Lithuanian Literature and Language

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LITHUANIAN LITERATURE AND LANGUAGE. In the early modern period large portions of the societies of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania underwent Polonization. Polish began to function as a language of culture, politics, commerce, and some daily conversation (even if with a regional accent) for magnates, gentry, and burghers, and there was likely a growing bilingualism among all but rural speakers of the other represented languages. These included above all Lithuanian and Ruthenian (ruskii), an East Slavic language that would eventually be claimed as the progenitor of modern Belarusian and Ukrainian. Both Lithuanian and Ruthenian were used for certain cultural purposes in this period, and this entry will focus on them.

Speakers of other languages were also present. Lithuanian Jews spoke Yiddish and wrote in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish. The first Hebrew presses in the Grand Duchy were established at Shklov (1783) and Hrodna (1788). German-speaking merchants were present in cities like Vilnius and Kaunas. Lithuanian Tatars originally spoke a Kipchak Turkic language, but numbers of them quickly assimilated linguistically and used forms of Belarusian or Polish in their kitabs (manuscript books of religious stories, legends, fairy tales, and prayers), which they wrote down in the Arabic alphabet. Courland and Livonia were incorporated into the Commonwealth in 1561, and the first book in Latvian, a Catholic catechism, was printed in Vilnius in 1585.


Lithuanian elites of the Grand Duchy quickly became Ruthenianized and Polonized, so that the Lithuanian language came to have a highly circumscribed area of use, and monolingual speakers in the later part of the period were peasants. By the early seventeenth century, gentry and burghers of all ethnicities and confessions spoke Polish. The chancery language of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was Ruthenian until 1697, when it was supplanted by Polish and Latin.

The situation was quite different in Lithuania Minor. After the Peace of Toruń of 1466, a defeated Order of Teutonic Knights established a new capital at Königsberg. Lithuanian speakers were the largest non-German ethnic group in a much diminished Ducal Prussia. With the secularization of the order in 1525 and the introduction of Lutheranism as the state religion, Königsberg became a center for Protestant learning and propaganda, drawing students and professors from neighboring states, including Poland and Lithuania. Lithuanian had higher status in the public life of Ducal Prussia than in the Grand Duchy, finding use in a broader range of institutions (some schools and a large Lithuanian parish in Königsberg).

The oldest printed book in Lithuanian, the Lutheran catechism of Martynas Mažvydas, was printed at Königsberg in 1547. Mažvydas (c. 15201563) also produced two volumes of hymns (1566 and 1570). In 1579 Baltramiejus Vilentas (15251587) published in one volume Luther's small catechism (Enchiridion) and a translation of the Gospels and Epistles. The Lutheran clergyman Jonas Bretkunas (15361602) published a hymnal and a prayer book (1589) and a two-volume collection of sermons (1591), and he worked on an unpublished Bible translation.

The union with Brandenburg in 1618 and the decline of Ducal Prussia from the 1620s led to a lowering of the status of Lithuanian in Prussian society. Nonetheless, these early works of Lutheran church literature provided a basis for the development of written Lithuanian in the Grand Duchy and an impetus for Catholic authorities to respond in kind. In the Grand Duchy, two competing forms of written Lithuanian emerged, a variant based on the central dialects of Samogitia and a second that favored the eastern variant of historic Lithuania with its seat around Vilnius. The canon of the episcopal college of the Samogitia diocese Mikalojus Daukša (d. 1613) produced the first Lithuanian book printed in the Grand Duchy; it was a translation of the Spanish Jesuit Diego de Ledesma's Catholic catechism (1595). In 1599 he produced a translation of the Polish Jesuit Jakub Wujek's monumental postil, which he prefaced with a Polish-language defense of the Lithuanian language. These two works quickly drew a Calvinist response. Merkelis Petkevičius, a clerk at the Vilnius court and supreme tribunal, published a catechism and small hymnal in 1598, and Jokūbas Morkūnas published a translation of the Calvinist Mikołaj Rej's Polish postil in 1600. These were all works in the central dialects that would play a leading role in the nineteenth-century revival.

The eastern dialect was employed in a second translation of Ledesma's Catholic catechism (1605) and by the Jesuit Konstantinas Širvydas (Szyrwid) in his Latin-Polish-Lithuanian dictionary (Dictionarium Trium Linguarum, before 1620, 1631, 1642, 1677, 1713, and 1718) and in his bilingual (Polish and Lithuanian) collection of sermons published in Vilnius (vol. 1, 1629; vol. 2, 1644). Public use of Lithuanian declined dramatically in the second half of the seventeenth and throughout the eighteenth centuries, a result of the increasing Polonization of all but peasant societies in the Grand Duchy.


Historians of Belarusian language and literature lay claim to a portion of early modern Ruthenian (ruskii). This was a language at only the earliest stages of normalization, spoken and written by the Orthodox and Uniates of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and, by the mid-seventeenth century, showing the beginnings of differentiation from Ukrainian variants. In this genetic schema, the language is sometimes called "Middle Belarusian." Texts manifesting Ukrainian and Belarusian features were all labeled Ruthenian. They circulated and were read throughout the Ruthenian lands; moreover, some writers from Ukrainian lands, whose texts contained Ukrainian features, were active and printed their works in centers more closely connected with Belarus (e.g., Vilnius).

Ruthenian chronicles brought the history of Rus' into the period of its incorporation into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, telling of the events of the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries (the Chronicle of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, the First, Second, and Third Belarusian Chronicles ). The pioneer printer Frantsishak Skaryna employed a version of the language in the forty-nine exegetical prefaces to the books of his Church Slavonic Bible (15171525). The Protestant minister Szymon Budny published a Ruthenian catechism at Niasvizh in 1562, and the Antitrinitarian Vasil' Cjapinski published fragments of a Ruthenian New Testament in the 1570s. Ruthenian served as a medium for testaments and much state, diplomatic, and private correspondence, as well as all chancery and legal functions in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania until the Union of Lublin (1569), which ushered in an accelerating Polonization. Lithuanian elites, who had first Ruthenianized, nowalong with Ruthenian elitesmade increasingly broad use of Polish. Ruthenian nonetheless remained the chancery language of the Grand Duchy until 1697, when it was officially replaced by the Polish that had been making steady gains in practical employment throughout the seventeenth century. In addition to the use of Ruthenian in the record books of the Grand Duchy's courts and chancery, we may note the three versions of the Lithuanian Statute, which were printed in Ruthenian in 1529, 1566, and 1588. We also have memoirs (Fiodar Ieŭlasheŭski, 15461604; Afanasii Filipovich, c. 15971648) and a few sermons (Laontsii Karpovich, c. 15801620) and polemical works from the period immediately following the Union of Brest (1596). Simeon Polotskii (16291680) was the leading practitioner of syllabic verse (based on Polish models) in Belarusian. This variant of Ruthenian declined in public use and social status with the shift of Ruthenian cultural centers to Ukrainian cities (Lviv, then Kiev) and with the increasing Polonization of Belarusian elites.

See also Belarus ; Polish Literature and Language ; Reformations in Eastern Europe: Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox ; Ukrainian Literature and Language .


Primary Source

Rothe, Hans, ed. Die älteste ostslawische Kunstdichtung, 15751647. Bausteine zur Geschichte der Literatur bei den Slawen, vol. 7. Giessen, Germany, 19761977.

Secondary Sources

Martel, Antoine. La langue polonaise dans les pays Ruthènes: Ukraine et Russie Blanche, 15691657. Lille, France, 1938.

McMillin, Arnold B. Die Literatur der Weissrussen: A History of Byelorussian Literature: From Its Origins to the Present Day. Bausteine zur Geschichte der Literatur bei den Slawen, vol. 6. Giessen, Germany, 1977.

Zinkevičius, Zigmas. The History of the Lithuanian Language. Vilnius, 1996.

David Frick