Culture / heritage

Croatia’s first dated printed book in the Latin alphabet

Bernardin’s Lectionary

Bernardin’s Lectionary from 1495 is the first Croatian incunabulum (a printed book dated before 1501) written in the Latin alphabet with a prominent date of publishing. To understand more about its history and importance, we talked to Kristina Štrkalj Despot and Vuk-Tadija Barbarić, researchers at the Institute of Croatian Language and Linguistics, and editors of the latest issue of Bernardin’s Lectionary from 2020.

‘This is a book that’s extremely important even beyond philological circles: it’s an important part of Croatian language and culture, but also Croatian identity. Due to the fact that it’s written in a decorated, developed and rich vernacular language at such an early historical point, we can also say that it’s a part of European Renaissance tendencies of that time’, Štrkalj Despot and Barbarić explain.

The history and authorship of Bernardin’s Lectionary

For most researchers, the biggest curiosity will be how the historical details of Bernardin’s Lectionary and its author are so transparent and well-preserved. Štrkalj Despot and Barbarić say ‘the book contains information on the content, press house, place and date of printing’ and says that the text was ‘amended and carefully corrected by Bernardin of Split’.

However, the story behind the book’s authorship was not as straightforward as some of the other bits of information included in the colophon. ‘Until this day, it’s not fully concluded who Bernardin really was’, editors emphasize. 

‘It’s fairly certain that his name was Bernardin Drivodilić and that he was originally from the island of Brač. 

Still, there are two theories on the work and fate of this friar: according to the first, he lived in the monastery of St. Francis in Split, where he was also an inquisitor, so as a ‘guardian of morality’, he was in a great position to issue the first Croatian lectionary. 

According to the second theory, Bernardin was a friar in a Poljud monastery. Given that books were luxurious, expensive items at the time, friar Bernardin had to go into debt to print this lectionary and got into huge financial issues, forcing him to leave his monastery. After his death, his mother used the book inheritance to pay off his debts’. 

The importance and influence of Bernardin’s Lectionary

According to editors, this book was extremely important for the standardization of the Croatian language. ‘Texts from Bernardin’s Lectionary were disseminated across our entire region. They were transferred into other linguistic environments and adapted to them to make them closer to ‘the people’: the spin-offs of Bernardin’s book can be found from Dubrovnik Štokavian area to Kajkavian dialects in the north’, editors explain. 

Bernardin’s Lectionary was re-printed two more times in the 16th century.

The language in Bernardin’s Lectionary

The language found in the book is a vernacular language used at the time, so it also poses questions about liturgy in the Croatian region in that age. ‘The question of the national-language liturgy is highly complex’, Štrkalj Despot and Barbarić illustrate. 

‘At the time of printing of Bernardin’s Lectionary, the Holy Mass was held in Latin. However, some Croatian areas had the Pope’s approval for Slavic-language liturgy, but even then, it wasn’t spoken vernacular language, but literary Old Slavic or Old Church Slavic. 

This sparked the need for a lectionary-based on real, spoken Čakavian word which could bring the Bible closer to everyday people. At Holy Mass, Biblical texts would first be read in Latin, because it was mandatory, and then they would use texts from Bernardin’s Lectionary to interpret the texts to people’. 

Regarding the stylistic and linguistic markers of the book, the researchers say that ‘it was written in a beautiful, embellished folk Čakavian language, which was in line with European Renaissance tendencies of the time to bring literature and liturgy closer to the people’. 

The adaptation of the text and previously published transcripts

Many will wonder whether a text from 1495 can even be read with understanding by non-experts. This is where transcription and editing come in, but editors have to walk the fine line between adapting the text to modern times and preserving its original form. 

Editors said that ‘the way a text is prepared can help or hinder a layman’s understanding of the text. 

Before our version, there was only one transcription of this important text, made by Maretić, which could be read and understood only by well-versed laymen and experts. We hope that we have made this text more accessible and understandable to all those who are interested in its content. 

For beginners, we would recommend that they read Bernardin’s texts together with the contemporary Biblical text they are referring to for a better understanding of the meaning of particular words’. 

To sum up, Štrkalj Despot and Barbarić say: ‘While this text was intended for everyday people at the time when it originated, now it’s primarily intended for historians, theologians, literary historians and philologists, but also for all those interested in biblical texts, Croatian culture and linguistic antiquity’. 

Where to buy?

Bernardin’s Lectionary can be ordered from the online store of the Institute for Croatian Language and Linguistics as a hardcover.

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