Books can be taken away and even destroyed but they remain part of the cultural and mental heritage space in which they have been read and stored. Likewise, books and book collections characterise the epoch and cultural context in which they have been read or collected. The library of Riga Jesuit College was taken away from Riga in the 17th century but the book collection remains part of the cultural heritage of Latvia. In the first half and middle of the 20th century, it became known that among the books taken away from Riga were the oldest surviving texts written and printed in the Latvian language.
It was only in 1911 that the oldest surviving text printed in the Latvian language was found in the collection of the Uppsala University Library. The translation into Latvian of the Catholic catechism compiled by Jesuit Petrus Canisius (1521–1597) was printed in Vilnius in 1585. A few years later, in 1915, Riga-born bibliographer, ethnographer and archaeologist Eduard Wolter (1856–1941) published the first research article on the newly found text. This copy of the catechism does not contain any ownership marks of Riga Jesuit College but is likely to have been transported to Uppsala directly from Riga. This catechism is the only book related to Riga Jesuit College that is printed in the Latvian language.
Above: The oldest printed text in Latvian that has survived.
Another important discovery was made in the mid-1950s when Latvian theologian and church historian Haralds Biezais (1906-1995) found in the Uppsala University Library one of the oldest surviving hand-written texts written in the Latvian language. The text, in the form of marginalia and notes, was included in the copy of a handbook for Catholic priests Agenda sive benedictionale, printed in Leipzig in 1507 that had belonged to Catholic priest Nicolaus Ghisbert from Riga. The title page of the book contains a Lord’s prayer in Latvian, written by hand. Notes in Latvian, Middle Low German and also in Latin were made in the book between around 1529 and 1534.
Above: One of the oldest surviving hand-written texts in Latvian.
While working with Riga Jesuits’ books and manuscripts, Haralds Biezais rediscovered another valuable source of social and religious history. He published the wedding register of Riga St. James’ Church (1582-1621), in which the Jesuits registered baptisms and weddings. This historical source allows us to learn who the Catholics in Riga and its environs were after the Reformation.
While a great deal of focus has been placed on these two Latvian language texts, the importance and impact of the collection goes beyond the cultural boundaries of just one nation. The Jesuit colleges of Riga, Dorpat (Tartu) and Braunsberg (Braniewo) were like outposts in the Lutheranism-consumed north of Europe. The late 16th century and early 17th century was a time when the Catholic Church, with the Jesuits’ support, tried to bring Riga and Livonia back to Catholicism. This collection of books was created to help the Jesuits carry out their mission and perform their educational activities.
Below: An organ tablature with texts in Latin that was used at the Riga Jesuit college.
The books of the former Jesuit library are a testimony of the Catholic spiritual and intellectual culture in Protestant Riga. The collection is like a snapshot, preserving evidence of inter-religious struggles, intellectual quests and the beginnings of the birth of Latvian as a written and printed language.