Rare Book of the Month: February 2017

Bukvar' iazyka slavenska

The February rare book of the month is a truly unique work- the Bukvar' iazyka slavenska, printed at the Vilnius Orthodox Holy Spirit Monastery in Ev’e (or Vievis), present day Lithuania in 1618. There is only one other copy so far recorded, at the Royal Library in Denmark.

The work is a primer of the Old Church Slavic language, produced by the ‘Printing House of the Orthodox Fraternity’, one of the oldest monastic printing houses in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. They were known for printing books on the Old Church Slavic, Old Belarusian and Polish languages. The ‘Bukvar’ contains an alphabet and prayers and was intended for religious learning as well as basic instruction in the language. The title as given above has been transliterated from the Old Church Slavic alphabet. The work is cited in the bibliography Cyrillic Books printed before 1701 in British and Irish Collections: A Union Catalogue, p. 70. It is possibly the oldest primer of the Belorussian language, and the first so far recorded to use the Russian word for primer.

The copy at Middle Temple Library is heavily annotated in a contemporary hand has an inscription on the title page which seems to read: ‘Liber de linguâ sclavoniâ sclavoniâ’ (the ‘sclavoniâ’ is repeated, possibly due to the obstruction caused by the small woodcut cross decoration). This copy is unusual in that it contains six (possibly originally eight) pages of another work at the end of the volume. According to the Kniga Belarusi Zvodny catalogue, this is the beginning of Stefan Zizanii's O znamenii krestnom, copied from the 1596 edition (Nauka ku chitaniu I rozumeniu pisma slovenskogo, Vilna, Bratskaia tipografiia), but typeset anew.. Part of the reason that the Bukvar is so scarce is due to the fact that educational works such as primers were ephemeral in nature- heavily read and used, and often discarded due to wear and tear.

As with many of the unusual or unique books in the rare book collection at Middle Temple, this volume most likely came from the Robert Ashley bequest of 1641. Although there is no marginalia in his hand in the work, Ashley was known to have an interest in languages. He collected a large number of general works on languages, as well as other foreign language primers. Some examples include Thomas Erpenius’s 1620 Rudimenta Linguae Arabicae; Hieronymus Megiser’s 1612 Institutionem Linguae Turcicae; and 3 works so far identified on the Hebrew language. Ashley also translated works from French, Italian, Latin and Spanish into English, as well as translating a work from French to Latin. He often annotates books in his collection, using the language of the book to make his own notes. We know that he could read (and presumably write and speak) French, German, Italian, Latin, Spanish, some Hebrew and Greek, as well as possibly Dutch. Ashley was also a bibliophile, and it is possible that he collected this work solely for that reason.

As the work is so scarce, we have made a digital copy available through the creative commons license, which means that it can be downloaded and used for non-commercial purposes. The Royal Library in Denmark has also digitised their copy, available at: http://www.kb.dk/e-mat/dod/121670046082_color.pdf.

Renae Satterley (r.satterley@middletemple.org.uk)


February 2017 (updated March 2018)