Commemorative Publications and the Emergence of Periodicals

The majority of the literate society in the 16th-17th centuries believed that the book had to provide not only (and not largely) aesthetic pleasure but rather “a more tangible” benefit. Book publication was an expensive business. Furthermore, no strong middle class had formed in Lithuania during the historic period in question, which could have afforded and been willing to buy books as a means of spending one’s pastime. However, in the last quarter of the 16th century, when printing-houses started to emerge in Vilnius one after another, a belief started to spread among the political and economic elite of the country that to be immortalized in a printed text is the strongest guarantee of the earthly immortality. It was believed that a description of a certain event, considered important to the society and the state, protects that particular event from fading into oblivion and makes it part of the history. Therefore, the fashion of occasional publications, taken over from the West, soon found its way in Lithuania and became strongly ingrained in its culture, staying as its   important part for a long time. Special books were released to commemorate various occasions, such as coronation and visits of the royal family, appointment of new bishops, voivods and hetmons, military victories, marriages and name-days of the nobility, birth of heirs, even the start and the end of the Sejm term of office. A separate group of publications is made of funeral publications, for which texts of special genre and content were created.

Commemorative publications: a ticket to eternity for those who can afford it

Commemorative books were of different structure. Often, in addition to several introductory texts, the entire book consists of a long piece of artwork of traditional genre, taken over from antiquity, e.g., an eulogy in prose or verse, an epithalamium (congratulation on the occasion of the wedding/a poem written specifically for the bride on the way to her marital chamber), an epinician (congratulation on the occasion of victory) or a funeral sermon. Collections of minor texts (epigrams, literary emblems, etc.) were also published. The majority of such publications released in Lithuania, contain the texts written by professors and students of Jesuit Colleges and Vilnius Academy. In this particular case, demand is closely related to the supply, since analysis of samples of various genres ad independent creative work was an important integral part of studies in those days. Often, such works were first and foremost used as a literary component of public festivities: students, clad in allegorical figures, used to recite them standing next to the decorative triumphant arches; other poems were used to decorate the arches, obelisks, pyramids, “fortresses of grief” and other commemorative decorations. After the end of festivities, the best texts were published in a separate book.

The list of topics used for commemorative eulogies is restricted, and the content was standardized, therefore the only sphere the authors could compete in was not for the depth of thought but for the ingenuity and mastery of poetic craft. The period in question was a heyday of commemorative literature, with a variety of literary games coming to the fore. It has to be noted, though, that strict rules were laid down and had to be followed. The rules were also incorporated in the curriculum of the colleges and universities. Thus, men of letters created acrostics and chronostics (the poems, the letters of which denote the Roman numerals as well, such as M, D, C, L, X, V, I, upon summing them up, the desired dates are obtained), anagrams, various enigmas (rhymed verse, charades), rebuses (puzzles), and many other literary games. figurative texts.

Furthermore, almost every book with no exception, starting with the end of the 16th century up to the third quarter of the 18th century, was dedicated to a certain influential person and decorated with his coat-of-arms, accompanied by an epigram about the figures portrayed in the coat-of-arms.

The coat-of-arms of the same nobleman could be used in different publications. However, it was a matter of honour for the authors of epigrams to devise a new interpretation of the coat-of-arms in question each time it was used.

One-off newspapers covered the military victories and gossips about the elite

Do You Know?

Literary historians have conducted a thorough research of the aforementioned commemorative literature. However, little known is the fact that starting with the 70-ies of the 16th century, one-off commemorative informative publications were released in Vilnius, the so-called “flyers,” often referred to as ephemeridos (that is, one-off publications). They can be regarded as predecessors of newspapers, a new kind of writing at that time. The ephemeridos promptly informed the public about the significant events and were highly saleable. Unfortunately, only an insignificant part of such publications has survived up to our days. Such flyers used to go from hand to hand, until eventually they were thoroughly used up and totally worn out. The ephemeridos were released not in the form of a usual newspaper, but as small-format books, on the cover of which merely the year (not the month or the day of publication) was indicated by the publisher.

Publications covering political and military topics account for the largest part of the surviving one-off newspapers.

During the Livonian war, King of Poland Stephen Báthory established the so-called “flying printing-house” with the aim of printing flyers. The portable printing-house was moved together with the military camp. The very next day after winning the Battle of Ula (on 26 January 1564), Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Red sent a letter, which contained a full description of the Battle, to Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black. The latter immediately made all the necessary arrangements so have the information printed and disseminated. Such notifications from the front were translated into foreign languages and spread all over Europe.

Yet another group of the ephemeridos could be called “the nobility chronicles.” Such publications covered a detailed narration of various festivities, most often royal gala. The descriptions included not only the course of the ceremony but also the street decoration, the clothes and jewellery of the participants, the colours of the flags and coat-of-arms and even the food laid on the tables.

Some literary historians claim that the short poems by Pedro Ruiz de Moros about the funeral of Sigismund the Old and about the first and third marriage of Sigismund Augustus should be classified not as pieces of poetry but as poetical reportages.

The poem by the Polish historian Maciej Stryjkowski about Henry Valois arrival in Krakow and his crowning the King of Poland is regarded the most detailed and thorough narration of the historical event, often referred to as relatio (notification, recital).

The third group of the ephemeridos consists of the publications about sensational events and all sorts of strange and tragic accidents, for example, about an unusual behaviour observed among animals, prophetic signs in the sky, natural disasters, brutal murders and executions. Even then, sensational rumours were known to have been published. For example, two ephemeridos have survived about the Great Fire which devastated Vilnius in 1645, with different interpretations of the causes. According to the first explanation, the perpetrator was a reckless baker, whereas in the other interpretation it was claimed that treacherous Muscovites should be recognized as malicious arsonists. It should be noted, though, that not a single historical document gives any mention of the fire ravaging Vilnius that year.

Often, one-off newspapers of defamatory content were released and disseminated, targeted at political or religious propaganda.

The texts both of glorifying and disparaging or offensive nature, included into the commemorative publications of the 16th-18th centuries, could be regarded as part of mass creativity, popular at that time. It was an important part of the public cultural life, providing a unique opportunity for young talents to show their worth and talent. Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski, the most prominent poet of Lithuanian Baroque, is also known to have embarked on this creative path by composing commemorative poems.

Eglė Patiejūnienė