(The following is a post by Helen Fedor, together with Taru Spiegel. Both are reference specialist in the European Division.)
The Reformation, set in motion by Martin Luther’s “Ninety-five Theses” of 1517, advocated that individuals read the Bible and other religious works for themselves, in their own language, rather than rely on others to interpret the Latin works for them. Combined with the newly invented printing press, this led to the spread of literacy across Europe. Primers were used by both adults and children; the more complex works were for serious students who already possessed a basic education.
Recently the Library of Congress acquired a small volume, bound sometime in the 18th century, comprised of eight titles printed between the 16th through the 18th centuries (1554-1724). The titles consist of primers, which taught people how to read, as well as more advanced texts on both religious and secular subjects. This new addition contributes to an already extensive collection of historical primers held in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress. From Renaissance orthographies to baroque alphabet books to modern abecedarians, educational primers are an important part of the Library’s collection of rare material.
The reason for the binding order and the grouping of these titles in this small volume is unclear. They appear as follows:
Primus Truber (Primož Trubar). “Abecedarium und der gantze Catechismus / o[h]ne ausslegung / in der Crobatischen Sprach” (Primer and the entire catechism [without additional interpretation] in the Croatian language). Tübingen [?], 1561.
This is a later Croatian translation of “Abecedarium,” the first printed Slovenian book (consisting of a primer and a catechism), written by Primus Truber (Primož Trubar) in 1550. Truber was a Slovenian Protestant clergyman who had fled to Germany because of his religious views. He wrote the work to standardize the Slovenian language and teach ordinary people to read.
Truber was the director of a Bible institute whose printing press produced Protestant books to spread the Gospel to people of all faiths in Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Dalmatia, Serbia, Slavonia, and on toward Constantinople. Truber employed two Croatian Protestants to translate his works into Croatian. One version of the Croatian translation of “Abecedarium” used the Cyrillic alphabet, while the other version, pictured above, used the Glagolitic alphabet, the oldest known Slavic alphabet.
“Alphabetum Græcum. Addita sunt Theodori Bezæ Scholia…” (Greek alphabet. Comments by Theodore Beza…). Geneva: Robert Estienne, 1554.
“Alphabetum Græcum” is the first of three works in this collection by the Estienne family. This title was printed in 1554, by Robert Estienne senior (Robertus Stephanus, in Latin), a well-known 16th-century French printer, classical scholar, and royal typographer. After converting to Protestantism, however, Estienne fled Paris for Geneva because of religious persecution. In Geneva, he mainly printed theological works, but also brought out this small volume on the Greek alphabet. On the lower half of the title page is Robert’s device, a man standing under an olive tree, with branches falling to the ground. The motto “Altum sapere noli” (Do not be arrogant) provides a warning to scholars. Theodore Beza, a noted 16th-century Protestant scholar, provided commentary.
“Alphabetum Hebraicum, In quo literæ Hebraicæ describuntur…” (The Hebrew alphabet, in which Hebrew letters are described…). Geneva: Henrici Stephani, 1566.
This textbook is by another member of the Estienne family—Henri Estienne, a Protestant son of Robert Estienne senior. It is the first example of Hebrew printing from the press of Henri, located in Geneva. The work, whose explanatory text is written in Latin, was created for Christians who were learning Hebrew. As in Hebrew books, which are read from right to left, the title page is the right-most page of the book. The text then follows in standard Hebrew right-to-left order.
“l’Exercice pueril, s’Appliquant à apprendre la langue Françoise. Reveu, & adjoûté de nouveau les Conjugaisons / Oeffeninghe Voor de Jonckheyt, Om gevotgelijck de Fransche tale te leeren. Van nieuws oversien ende vermeerdert met de Coniugatien.” Antwerp: Wedouwe van Ioris Willemsens, 1700.
This textbook, whose parallel French and Dutch titles translate to “Exercises for the youth to learn the French language. Revised, with conjugations added,” was intended for more-advanced Dutch students. Also included are multiplication tables and samples of polite greetings and conversations in French. The desire of Dutch speakers to learn French for diplomatic, religious, and commercial reasons may be traced back to at least the 13th century. Earlier versions of this particular textbook were already available in the late 1600s. The title page displays a woodcut portrait of Ignatius Loyola, indicating that this work was used in Catholic institutions.
“Teutsches Abc- und Syllaben Büchlein / Auf Gn. Fürstlichen Befehl / Für die Kinder im Fürstenthum Gotha.” [Gotha]: F.S. Christoph Reyhern/Hof-Buchdrucker, 1694.
Post-Reformation Protestants in Germany cared deeply about literacy—both for adults and children. This primer (German ABC and syllable booklet) from Gotha, Germany, was printed “by graceful princely command for the children in the principality of Gotha.” The paper used in this work is notably thicker than the paper of the other volumes, perhaps because the book was intended for use by youngsters.
Bengt Gottfried Forselius (ca. 1660-1688). “AEHIK.” Riga: Samuel Lorenz Frölich, 1724.
This primer for Estonian Lutheran children is a reprint of a work by Bengt Gottfried Forselius, who was the founder of public education in Estonia and who wrote the first primer in Estonian. He also devised a standardized Estonian spelling system. The work is known as “AEHIK,” for the top row of letters on the first page.
The rooster image on the last page of this primer was found throughout the German cultural sphere, where it symbolized Christian vigilance and protection of the faith. Eventually the religious connotation was lost gradually, over the course of time, but an “ABC-rooster” continued to appear in primers.
“Davar Tov” (A good word). Venice: Giovanni Di Gara, 1588.
Giovanni Di Gara was a prolific printer of Hebrew and other materials in 16th-century Venice, a major European center for all printing. Some of his work was exported throughout the world. This primer was intended for use by young boys in the Jewish ghetto of Venice. As an indication of how little the Jewish and non-Jewish populations mixed, a vocabulary list of Hebrew words shows the Italian equivalents written in the Hebrew alphabet, to help with pronunciation.
“Alphabetum Græcum.” Paris: Robert Estienne, 1580.
This second “Greek alphabet” is a specimen book, intended to demonstrate the range and quality of the printer’s work. It was printed by a third member of the Estienne family, Robert junior, who was Catholic and remained in Paris. The work shows all three sizes of the royal Greek types, provides selections for practice reading, and includes an article (“On the true forms and origins of the Greek letters in ancient times”) by the Greek scholar Janus Lascaris.
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