CENL Event

19th October 2021

National Library of Latvia: The oldest surviving book in the Latvian language

From 21 September until 19 December, the Level 5 exhibition hall at the Latvian National Library (NLL), will see a new exhibition The Return. The Oldest Surviving Book in Latvian, which launches a new multi-year series of NLL events – 500 Years of Latvian Books. The exhibition is an opportunity to see, in person, in Rīga, the oldest surviving book published in Latvian – the Catechism of Dutch Jesuit Petrus Canisius (1521–1597), translated into Latvian and published in 1585. In parallel with the exhibition opening, a Catalogue of the Rīga Jesuit College book collection, created by NLL bibliographers, will be unveiled.

It is known that the oldest printed Latvian text was published in 1525, but it perished in the religious disputes of the Reformation era. The Canisius Catechism, on the other hand, was an important aid to the Jesuit Order in its efforts to return to Catholicism those Livonian natives who had strayed from it – Latvians who had either turned to Lutheranism or ancestral pagan beliefs after the Reformation. Although this book is a key testament of Latvian national cultural heritage, it is not permanently located in Latvia. The only complete copy of this publication is held by the Uppsala University Library (UUL, Sweden). Swedish troops took it across the Baltic Sea in 1621 as a spoil of war, along with other Jesuit books. However, thanks to cooperation with the UUL, the Canisius Catechism will return for the exhibition and be displayed in Rīga.

The exhibition is permeated by a returning motif. There are many kinds of returns. A return can be a return to a lost faith, from Lutheranism or paganism to Catholicism. Another return is the return of the Catechism to Rīga, from where it was taken by the Swedish troops together with the Jesuit College books. A return can also be returning to the beginnings of our printed language, focusing on the oldest texts in Latvian in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of Latvian books in 2025.


Along with the exhibition, the Catalogue of the Rīga Jesuit College Book Collection (1583–1621) History and Reconstruction of the Collection, compiled by NLL bibliographers will be launched. This allows the books that were taken to Sweden by Swedish troops 400 years ago, when they occupied Rīga, to be returned to Rīga indirectly (not physically, but in descriptive and visual form) from Uppsala and other European libraries. It will also be possible to digitise these books in the future.

The reconstruction of the Rīga Jesuit College collection and the publication of the catalogue is a significant milestone in research into Latvia’s cultural history. Early in the 21st century, NLL bibliographers Laura Kreigere-Liepiņa and Renāte Berga have reconstructed this collection of books important to the cultural heritage of Latvia and the Latvian nation, identifying more than 800 items that once belonged to the Rīga Jesuit College times: printed works and manuscripts. The result is an electronic database and the Catalogue, which is supplemented by a collection of research papers that provide insight into the history of libraries, Jesuits and their books. The collection was compiled by NLL lead researcher Gustavs Strenga and Andris Levāns, Associate Professor, Faculty of History and Philosophy, University of Latvia. It features a foreword by NLL Director Andris Vilks and includes papers by Reinis Norkārklis, Research Assistant, Faculty of Theology, University of Latvia, Professor Andrew Pettegree of the University of St. Andrew (United Kingdom), Arthur der Weduwen, researcher of the University of St. Andrews, Laura Kreigere-Liepiņa, Renāte Berga, Gustavs Strenga and Andris Levāns

All the papers are in both Latvian and English. The Catalogue can be purchased at the Friends’ of the NLL Room.

The exhibition and Catalogue are part of the of the Rīga Jesuit College Library (1583–1621) project, which is part of the Historical Path of the Idea of Latvian Statehood in the Common European Cultural Space project (being implemented under the Latvian State Centenary Programme).

The project was implemented as part of the State Research Programme Project No VPP-IZM-2018/1-0022 The Role of documentary heritage research in creating synergies between research and society.

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