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USTC Adds Full Coverage of Estonian Printing, 1525-1650

By Arthur der Weduwen |

Over the past year, the USTC team has made it a priority to expand its coverage of national print cultures that have thus far been underrepresented in our database. When printing emerged in the fifteenth century it spread quickly throughout Western and Southern Europe, but failed to settle in broad swathes of Europe’s northern and eastern frontiers. The first active printing presses in modern Latvia appeared only in 1588, 134 years after the invention of printing in Mainz; Estonia and Finland would have to wait another 44 and 54 years, respectively.

For this reason, the print cultures of these nations did not feature prominently in the first iteration of the USTC. With the extension of the resource to 1650, we have been crucially aware that including the younger print domains of early modern Europe is an important feature to keep the project truly universal.

This summer, with thanks to our volunteering programme, we have made significant progress, and are now in a position to present full coverage of the print production of Estonia, Finland and Latvia, expanding the USTC by another 1,700 records. In a series of three blogs, we will be providing a brief introduction to each of these print domains. This second blog reflects on the print culture of Estonia.


The history of Estonian printing shares a remarkably similar story to that of Latvian printing. This is not least the case because the first book to contain text in the Estonian language, a Lutheran service book printed in Wittenberg in 1525, also contained Latvian text. As related in our previous blog post, the consignment of this Lutheran text was seized and destroyed near Lübeck. Ten years later, however, one of Wittenberg’s leading printers, Hans Lufft, produced an Estonian catechism. A fragment of this has survived today in the municipal archives of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. We are especially lucky that the extant fragment contains Lufft’s imprint, making this rare survivor easily identifiable. Other early Estonian works, likewise produced in Germany, have not come down to us, but it is clear that there was a dynamic market in the export of Lutheran devotional works from Germany to Protestant converts in the Eastern Baltic. Given that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Livonian Order, the two great powers in the region, remained staunchly Catholic in the sixteenth century, the chances of survival of Protestant literature were slim indeed.

The collapse of the Livonian Order in the early 1560s brought about significant changes in the history of the book trade in Estonia. Northern Estonia, including the port-city of Tallinn (Reval), became part of the Protestant Swedish Empire, while Southern Estonia became part of the Catholic Duchy of Lithuania. Henceforth Northern Estonia could freely receive books from Germany, Denmark and Sweden, and an active trade to Tallinn ensued. In Southern Estonia, a Jesuit school was set up in Tartu (Dorpat), the main town of the region, and numerous Catholic works were produced for this academic community in Vilnius, Braniewo and nearby Riga.

The first printing press in Estonia would not be established until the expansion of the Swedish empire in the early seventeenth century. War with Poland-Lithuania saw Southern Estonia and Latvia become part of the Swedish realm in 1625. The Swedish government initially made its base in Riga, which had a local press since 1588. It was here too that several Lutheran liturgical books were produced in the early 1630s, with parallel German and Estonian texts. For several years the Swedish government was content to despatch ordinances and church books from Riga through its Estonian province, but it soon became clear that local presses in Tallinn, the commercial and political centre of Estonia, and Tartu, its academic centre, would be of value to the administrative demands of the authorities.

In 1631, printing type was ordered by the Swedish administration from Stettin to supply a press in Tartu. Swedish political expansion went hand-in-hand with cultural integration: the Swedish crown was determined to establish several universities and academies throughout its new conquests to cultivate a local intellectual elite that could support Swedish governance and uphold the values of the Lutheran church. In 1632, the academy at Tartu was formally inaugurated as a university, the Academia Gustaviana, named in honour of Gustavus Adolphus. The press was operated for the first four years of its activity by Jacob Becker; then by Michael Torlitz, formally the ‘printing inspector and manager’, who usually signed publications under the imprint of ‘Typ[ographica]. Acad[emiae].’; and finally by Johann Vogel.

regulating a postal service
The recto of the earliest surviving work printed in Estonia: the 1632 Postordnung broadsheet regulating a postal service throughout Swedish Latvia and Estonia. Although some government publications in Estonia were produced in Swedish, many, like this ordinance, appeared in German. Image courtesy of the Eesti Rahvusbibliograafia. USTC 6911395.

The Tartu university printing shop was a busy press: between 1632 and 1650 the office was responsible for 704 editions. The majority of its publications were academic disputations, defended by students of the university, and other academic publications, including orations and gratulatory poetry written by professors and students alike. Close to 80% of the output of the Tartu press belongs in these categories, but the press would, on occasion, also produce ordinances and edicts, wedding pamphlets, dictionaries, political pamphlets and funeral orations. In fact, that earliest surviving publication of the Tartu press, from 1632, is a broadsheet Postordnung, a government ordinance regulating the schedule and charges for the postal service in the Swedish territories of Latvia and Estonia.

Janua
A 1648 Tartu edition of Jan Amos Comenius’s Janua lingaurum reserata aurea, a handbook used by students across Europe. Image courtesy of the Eesti Rahvusbibliograafia. USTC 6910660.

Two years after the foundation of the Tartu university press, in 1634, a second Estonian press was established in Tallinn. While the Tartu press was an extension of the local university, and financed by the Swedish government, the Tallinn press was an initiative sponsored by the local magistrates and the mercantile elite of the city. The character of the output of the press was therefore very different. Almost all works produced in Tartu were printed in Latin, whereas those of Tallinn were predominantly published in German. Tallinn had long been home to a German-speaking community of traders, and they dominated the literary circle of the city. A third of the 282 known editions printed in Tallinn before 1650 were wedding pamphlets, celebrating Tallinn society marriages. Sermons by local ministers made up another significant proportion of the output of the Tallinn press: these too were printed in German.

Only two Estonian-language works appeared from the Tallinn press before 1650, a postil and a schoolbook: a sure sign that the literary needs of the rural population of the region, which was overwhelmingly made up of Estonian-speakers, played a small role in the early years of the Tallinn press. This would change in the second half of the seventeenth century when another 50 Estonian works appeared in Tallinn, but the publication of the most important Estonian text, the Bible, would remain elusive. Already in 1641 the bishop of Estonia, Joachim Jhering, had called for the translation of the New Testament into Estonian, but the project only got underway in the early 1680s, when the Swedish King presented the funds to buy paper to print 1,000 copies of the work. Issues of translation impeded the publication of the New Testament, and ultimately only 500 copies would appear in 1686, printed not in Tallinn, but in Riga. Evidently, the process had become too cumbersome for the Tallinn press, which was instead kept very busy with the publication of much shorter works required by the local community: schoolbooks, sermons, poetry, political pamphlets and edicts for the city council or Swedish King. From 1675 onwards, a bi-weekly newspaper also appeared in Tallinn.

A short topographical history
A short topographical history of Latvia and Estonia, printed in German in Tartu in 1649. Although the university press published predominantly works in Latin, Johann Vogel, the third university printer, also produced works in German for commercial distribution throughout the region. Image courtesy of Universitas Tartuensis. USTC 2025321.

The Tallinn press continued to operate successfully until the collapse of the Swedish empire at the end of the Great Northern War (1700-1721). The Tartu university press, which had flourished in the 1630s and 1640s, was shut down in 1656 when the university closed. The near-continuous warfare between Sweden and the growing Russian empire proved too damaging for the university, which was perilously located near the Russian border. The press was re-established again in 1690, but only for a decade: in 1699 it moved, once again due to the threat of war, to the coastal town of Pärnu (Pernau), where it operated as a university press once more until 1709.

digital archive DIGAR
A typical publication from the early Tallinn press: a short German poem, celebrating the birthday of a local notable citizen, Hartman Gramans. Image courtesy of Eesti Rahvusraamatukogu, digital source: archive DIGAR. USTC 2100583.

Jessica Purdy, a PhD student at Manchester Metropolitan University and one of the volunteers for the USTC summer programme in 2019, prepared the Estonian data that has now been added to the USTC. Jessica reflected that ‘compiling the Estonian bibliography for the USTC was a rewarding experience, and to see this work brought to fruition on the USTC is excellent. I thoroughly enjoyed bringing this bibliography to life and seeing the wide-ranging topics of these texts that I hope will be useful to other scholars. The texts in this new addition reflect Estonia’s strong academic and religious history whilst also demonstrates the human side of printing thanks to the numerous wedding and funeral announcements.’ We are grateful to Jessica for her hard work and for playing such a pivotal role in assimilating early Estonian printing into the USTC.


Arthur der Weduwen is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of St Andrews and the author of Dutch and Flemish Newspapers of the Seventeenth Century (2 vols., Brill, 2017) and The Bookshop of the World. Making and Trading Books in the Dutch Golden Age (co-authored with Andrew Pettegree) (Yale University Press, 2019). For the USTC he works predominantly on the print cultures of the Low Countries, Scandinavia and the Baltic.


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Images available from the Eesti Rahvusbibliograafia, Universitas Tartuensis and Eesti Rahvusraamatukogu,  under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence. Copyright of Eesti Rahvusbibliograafia, Universitas Tartuensis and Eesti Rahvusraamatukogu.