Skip Navigation Links The Library of Congress >> Researchers
European Reading Room: European Division, Area Studies
  Home >> Public Programs

The First Lithuanian Book - the 450 Anniversary

Remarks by Vytautas Landsbergis,
Chairman of the Lithuanian Seimas
Library of Congress, Washington, DC
June 19, 1997

Ladies and Gentlemen,

When 450 years ago Lithuanians took into their hands the first Lithuanian book, our nation had already a long history and rich cultural heritage. Let me say some words about it.

On the eastern seaboard of the Baltic Sea, there is a country called Lithuania. The very name of that Sea is Balto-Lithuanian - because balta etymologically means the white sea, in further connotation signifying clear, bright and honest. Apparently, for many thousands of years, she looked that way, foamy white, caressing beaches of light sand, and reflecting caravans of white clouds in her silvery green-grey waters.

The tribes and nations, which had so named their Sea, were later given the common scientific name Balts, as though in turn derived from the Sea. Actually though two thousand years ago those Baltic tribes had inhabited a large territory between what are now Berlin and Moscow, and in such an extensive land area they were linked not by the Sea, but by language, religion and custom. The language, the most ancient Indo-European and the most similar to Sanskrit, now links only a very small Baltic language family, only Lithuanians and Latvians. Two other Baltic languages that were known in the past, Prussian and Sudavian, have perished.

Present-day Lithuania and Latvia are all that remain after two thousand years of Slavic and Germanic expansion, conquest and assimilation.

After the Teutonic Knights occupied the lands of Old Prussia and Western Lithuania, but did not manage to break the resistance of the state of Lithuania dating back to the thirteenth century, the Eastern coast of the Baltic sea saw the formation of the state by the Teutonic Order which, with the expansion of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, became a secular duchy. The majority of its countryside population were Lithuanians and Prussians. The last were already standing on the brink of extinction and assimilation. The state capital Koenigsberg, or Karaliaucius in Lithuanian, became a university city, the pivot of culture. This was the place where Immanuel Kant, whose genealogical roots, as researchers claim, reach both Scotland and Lithuania, lived and worked. The territory between Koenigsberg and the Lithuanian state border was still called 'Lithuania Minor', and later, up to the twentieth century - 'Prussia's Lithuania'. This was the cradle of the written Lithuanian literature: it faced the appearance of the first Lithuanian book, the anniversary of which we are celebrating today, the translation of the Bible into Lithuanian, the preparation of the first grammar of the Lithuanian language and the most famous work of Lithuanian poetry - the poem "The Seasons" by a Lithuanian Lutheran pastor, K. Donelaitis. It was published here as well as the first collection of Lithuanian folk songs in the nineteenth century already.

You see, Ladies and Gentlemen, it was not an accident that "The Simple Words of the Catechism" by Martynas Mazvydas - in Latin Mosvidius - appeared there.

The first Lithuanian book is now four hundred and fifty years old - this is an occasion for us to share our joy that significant publications have appeared and remarkable events - as this commemoration in Washington - have been organized. At the same time it is an opportunity to collect our thoughts and think a little. What does a book mean to a nation, a state, to the multinational human civilization? What did the first book mean to a then divided European nation, to the common people, including the fact that it was almost entirely in Lithuanian; and what did it mean with its wonderful manifold contents?

Any book is a created innovation, and, simultaneously, an accumulation and reflection of different things that existed before it. Books store and convey the knowledge and the wisdom of the people's community and the whole humanity. A book becomes a written message of a nation and a continuation of its spirit, and this gives another stimulus for a new creative work.

Martynas Mazvydas understood the special significance of his deal, even its national-cultural meaning: a Lithuanian book is coming out! Having completed the Catechism, he adds as if a postscript "To the Reader":

Brolau mielasis, skaitydams tatai zinosi,
Jog tasai liezuvis dabar reiskiasi.

'My dear brother, you will realize while reading
that now this very language manifests itself'.

And the preface - "The speech of the book itself"- written in verse announces joyfully:

Ko tevai niekada neregejo,
Nun sitai viss jusump atejo!

'What our fathers have never seen before
now all that came to you'.

He understood especially well a twofold value of the book, that is, the content conveyed by it and the form given to that content. Here are the teachings of Christ and my work, Martynas Mazvydas states explicitly at the end of the Catechism, the main part of the book. It is his reminder to the readers, and even a forewarning in the name of Jesus Christ:

Prasau as jus, Lietuvinikus ir Zemaicius, milosius bralius ir seseris, ... idant ta, trumpa maksla ismaktumet, ... a sita mana darba, ir prakaita, uz ger preimtumbet, prasau.
'I beg you, the Lithuanians and the Samogitians, my dear brothers and sisters...., to learn this short teaching, ... and to accept my labor and my sweat in good faith, I beg you'.

Mazvydas could indeed take pride in his well thought and consistent work as an author and a compiler. Let us take a look at it and we shall understand it better. His book is systematic and contains as if four parts. The introductory part - about the purpose of work - is a dedication to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, an encouragement and an explanation in Latin to Lithuanian priests, and then there is the famous rhymed introduction in Lithuanian - a speech of "the little book itself" "to the Lithuanians and the Samogitians".

The next is a very short or, as Mazvydas puts it, "cheap and short teaching in reading and writing": four pages altogether and just is "the end of this teaching". It is a primary book which contains an alphabet, an explanation of "vowels, diphthongs and consonants", formation of syllables and a final didactic warning: "A wise teacher will no longer encumber a child with syllabisation. Instead, he has to teach him immediately to read.'

Teach from what? - here this practical question can be put.

From reading-books, of course. They are those "simple words of the catechism" that we find on the next page, for simple people and "especially for the farmers' sons and household members."

As simple as this. If you do not learn to read you will not be able to read the catechism. And, on the other hand, while learning to read you are already reading the catechism. You add vowels to consonants and learn both teachings: the earthly and the divine one.

This is the most important, the main part of the book. It contains the Ten Commandments, the Credo, the Lord's Prayer - Our Father, the Sacraments and also the fifth stanza of the catechism "about the law of stewards, life of every man, how one should live in his standing by the will of God." These are the principles or rules to the rich, the farmers and the servants, men, women and children, their mutual obligations.

Then a book of hymns and music follows, with beautiful explanations by Mazvydas, like the one where at long last he identifies the language of the book by its name: Lithuanian. He notes: "Patrem" in Lithuanian should be sung on the same note as "Wyr gleuben all an einen Got" in German. But for the sake of the students I spared no time to write down the music." Therefore, there are eleven hymns more, and almost all of them with music.

The work of Mazvydas is composed of several parts, although it is referred to as a "little book" which so introduces itself in the preface written in verse. However, on the title page he emphasizes the word "catechism", and we can see that in the book's metrics he uses singular masculine: "isbruktas" in Karaliaucius through Hans Weinreich. Not a book or a little book, which in Lithuanian is feminine, but a catechism that was "isbruktas", that is, printed 450 years ago in Karaliaucius.

You see, in this metrics - in the first printed Lithuanian text - an old Lithuanian name of the Koenigsberg city is testified. The Prussian language was still in use (the Prussian catechism appeared published at the same time). However the most ancient Prussian city name, Tvanksta, was already a memory.

The rhymed preface is full of contents very important to Lithuanian literature. "Take and read me, and learn me while reading" - this is an expectation and an entreaty of every book, the high purpose of each of them, and especially of that which declared: "This is how the word of the Kingdom of Heaven will reach you."

Mazvydas says there that "parents" had always wanted education, but they could never attain it in any way. Now there is a way to achieve this - through your own language, our native tongue, just take and read it!

Read! All of you who had been left in darkness, uneducated, worshiping all kinds of gods and devils, like the countryman quoted by Mazvydas as answering his priest: he'd rather eat a rooster with a "holy witch" than go to church to listen to the invocation of those preachers...

For the harvest, the countrymen still used to address pagan gods zempaciai and lauksargiai, and for health - goblins, just like nowadays. It seems that they took great care of their health because the book says in a commanding tone:

Sveikata,, visus daiktus nuog to Dievo turit,
Kurio prisakymus cia manip regit.
... Sveikata, ir palaimi tasai gal priduoti.
... Aitvars ir deives to negal padaryti.

'Health and all other things come from that God,
whose commandments I have laid down.
... He can give you health and blessings.
... Brownies and goddesses cannot do this'.

Amid the various joys and sorrows, reprimands and advice, we also find "the book itself " giving the following instruction:

Jei kas sventa, giesme, nor giedot,
mane po akimis savo tur turet

'If anyone intends to sing a holy hymn,
they must have me in front of their eyes'

This is a short preliminary introduction into the hymnal to be found at the end of the book. You see, everything in this book is functional.

This first book marked the start of the Lithuanian written language which in itself meant many other starts.

The Lithuanian language, which 'now manifests itself', was perceived as common for all, used by both the Lithuanians and Samogitians. What did Mazvydas have in mind, when he stated that the language 'now manifests itself'? Did he mean that this manifestation is taking place only now. or that it will continue from now on? Both senses are adequate and significant.

The first Lithuanian guide to religious beliefs came into being, which, among other things, contained the rules of a Christian way of life, indeed, the 'instructions' for all ranks and classes, as if representing some moral code.

The first primer - a text-book for reading in Lithuanian - also contained a hymnal, the source for studying the musical language in notes, again meant for 'the young ones'.

The first poem contained an invention contrived in it, an acrostic with the name of the author, as well as an ethnographic insight into the bad habits of Lithuanians and Samogitians.

There were the first dictums in the shape of epigrams, disapproving of laziness:

Suneliai, mokykites veikiaus, nepateikit (=netingekit),
Pateikaudami tev lobio netrekit (=tinginiaudami nesvaistykit)

'Dearest sons, learn, do not idle,
Do not waste your parents' wealth idling'.

The first neologisms were in this text, which illustrated an attempt to avoid loan-words, and to enrich the language from its own resources.

There also was the first urge to educate oneself responsibly - even women and servants should educate themselves, that is all without exception democratic Lithuanians and Samogitians - and the first didactic instructions to the educators.

The first and almost unique permission of a Lithuanian author to correct and improve his work (if only not the last).

The first Lithuanian writer's friendly address to his critics, asking for help:

Todrin, jei rasi koki paklydima,
Pataisyk be visokio uzvydejimo.

'Thus, if you find a mistake,
Correct it without any jealousy'.

The first book is not so very much removed from our times as it may seem from a 450th anniversary's perspective. Even as a text-book of Lithuanian it had been used comparatively recently, as when someone in Odessa decided to learn Lithuanian, a unique copy of Mazvydas was discovered on the bookshelves...

This exceptionally rare book became well known, and returned to Lithuania.

Thus, today we reflect on the book, but not just the book. In the first place it deals with people. The book, in every way, is the monument to their activities - sometimes to the life's work even of a single person.

Martynas Mazvydas' pastoral, cultural and educational work linked Vilnius with Koenigsberg, Lithuania Proper with Lithuania Minor. It formed a valuable part of Baltic region heritage, with an affinity to be known more widely in order to enrich people of different nations. To that end we will have to keep returning to this the book again and again.

Two decades ago the West was being told that the Gutenberg's Galaxy, that is to say, European and all other civilization based on the publishing of books, was expiring, and only TV was to remain.

However, this prediction did not come true. Today we recognize the old shape and the new shape of the book as well as its role. "The young ones" and the students of our times read and write using computers; they list the Internet pages throughout the entire globe. We take part in the problems and changes of our civilization. Lithuania also exists in this world, as does the Lithuanian book and its forefather Mazvydas.

Lithuania survived for the reason that there was the Lithuanian language, because there was the book, and because there was Mazvydas.

Truly it is marvelous that there was a man whose name was Mazvydas.

  Top of Page Top of Page
  Home >> Public Programs
  The Library of Congress >> Researchers
  September 21, 2010
Legal | External Link Disclaimer

Contact Us:  
Ask a Librarian