restored church

The Parliament of the Republic of Lithuania has proclaimed 1997 the Year of the First Lithuanian Book. The date is to be marked not only in Lithuania, but is also in present Kaliningrad, oblast of Russia, where the church building of the former Ragainė parish, served by Pastor Mosvidius, has survived to the present day. The highlight, however, of the observation of this historical date will take place in Lithuania: a special programme of publishing Old Lithuanian texts has been launched. Under the programme, a new facsimile publication of Mosvidius’ works has already appeared and other works important to Lithuanian and Baltic studies (including both manuscripts and publications in other languages associated with Lithuania) are being prepared for or are already in the process of publication.



First pagePrevious pageNext pageLast page
Copyright: BALTOS LANKOS, Vilnius, 1995.