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USTC Adds Full Coverage of Latvian 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 first blog will reflect on the print culture of Latvia, the oldest print culture of the three.

As in many other regions in Northern and Eastern Europe, printed books were readily available in Latvia before the arrival of a local press. Riga, one of the most important trading centres of the Baltic, had a number of booksellers and bookbinders who imported books from the Holy Roman Empire and the Low Countries, and sometimes even commissioned specific works to be printed there. The cities of Lübeck and Rostock were important centres for the northern trade, and its German printers produced works in Danish, Swedish, Finnish, Estonian and Latvian. The earliest identifiable work printed in the Latvian language was produced in Wittenberg in 1525, a Lutheran service book. We know that the entire print run was confiscated by Catholic authorities whilst the consignment was en route, and all but two copies of the work were destroyed (these two copies have subsequently been lost in the modern era). Lutheran works, in Latvian and German, were also produced for Riga booksellers in other German towns, especially in Königsberg. All of these items have been included in our new coverage of Latvian print culture – they are important evidence of the vitality of the book culture in the eastern Baltic before the arrival of printing.

Although the sixteenth-century Baltic book trade was largely a market led by German publishers and printers, the first printer to arrive in Latvia was a Dutchman. Niclaes Mollijn, or Nikolaus Mollyn, as he styled himself in Riga, had learned the trade in Antwerp, where his father, Jan, was also a printer. In 1587 Mollyn moved to Amsterdam, it seems to prepare himself for a journey onwards, because he boarded a ship in the early spring of 1588. He had not set out for a new land without expectations of a new employ: the secretary of Riga’s town council had recently appealed to the Polish King, the sovereign of the province of Livonia, to set up a print shop in the city, and had found in Mollyn a suitable candidate.

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A typical piece of early but elegant Riga printing by Nikolaus Mollyn: a German sermon by a local preacher. Image courtesy of the Forschungsbibliothek Gotha.

For thirty-eight years, until his death in 1625, Mollyn provided Riga with a much-valued press. His output was decidedly for a local audience: he produced wedding pamphlets, funeral orations, almanacs, devotional tracts, schoolbooks, news pamphlets and ordinances for the local council. He published predominantly in Latin and German (the language of the civic and cultural elite in Riga), rather than Latvian, but he did produce a number of Latvian devotional works. Although Mollyn had a busy shop and operated two presses, his business could not prosper from printing alone. Mollyn set himself up as a bookseller after receiving a substantial loan from the council to buy books at the Frankfurt Fair. Further subsidies, and exemptions from excise duties, also helped Mollyn established a flourishing enterprise.

These were difficult times for Riga, with several bouts of plague, confessional tensions and military conflict. In 1621 the city was taken by the forces of Gustavus Adolphus, after which the city became one of the foremost bastions of the Swedish Empire, and a centre of Protestant schooling. Mollyn sailed through these turbulent waters unaffected, and after the surrender of Riga his privileges were continued. In all, Mollyn was responsible for over 160 printed works during his long career. This, it should be noted, is unlikely to represent his entire output. Several of Mollyn’s extant editions were works commissioned directly by the town council or the Swedish King, and it is likely that the administrative requirements of government played a more prominent role in Mollyn’s business. Sadly, however, government publications from the seventeenth century have an extremely poor chance of survival given their function as practical, but ephemeral pieces of communication.

Mollyn’s print shop was taken over by Gerhard Schröder in 1625, who maintained a similar profile of publishing. Schröder did have more opportunities to expand his market: now that Riga was a centre of Swedish administration, there were further requirements for government print jobs, including in the Swedish language. Swedish rule also saw the establishment of a local academy, and a university in nearby Tartu (now in Estonia), which did not have a press until 1632. Schröder’s output included many student disputations, orations by professors, as well as many Lutheran sermons, prayer books and liturgical works to aid the conversion of the Latvian population to the Protestant faith.

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One of Gerhard Schröder’s first works as a printer in Riga, celebrating the conquest of the same town by the King of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus. Image courtesy of the Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden (SLUB).

As Riga flourished commercially under the Swedish government, its book production continued to expand. Riga would become home to two competing print shops in 1675, and in 1680 to a bi-weekly newspaper. Eight years later, Latvia would gain a second print centre in the coastal town of Jelgava (Mitau). By this point, the printing press had become an inseparable feature in the cultural and political life of the region.

Barnaby Cullen, a St Andrews undergraduate and one of the volunteers for the USTC summer programme in 2019, compiled most of the Latvian data that has now been added to the resource. Barnaby reflected that ‘working on the history of Latvian printing was a revelatory experience, which gave me a fascinating insight into the history of Latvia during the early modern period. Studying the early history of print is an important factor in our understanding of the geopolitical history of Latvia in the seventeenth century, and, in particular, charting the rise in government administration that occurred after its assimilation into Sweden’s Baltic Empire’. We are grateful to Barnaby for his hard work and for playing such a pivotal role in assimilating early Latvian 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 Wikimedia, Forschungsbibliothek Gotha and Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence. Copyright of Forschungsbibliothek Gotha and Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden.