News of old primers


Keywords: primers, book history, literary history, language history, printing

The article introduces some early Estonian primers recently discovered. So far the Estonian national bibliography was known to include five different primers – one of them survived in duplicate, the rest as single copies – printed before 1750, more specifically, from 1694 to 1741. Now, four new findings have been discovered, only one of which is similar to a copy known earlier.

All four primers have survived as bound-with works in three bound-with volumes. Two of the volumes belonged to the library of the Earls of Macclesfield removed from Shirburn Castle, England, to be sold by Sotheby’s in 2008. Through the auction, one of the volumes made its way to the US Congress Library and the other to the National Library of Poland. The former contains a primer published in the Tartu language (i.e. South Estonian) in 1724 and another printed in the Tallinn language (i.e. North Estonian) about 1700. The second copy of the latter is held at the Royal Library of Copenhagen. Both publications are reprints of primers compiled by Bengt Gottfried Forselius.

The third volume with Estonian primers is located in the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Library in Hannover. The covers hold two Latvian primers previously known and a Finnish primer published in Riga in 1694, unknown to the Finnish National Bibliography. The greatest surprise, however, were the undated Forselius primers printed in Riga, one presenting the Tallinn language and the other the Tartu language, both probably dating from before 1694. At least for the Tallinn version such dating is supported by orthographic analysis.

The primers have probably been included in foreign collections as language examples. After all, the early modern period saw an increased research interest in the origin of peoples and languages, for which good reference material was provided by the cathechism texts of the primers. The Hannover primers could presumably be associated with the philological interests of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who was then in charge of the Hannover library.


Aivar Põldvee (b. 1962), PhD, Tallinn University Institute of the Humanities, researcher (Narva mnt 25, 10120 Tallinn), aivar.poldvee@tlu.ee