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USTC Adds Coverage of the Print Culture of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, 1522-1650

Vilniaus žemėlapis

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.

For this reason, the print cultures of these regions 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 past year we have made significant progress, and have expanded the USTC with full coverage of the print production of Latvia, Estonia and Finland. Now we are in a position to offer also a substantial upload of data on Lithuanian and Belarussian printing.


Today Lithuania is a small country of 2.8 million people, one of the three Baltic states that joined the European Union in 2004. Yet for much of the mediaeval and early modern period, it was the centre of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which incorporated all of modern Lithuania and Belarus, and, at its greatest extent, significant portions of modern Ukraine, Russia and Latvia. The political fate of Lithuania was tied closely to that of the Kingdom of Poland, and in 1569 the two countries were formally unified under the Union of Lublin as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Grand Duchy was a vast country, but one which was sparsely populated. The capital of the Duchy was Vilnius, a city of some 20,000 inhabitants by the late sixteenth century, rising to 60,000 around 1645.

Vilnius was not one of the great commercial centres of the Hanseatic League, unlike Latvian Riga or Estonian Tallinn, but as the capital of one of the largest countries in Europe it was the site of substantial political and cultural investment. Vilnius was also one of the key battlegrounds of the Reformation. Lithuania had been one of the last areas of Europe to embrace Christianity, and strict observance of the faith had never been a firm priority for its rulers. The Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania offered relative tolerance for Reformers during the sixteenth century, and many Lithuanian nobles were sympathetic to Lutheran or Calvinist movements. To the Church of Rome, the Commonwealth represented a bastion of Catholicism which should not fall like Germany. Vilnius became a crucial centre of the Counter-Reformation, and one of the first cities outside Italy to embrace baroque architecture. Today the urban landscape is still dominated by Catholic Churches, including those of the Greek Catholic (Unitarian) tradition. To complicate matters further, despite the fact that the Grand Duke, most nobles and the urban population of Vilnius were Catholic, the majority of the inhabitants of the Duchy followed the rites of the Eastern Orthodox Church. There was also a substantial Jewish population. These different religions mostly rubbed along together, but during the seventeenth century the nobles favourable to Protestantism saw their fortunes wane – Lithuanian Protestants found more comfortable living space in Swedish Latvia and Estonia, or the Duchy of Prussia.

Religion played a critical role in the spread of printing in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The first printing press was established in Vilnius in 1522 by Francysk Skaryna, a Ruthenian (Belarusian) scholar of the Orthodox faith. This was Skaryna’s second venture as a printer and publisher. In 1517 he had established a press in Prague, where he printed the first books (the Bible and Psalter) in the Ruthenian language, using the Cyrillic alphabet. In Vilnius, he continued to print for the Orthodox community, but in Church Slavonic, the language of ecclesiastical rites in the Orthodox Church. We know that he published two richly illustrated church books in octavo, one in 1522 and the other in 1525. Skaryna moved on again after 1525, visiting Moscow to attempt to sell books there and possibly establish a press at the Muscovite court. This was unsuccessful, and Skaryna moved around central Europe before finally settling back in Prague. For the next thirty-odd years, there was no press in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, but we do know that many books were printed for the Lithuanian market in Krakow, the great print centre of Poland, and on various German presses, sometimes as far away as Cologne.

Polish catechism
Religious works, like this Polish catechism (USTC 250409), were mainstays of the print industry in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Copyright National Ossoliński Institute

The print culture of Lithuania offers a rich array of languages. The state administration of the country was generally in Latin, Polish or Ruthenian, and these were the languages most widely in use amongst the nobility. The population of Vilnius was predominantly made up of Polish and Ruthenian speakers, but also speakers of Yiddish, German, Italian, Turkic and Lithuanian. The use of the Lithuanian language was largely restricted to the countryside of Lithuania proper, and it is interesting to note that printing in Lithuanian was initially taken up only by Protestant reformers. The first book printed in the Lithuanian language, a catechism translated by the reformer Martynas Mažvydas, appeared in Königsberg in 1547. Königsberg, although located in the Duchy of Prussia, was the port of choice for entry to Lithuania and commerce with its hinterland. At least twelve other Protestant works in Lithuanian would appear on Königsberg presses before 1613.

The next presses to emerge in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were all established at the behest of Protestant magnates of the country. Michael Radzivilli (‘The Black’, 1515-1565), one of the wealthiest and most powerful nobles in the country, founded a press in Brest (Brześć, in modern Belarus) in 1553. This press published predominantly Reformed works in Polish, and, most notably, produced the first complete Polish Bible (1563). In 1562 a press was established in Niasviž/Nieśwież (also in modern Belarus), a small town owned by Radzivilli, and the location of one of his great castles.

The Reformed movement in Lithuania suffered a setback when Radzivilli and his cousin, Michael ‘the Red’, both staunch Calvinists, died. All of Radzivilli the Black’s children converted to Catholicism, and his son Michael Radzivilli ‘the Orphan’ (1549-1616) closed the press at Nieśwież in 1572; in 1575 he moved the press at Brest to Vilnius, where it began to serve the recently founded Jesuit Academy (1570). Although it was initially known as the ‘Radzivilli press’, its ownership was formally transferred to the Academy in 1585. Until the end of the eighteenth century, the Jesuit Academy press would be the foremost publishing centre of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, responsible for close to half the output of the state.

(USTC 250628)
A political panegyric produced on the presses of the Vilnius Jesuits Academy (USTC 250628). Although the Vilnius Academy press served predominantly the community of scholars and students who studied at the Academy, it also produced a wide variety of secular political works. Copyright Biblioteka Jagiellonska

In 1570, a new Protestant printing house was set up at Losk (in modern Belarus), at the estate of the Protestant nobleman Jan Laski – the press was furnished with equipment from the now dismantled Nieśwież printing house, and the Nieśwież printer, Daniel Leczycki (Lancicius) moved with it. Leczycki soon relocated from Losk to Vilnius to work for other noblemen, and later converted to Catholicism. His successor in Losk, Jan Karcan, did the same and left Losk in 1580 for Vilnius. The Losk press was active again between 1586 and 1589 but closed thereafter.

Meanwhile, Vilnius had become home to multiple printing houses. The flourishing Jesuit Academy press, which catered to the requirements of the university and served a role in Catholic proselytising in the region, produced works in Latin, Polish and a small number in Lithuanian. Jan Karcan and his son Joseph operated a successful press for forty years, printing predominantly secular works in Polish. Other active printers included Salomon Sultzer, who had previously worked in Poland and Königsberg; Jakob Morkunas, who worked for himself as well as for the beleaguered Calvinist community in Vilnius; and the Mámonicźa press (established in 1574), which specialised in Cyrillic and Polish church books. In 1628, the Mámonicźa press was taken over by the Basilian (Greek Catholic) monastery in the city, which operated it until the 1690s.

There were also numerous works produced on Vilnius presses which were published by Lithuanian noblemen – these were generally Protestant publications. Around a dozen works by the Calvinist preacher Andreas Volanus, secretary to the Grand Duke of Lithuania, were printed at the behest of various noblemen: in general, we have documented six different noblemen named in the imprints of works in Vilnius thus far. Volanus was a vehement opponent of the Jesuits, and the two sides engaged in repeated back-and-forths in print throughout the 1580s and 1590s, all to the profit of Vilnius printers.

The printer Piotr Blastus Kmita, who started his career in Vilnius around 1600, moved his establishment to the small town of Lubcha (in modern Belarus), owned by another Radzivilli, Janusz (1612-1655). Janusz was a Calvinist, and the Lubcha press operated by Piotr Kmita and his son Jan was responsible for a couple of dozen Latin and Polish works for Protestants in the region, including for use at the small Protestant school set up in Lubcha by Janusz Radzivilli. The Lubcha press was shut down during the 1650s, when the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was entirely occupied by Russian and Swedish forces. There is also evidence of a brief period of printing in the small Lithuanian town of Merkinė, and, during the second half of the seventeenth century, in Kėdainiai (modern Lithuania) and in Slutsk (modern Belarus).

uneral oration
A funeral oration published in the small town of Lubcha in 1638 (USTC 250047). The presses dotted around rural Belarus were all sponsored by local magnates, and the output of the presses was focussed largely on practical devotional works, school books, wedding pamphlets and funeral orations. Copyright Biblioteka Narodowa

Our new survey of the print culture of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania adds just over a 1,000 new editions up to 1650, published in eight languages. The Vilnius Jesuit press accounts for almost half of these works, but the large number of other printers and publishing houses involved makes clear that the book culture of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was rich and varied. One aspect that stands out is the dominance of aristocratic culture: a quarter of the corpus is made up of funeral orations or wedding pamphlets, most of which concern the deaths and marriages of noblemen, women and children of the Grand Duchy.

Although many surviving copies of Lithuanian imprints have been located in libraries in modern Lithuania, our survey also demonstrates the substantial dissemination of Lithuanian books to Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Swedish, German and British libraries. Some of these books, most notably those in Sweden and Russia, were most likely the result of the extensive plunder that took place in the Grand Duchy, not least during the disastrous Deluge, which saw most of the Grand Duchy occupied by foreign powers and insurgents between 1648 and 1667. The ravages of war had calamitous consequences for the people of Lithuania and Belarus; Vilnius too was occupied and sacked. The printing presses of the Grand Duchy were badly affected, and many of the presses operated at the Belarussian castles of prominent noblemen were destroyed. The golden age of the Lithuanian and Belarussian printing can be located in the first half of the seventeenth century, before this terrible destruction: this makes us especially delighted to present records of this flourishing era on 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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Featured Image: Available from Wikimedia Commons by CC BY-SA 3.0.