III. THE FIRST LITHUANIAN BOOK


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

1. The life of Martinus Mosvidius


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The exact date of Mosvidius’ birth is not known, but it is believed that he was born no later than 1520. The first established date in Mosvidius’ biography is 1546 when the Duke of Prussia sent a letter inviting him to Königsberg. During his visit to Vilnius a short time before, the Duke had approached Jonas Bilevièius, a Lithuanian nobleman favourable to the Reformation and had asked him to find a few educated young men who could speak Lithuanian and would like to become Protestant pastors in Eastern Prussia. Accepting the Count’s invitation Mosvidius arrived in Königsberg where he matriculated at the University on August 1, 1546.


An old house
in Königsberg

Mosvidius was not an ordinary student, which can be surmised from a letter Count Albrecht wrote him in which he addressed him as an “honourable and educated” man. Mosvidius graduated from the University in under two years and was granted a Bachelor’s degree. He was in the first group of graduates of Königsberg University, whitch included seven people. Mosvidius was the only Lithuanian among them. It is a well known fact that soon after he started his studies at Königsberg University, Mosvidius handed in his Catechismus for publication at the beginning of 1547.

It is not clear where Mosvidius was educated before he came to Königsberg. At that time, many young Lithuanian gentry attended Cracow Academy or the universities of Germany and Italy. Mosvidius’ name, however, has not been found among them. One thing seems certain - he could not have studied in Germany because even after his graduation from Königsberg University he wrote in a letter to Duke Albrecht: ”I don’t speak German at all,” but “I say I know my mother tongue perfectly well.” There is no doubt, however, that he knew Latin and Polish because he used Polish sources while writing Catechismus and preparing other books for publication. Mosvidius may have been educated at one of the estates of a Lithuanian dignitary, possibly at the College established by Culvensis. Whatever the case may be, Mosvidius seems to have been well known among the Calvinists and had earned the title of Protomartyr, i.e. the first martyr. He added the title in signing a letter to the Rector of Königsberg University, although there is no direct evidence of Mosvidius’ persecution or punishment.


Königsberg University
in the 19th century

Much of the information we have about Mosvidius’ life in Prussia comes from his letters. We know Mosvidius was a poor man - entering the University he paid the smallest matriculation fee and he received a grant from the Duke while studying in Königsberg. Poverty and misery were to dog Mosvidius all his life. He always mentioned this in his letters. For example, after he had already graduated from the University, he approached the Rector of the University in the autumn of 1548 asking him to procure some suitable clothes for him from the Duke, for winter was approaching and he had “only torn and very shabby” ones. Some time later, he wrote to the Duke himself complaining that he could not stay in Königsberg any longer: “Due to the miserly grant I can no longer live here in any suitable manner.”


Ragainė at the begining
of the 17 century

In the spring of 1549 Mosvidius was appointed pastor of Ragaine parish, which at that time was still a completely Lithuanian district. There he met the eldest daughter of the previous German pastor who had died a few years before leaving a large family. According to tradition, Mosvidius had to marry her and had to pledge to take care of her brothers and sisters to the end of his life. His material circumstances were never quite easy, and more than once, Mosvidius was forced to ask the Duke for some sort of support, for instance, to be given better and more closely located farm land. At the end of his life, Mosvidius wrote to the Duke asking him directly to be freed from unsuccessful farming and given an annuity from the state treasury. The Count, however, refused Mosvidius’ request.


Mosvidius' church today

Mosvidius' parishioners also gave him a lot of trouble. As he put it, they "thought little of Christian religion, and understood nothing at all about the prayers to God and the canons of faith;" they, he said, tried to evade practising religion, and thus church attendance was very poor. Mosvidius admitted that he had little hope of achieving any definite progress in his parishioners’ religious habits. According to Jurgis Gerullis, a researcher of Mosvidius' heritage, the conflict was aggravated by the fact that “the Lithuanians had changed their religion not of their own free will but were forced to do so by the authorities. The day before they had been Catholics, the next day they were called Protestants. They seemed, however, to have remained what they had been: poor, overworked, and undernourished wretches; they did not care about the religious struggles of their lords, unlike the clergy, they simply had no time for scuffles or abuses over such problems" (Tauta ir zodis, IV, 1926, p. 426-27).

It is not known whether Mosvidius ever visited Lithuania Major after his appoinment in Ragaine, but the dedications in his books indicate that, in general, he had the Lithuanian reader in mind. His books seemed to circulate all over Lithuania, which was becoming more and more involved in the Reformation movement.

Mosvidius’ books, his letters of high epistolary standards and other authentic facts of his biography allow us to consider him to have been a man of considerable erudition and literary culture, educated in the humanistic tradition characteristic of his time. On becoming pastor of Ragaine parish, he did not terminate his "studies" so as to be able to continue producing religious books in Lithuanian which were necessary for Protestant churches both in Prussia and Lithuania. That was the reason why he was supported by the highest authorities of Prussia. Mosvidius died in Ragaine on May 21, 1563.


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Copyright: BALTOS LANKOS, Vilnius, 1995.