(The following is a post by Helen Fedor, Reference Specialist, European Division.)
Slovenian children in the 19th-century commonly learned to read using primers, or ABC-books, and then graduated to readers — books composed specially for practice in reading gradually-more-difficult texts. Texts for readers are selected, or written, for a specific level of reading ability, and can also be lessons in themselves. The Library of Congress collection of readers (in many languages) includes around 30 Slovenian primers and readers dating from 1853 to 1981.
The first printed Slovenian book, an attempt to standardize the Slovenian language and to teach people how to read it, was written by Primož Trubar (Primus Truber, 1508-86), a Slovenian clergyman living in exile in Germany. His “Abecedarium” (Primer), published in 1550, was a result of the Reformation’s insistence that individuals read the Bible for themselves, in their own language (rather than Latin, which very few common people knew). Later primers were given the Slovenian title “Abecednik.”
The title page from “Abecednik za slovenske šole na Kranjskem” (A primer for Slovenian schools in the Kranj region), published in 1867, gives the place of publication as “Na Dunaju,” meaning Vienna, the capital of the Austrian Empire, and the seat of the government for Slovenians, who were part of the Empire. In the first pages, the text at the top of the left-hand page states that schools must use only books published by the Imperial Ministry for Culture and Education, and that these books must not be sold for more than the price listed on the title page, in this case 14 new kreuzers (the new kreuzer was introduced in 1867, when the Austrian Empire became the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Below that paragraph are explanations of how to pronounce letters that have diacritics. The right-hand page shows the students’ first lessons: the alphabet and simple syllables.
For the more advanced students, one of the readings in “Slovenski abecednik za pervi razred ljudskih šol” (A Slovenian primer for the first class of folk schools) is a small science lesson on domestic animals that appears almost two-thirds of the way into the book and is part of the chapter on animals.
Early public schools were organized for boys who would eventually enter the church, but under the influence of the Reformation, education was broadened to include boys who did not intend to enter the priesthood, as well as girls. There was much variation in schools in the ethnic-Slovenian regions of the Austrian Empire, but instruction was generally in German, the language of government administration, and the language that was meant to unify the empire’s various ethnic groups. The use of Slovenian in the lowest-level schools started to gain momentum in the early 19th century, especially with the creation of Sunday-only schools. These Slovenian-language, once-a-week schools were often the sole means of education in small towns and rural areas for children who were needed as agricultural labor, and apprentices who had to work during the week.
The revolutions of 1848 within the Austrian Empire demanded that more rights be given to the various ethnic groups inside its borders. For Slovenes, the educational system expanded the range of subjects taught to include the Slovenian language. However, there was still much educational variation among the provinces, including the language of instruction. For instance, “Drugo berilo za slovenske šole” (A second reader for Slovenian schools) covered a wide range of subjects in Slovenian: instructional stories and songs, knowledge of the world and nature, people and society, natural history, geography, as well as patriotic stories.
Knowledge of German still remained the key to advancement, so some Slovenian-speaking parents sent their children to schools where the students could learn German. In their first years in such schools, the students would be taught in Slovenian, then gradually shift to German. “Malo berilo za slovensko-nemške šole” (A small reader for Slovenian-German schools) shows the Slovenian text on the left-hand pages and the German text on right-hand pages. Various types of fonts are shown on these pages: basic Slovenian print font as well as script, printed Fraktur, and Fraktur script (modern, non-Fraktur German fonts are also used elsewhere in the book).
The title of the lesson shown here is “The Grateful Son, the Egyptian Joseph,” demonstrating how important religious material and education continued to be.
Another subject considered important to teach in schools was singing. Early schools were organized to train choirboys and future priests (the former occupation often being a pathway to the latter), so singing was considered an important part of the students’ education. Later, teachers also considered singing a valuable religious educational tool for children not entering the priesthood. It was also sometimes used as a means of developing a Slovenian national consciousness.
The opening pages of the music section in “Pervo berilo in slovnica za drugi razred slovenskih šol” (A first reader and grammar book for the second class in Slovenian schools) show an introduction on the left-hand page written by Anton Nedvěd (1829-96), a Czech composer and opera singer who came to Slovenia in 1856 to work as a teacher, singer, and the director of the Philharmonic Society in Ljubljana, where he remained for 26 years. Nedvěd writes about the importance of children learning songs in school, how it lifts the spirit and the heart, and elevates both church and folk singing. He composed these 16 one-, two-, and three-part original tunes for religious songs and for folk songs. They originally appeared in two school readers that he had published earlier.
The university-preparatory secondary schools known as ‘gymnasia’ (singular: gymnasium) sometimes offered Slovenian as an elective subject, even though the schools taught in German, since it was assumed that students would continue their higher education at German-speaking universities. The oldest continuing university in modern-day Slovenia, the University of Ljubljana, was founded as recently as 1919. Very slowly, the language of instruction in these schools finally became Slovenian, but not until the 20th century.
“Slovensko berilo za peti gimnazijalni razred” (A Slovenian reader for the fifth class in gymnasia), was published in 1853 by Franc Miklošič (Franz Ritter von Miklosich, 1812-91), a noted Slovenian philologist. The original price of this book, 24 kreuzers, was re-labeled in later years as 42 new kreuzers.
The texts in this book and others used by the various classes in gymnasia had several sources and were written on a variety of topics, such as plants, poetry, history, religion, magnetism, etc. Most pieces were written by Slovenians, but some were translations of works by foreign authors, such as Pushkin. The two pages below contain the beginnings of two texts. The first is a poem, “In Memory of [St.] Cyril and [St.] Methodius,” by Peter Hicinger (Peter Hitzinger, 1812-67), a Slovenian Roman Catholic priest and writer, who published prolifically in both Slovenian and German. The second text is “from the Italian,” and is about the sixth-century Lombard king Alboin, who ruled first in Pannonia (which included the northern part of modern-day Slovenia), and later in Italy.
Despite being prosaic books, primers and readers provide a window on the education system of their day. Not only do their texts tell us what their society thought important for children to know for both political and informational purposes, but the incidental information in the books also contributes to the story. Where did the reading material come from, what was its purpose, and how was it shaped? Sometimes the answers to these questions are even more interesting than what the children were reading.