The First Generation of Dissidents and the Emergence of the Lithuanian Book

Dissidentism is a phenomenon of the social and religious life of the 16th century. After the restoration of the Inquisition and the beginning of the Counter-Reformation and persecution of Reformation supporters, dissidentism started to spread in various European countries. Dissidentism is a historical concept, which developed and was used during the spread of the phenomenon in the 16th century and was finally reinforced in the 17th century. The term of religious dissidents in the 16th-17th centuries was used to denote both the persons who had to leave the country on the grounds of religious persecution of prohibition of the professed confession and the representatives of the confessional minority, which was in opposition to the main confession of the state or the country but partly tolerated. The term dissident is of Latin origin and describes a person, sitting separately from the majority.

The shelter of Lithuanian Reformers in Königsberg

Supporters of Reformation in Lithuania and the first persons to criticize the prevailing medieval system of the Church, which was not providing services to the state and the education of its citizens, were born during the period of 1500-1520. Their cultural activities were started during the prohibition of Reformation period (decrees signed by Sigismundus the Old, aimed at a preventive possible spread of “heresy,” and were issued from 1520).

The most prominent representatives of this generation are the three pioneers of the Lithuanian Reformation and written Lithuanian: Stanislovas Rapolionis (Lat. Stanislaus Rapagellanus or Stanislaus Lituanus, Pol. Stanisław Rapajłowicz; c. 1514–1545), Abraomas Kulvietis (Lat. Abraham Culvensis; Pol. Abraham Kulwieć; c. 1510/1512 – June 19, 1545) and  Martynas Mažvydas (Martinus Masvidius; c 1520–1563). Unable to freely and actively engage in their activities in Lithuania, they sought refuge elsewhere. The prerequisite for a successful implementation of cultural projects by the first Lithuanian dissidents was a favourable geopolitical situation which formed in the beginning of the 16th century. In 1525, the neighbouring territory of Samogitia, which had been occupied by the German Order, became a secular Lutheran state – the Duchy of Prussia, the secularized state that emerged from the former Monastic State of the Teutonic Knights. Its ruler, Duke Albert of Brandenburg, proved instrumental in the political spread of Protestantism in its early stage, ruling the Prussian lands for nearly six decades. He was also interested in a possible spread of Protestantism in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and their professing of Protestantism, therefore he generously supported gifted Lithuanians, persecuted in their native country. Over time, Prussia and in particular its capital Königsberg became the shelter place for the first Lithuanian dissidents. It should be noted, however, that the Lithuanian dissidentism was predetermined not by the pursuit of better working and living conditions but by the start of persecution and punishment of the spreaders of Protestantism ideas, based on the Decree of May 19, 1542, against Abraomas Kulvietis and all the heretics. In 1542, after Kulvietis fled from the court proceedings to Prussia, his parents and friends were imprisoned.

The beginnings of the Lithuanian book: three great reformers of the GDL

Abraomas Kulvietis could be called a progenitor of the early generation of Protestants within the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which due to the persecution instigated in 1542 was forced to flee from Lithuania to Prussia. Having settled there, he contributed greatly to the development of written Lithuanian, which for a long time was considerably more widespread and in more literary use in the Prussia land than in Lithuania Proper.

The main cultural ideal of this generation was consolidating education and literacy, in line with the view that the Bible should be read by every Christian.

Abraomas Kulvietis is known as the first man of letters to have started translating Biblical texts into Lithuanian. In the oratio funebris delivered during his funeral (1546), his first biographer and a close friend as well claimed that Abraomas Kulvietis’ deathbed request to his friends was to be promised that sing the canticles translated by him would be sung in the Lithuanian language. Regrettably, the only surviving text, translated into the Lithuanian language prior to 1545, is the Easter canticle Gott sey gelobet und gebenedeiet (May the Lord be Praised and Blessed) by Martin Luther, published in Königsberg in 1570 in the second part of the Christian Song, included in Martynas Mažvydas’ Hymnal. At about the same time, canticles were started to be translated into the Lithuanian language by Stanislovas Rapalionis, the first theologian of Lithuanian Protestants. Having defended his Doctoral Thesis at the University of Wittenberg in 1544, he was shortly afterwards appointed Head of Theology Department at the University of Königsberg, established the same year. The canticle translated by him, entitled  ‘Diewa Tiewa ischmintis, Teisybe deiwistes’ (Lat. Patris sapientia, veritas Divina; Wisdom of God the Father, the truth of divinity) was published in the Hymnal by Martynas Mažvydas.

The activities of publishing the first Lithuanian books, launched by the progenitors of Reformation, both of who died unexpectedly in 1545, were taken over and implemented by Martynas Mažvydas.

The author of the first Lithuanian book was born around 1510–1520 in Western Samogitia (most probably, in the environs of Švėkšna–Žemaičiai, Naumiestis–Gardamas). On June 8, 1546, the Duke of Prussia Albertus Brandenburgensis sent a letter to Martynas Mažvydas, whom he regarded as a highly educated person (an erudite) with an invitation to come to Königsberg. This attests to the fact that Martynas Mažvydas had joined the Reformation movement, which was prohibited in Lithuania at that time, and held Evangelical views. He is believed to have signed one of his letters addressed to the Rector of the University of Königsberg (1548) as protomartyr (the first martyr), proving that he had been persecuted or otherwise experienced suffering in Vilnius due to his active involvement in Reformation activities. In August of 1546, Martynas Mažvydas entered the Lutheran University of Königsberg and completed the studies, graduating the university with a Bachelor’s diploma on April of 1548.

The first book addresses Lithuanians and Samogitians

The basis of the first Lithuanian book consists of the prefaces in Latin and Lithuanian, a short primer, the catechism and a collection of 11 songs (psalms). In the book, the general ideas of early Protestantism and those of basic Lutheranism are declared, such as the light of grace received through faith, the relationship between faith and cognition of the Holy Scripture as the Word of God, two Sacraments (those of Baptism and Eucharist) as the main true features of the true Church as well as others. The Cathecism is the short type of catechism, targeted at less educated people and children. However, in its Lithuanian rhymed preface (Lith. Knygelės pačios byla lietuvininkump ir žemaičium; Eng. The Appeal of The Small Book Itself Unto Lithuanians and Samogitians), the author addresses not only the Lithuanians living in Prussia but the entire Grand Duchy.

In the preface, the emergence of the Lithuanian book and preaching the Word of God in the national language is highlighted as a historical phenomenon.

The catechism is a collection of original and translated texts. Among the original texts, the prefaces and dedications as well as certain inserts of the book are regarded as original. The primer was developed according to the Latin primer by Sauroman (1529), whereas the catechism was written combining two sources of Polish translations of the first Polish Lutheran catechisms, prepared in Königsberg by Jan Seklucjan (1545) and Jan Malecki (1546). In the latter, the part of Urėdai was missing, which had been translated by Martynas Mažvydas from the song, included in the Latin Catechism by Joannes Wilichius (1542). Two biblical songs were translated from the Polish (Hymnal by Jan Seklucjan (1547), Latin and German languages, one of them is believed to be original. Approximately 200-300 copies of the Cathechism are thought to have been printed; only two have survived. One is held at the Vilnius University Library in Lithuania, and another at Torun University Library in Poland.

Literature: Pirmoji lietuviška knyga, Vilnius: Vaga, 1974; Stanislovas Rapolinis, sudarė E. Ulčinaitė, J. Tumelis, Vilnius: Mokslas, 1986; Dainora Pociūtė (ed.), Abraomas Kulvietis: Pirmasis Lietuvos Reformacijos paminklas / The First Recorded Text of the Lithuanian Reformation. Abraomo Kulviečio Confessio fidei ir Johanno Hoppijaus Oratio funebris (1547). Studija, faksimilė, komentuotas leidimas, vertimas į lietuvių kalbą / A Study, Facsimile, a New Edition with Commentaries and Translation into Lithuanian (Monumenta Reformationis Lithuanicae, t. 1), Vilnius: Lietuvių literatūros ir tautosakos institutas, 2011.

Dainora Pociūtė