WORDS WRITTEN FROM A VISION
Talk given at the New York Public Library on April 2,
by Elona M. Vaisnys, Yale University
It is an honor and a privilege to pay tribute to the first book in the Lithuanian language and a joy to be paying this tribute in the New York Public Library that houses within its magnificent walls books about most peoples of the world.
The first book printed in Lithuanian rolled off the presses in the 16th century, a century of great intellectual excitement and energy-releasing religious controversy in Europe.
That first Lithuanian book was called Catechismus and its editor/compiler/translator/author was a twenty-seven year-old university student by the name of Martynas Mažvydas. Mažvydas dedicated his book to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania andhoped that it would serve the public good through broad-based religious education.
This book was to provide for various needs. One was literacy. Thus, it included the Lithuanian alphabet and a primer to teach reading. Included was also a catechism presenting basic tenets of belief such as the ten commandments, also prayers and excerpts from the Bible (the very first translations of the Bible into Lithuanian), and eleven church hymns. There was also a 112-line poem by Mažvydas, encouraging all readers of his book to teach the truths contained therein to their sons... and their daughters...and also to their hired help.
Mažvydas had help with preparing his seventy-nine page volume. Other people had worked on compiling the material and on the translations from Latin, Polish and German texts; but Mažvydas was responsible for about two thirds of the contents.
Little is known about Mažvydas until he turned twenty-six, but indications are that he was well educated and that he was involved with some of the brightest minds in Lithuania and, like them, was inspired by ideas radiating from Germany. There, a monk and a priest, Martin Luther, had shaken up the complacency and the worldly lifestyle of the Roman Catholic Church with his call for fundamental reforms.
Luther's ideas found favor among some powerful nobles in Lithuania who especially liked his emphasis on using the vernacular in church affairs. The nobles wished to bolster Lithuanian political separateness from Poland which was exerting a strong influence on Lithuania by way of the Catholic Church. Thus, a school was founded to teach the reformist beliefs and soon sixty students were enrolled; (sixty students was considered a large school at that time). Mažvydas seems to have been connected with this school in some capacity.
But the intellectual hotbed of the new ideas was west of Lithuania, in Prussia, especially its capital, Königsberg. One by one educated Lithuanians felt drawn to Königsberg-a Lithuanian brain drain was in progress.
The Catholic Church became alarmed and would launch the Counter Reformation. In the second half of the 16th century it would invite to Lithuania an outstanding order of educators and missionaries - the Jesuits. The latter would counter the spread of Lutheranism in Lithuania by opening an academy which evolved into the renowned University of Vilnius (it celebrated its 400th anniversary in 1979).
But, back to Mažvydas.
In 1546, twenty-six-year-old Mažvydas received a letter from Duke Albrecht von Brandenburg. The ruler of Prussia was inviting Mažvydas to come to Königsberg to pursue his studies and promised financial support. Mažvydas was eager to go where the intellectual action was and accepted the offer. Let us put Mažvydas on hold, while we take a look at Duke Albrecht and Königsberg.
First, let us back up a few centuries.
To the west of Lithuania lived a Baltic tribe, the Prussians. Together with, to the east, the Lithuanians and the Latvians they formed one linguistic group. In the 13th century the Prussians were conquered by the Teutonic Knights and that would be the beginning of their end. The Prussians are now extinct, and even the name of the land they once inhabited, Prussia, is now fading from memory.
Upon vanguishing the Prussians, the Teutonic Knights built a mighty castle on a hill, called it Königsberg ("the king's mountain"), and made it the capital of Prussia. Now the formidable monastic, militaristic order concentrated on converting to Christianity the heathen Lithuanians, believers in the sacredness of nature.
The Teutonic Knights attacked, and attacked again and again. But the Lithuanians beat them back in the 13th century, and in the 14th, and in the 15th, when they joined forces with the Poles and dealt the Teutonic Knights a crippling blow (Lithuanians are bursting with pride to this day about that victory in 1410!).
The letter that invited Mažvydas to Königsberg came from none other than the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, Albrecht von Brandenburg. The last Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights. Duke Albrecht had found the teachings of Martin Luther so persuasive that he had converted to Lutheranism, secularized Prussia, and closed down the Order of the Teutonic Knights. He would devote his energies to spreading literacy, education, and Luther's teachings.
He founded a university at Königsberg and sought out excellence far and wide, attracted it, and engaged it in his mission. A Lithuanian was the professor of the most important discipline, philosophy, at the University of Königsberg, and so was the professor of Greek. Duke Albrecht cast his net wide for the best and the brightest students, and Mažvydas was among them.
Mažvydas was twenty-six and already highly educated when he enrolled at the University of Königsberg. He must have been bright, because he not only finished his studies in three semesters instead of the customary eight but, while involved with his studies, he was also assembling material for a book and preparing translations of text into Lithuanian from Latin, Polish, and German. How exciting it must have been to be young and idealistic and involved in such heady endeavors!
In his book Mažvydas published a long poem, the beginning of which every schoolchild in Lithuania learns by heart:
"Brothers, sisters, take me and read,
And as you read, reflect upon that which you are reading.
Your forbears yearned for this knowledge,
But they had no means to acquire it."
Words written from a vision of what a book could do, not from reality. Because in 16th century Lithuania, as in the rest of Europe, the average brother and the average sister were...illiterate, and free, public libraries were still several centuries in the future.
His book was printed in 1547. The press run was 200 to 300 copies, which was an average run at that time. Two copies survive to our day; one is kept at the University of Vilnius in Lithuania and the other is at the University of Torune in Poland.
A year after his book appeared, Mažvydas finished his studies and one year later, at the age of twenty nine, he became a Lutheran pastor. He was assigned a Lithuanian congregation in Rogainė, East Prussia (also known as "Lithuania Minor").
The former pastor of Ragainė had died six years earlier, leaving a widow with nine children. Mažvydas married one of his predecessor's daughters and assumed responsibility for his wife's eight brothers and sisters. From his letters we know that Mažvydas found life as a pastor difficult. His parishioners had lived without the guidance of clergy for six years and Mažvydas had difficulty getting them to observe churchly practices. Nor did he have the talent or the inclination for the mundane aspects of running a parsonage. That, and the size of his family, meant that he was much of the time short of funds.
Besides, he really preferred the life of the mind. He requested to be relieved of pastoral duties so that he could devote himself to intellectual pursuits, but his request was denied. And so, Mažvydas stayed faithful to his duties until his death at the age of forty three (toward the end of his life he did become more successful as a pastor and his finances improved). He also prepared five more manuscripts for publication, three of which were published posthumously. Mažvydas was buried in Ragainė, East Prussia.
* * *
Lithuania's intellectual history owes much to Prussia, as does Germany's and Poland's. As does the world- every time the name of Immanuel Kant comes up in a course on ethics. Kant was born and lived all his life in Prussia and did all his teaching at the University of Königsberg.
In the 18th century another Lithuanian Lutheran pastor in East Prussia, Donelaitis, would write an extraordinary literary work, The Seasons, evoking life among Lithuanian peasants in East Prussia. In the 19th century, when Lithuania was under Russian rule, Lithuanians were forbidded under penalty of incarceration or exile to Siberia the possession and even more so printing of Lithuanian books and newspapers in the Roman alphabet. So, Lithuanian books and newspaper would be printed in East Prussia and "book carriers" would smuggle them into Lithuania. Two thousand of these brave men - and women! - were exiled to Siberia for their commitment to the Lithuanian printed word (this prohibition was in force for 40 years, until 1904).
In 1945, East Prussia, including Königsberg, was occupied by the Soviet Union, and a year later the name of Königsberg was changed-after 700 years - to "Kaliningrad" in honor of Mikhail Kalinin, a member of the Soviet Politburo and head of the Supreme Soviet. The population of Königsberg and East Prussia was eliminated or fled, and 400,000 Russians were immediately resettled in their place, to be following shortly by an additional 400,000.
* * *
The church where Mažvydas preached with increasing success stands to this day, and Königsberg continues to live in books, for all to discover its rich history. Mažvydas has returned in spirit to Lithuania proper: the state library bears his name and annual seminars are devoted to his continuing resonance in Lithuanian consciousness. His 112-line poem from Catechismus is considered the beginning of Lithuanian literature. And now, Mažvydas' words can even be heard around the globe (spoken by Laimonas Noreika, a distinguished actor) on the world wide web, "Broliai, seserys, imkit mane ir skaitykit."
Let us pay tribute, then, to Martynas Mažvydas who gave to the Lithuanian people the first book in their own language, thereby changing their life.