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Lusatian (Sorbian) Collections

This page provides an overview of the Lusatian (Sorbian) collections, illustrated by specific examples. We acquire material across the spectrum of the humanities and social sciences

History

Lusatian Sorbs, also known as Lusatians, Sorbs or Wends, are perhaps the least known of the Slavonic peoples and, because of their name, are often confused with the Yugoslav Serbs. 

Lusatians are the last survivors of the once numerous Slavonic tribes who inhabited a large area between the rivers Elbe and Oder. They now form only a pocket of Slavonic speaking peoples occupying the south-east corner of Germany. In the south, Lusatia borders on to the Czech Republic while its Eastern frontier is provided by the Oder/Niesse river which forms Germany's boundary with Poland.

The Upper Lustatian official emblem

The Upper Lustatian official emblem © The British Library Board

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Lusatian Sorbs are linguistically and culturally related to their two Slavonic neighbours and there are also historical links with both countries. Throughout the 12 centuries of its existence, the history of the Sorbian nation is that of domination by its more powerful German neighbours penetrating eastwards into Lusatian territory. Germans were the first to introduce Christianity to the Lusatians, but major inroads were not made until the Cyrillo-Methodian and especially Polish missions when Lusatia was briefly united with Poland in the 11th century. 

From that time until the Thirty Years War, Lusatia came under the control of the Czech Crown. In the 13th century, the area was divided into Lower Lusatia (capital Chosebuz, Cottbus in German) and Upper Lusatia (capital Budysin, Bautzen in German). This separation was further cemented by the Reformation when most of Lower Lusatia, together with the German population, adopted Lutheranism, while Upper Lusatia remained Catholic. In 1635 the Peace of Prague ceded both Upper and Lower Lusatia to Saxony. 

In 1815, the Congress of Vienna ceded Lower Lusatia together with the greater part of Upper Lusatia, to Prussia. Unremitting Germanisiation, which began with Frankish and Saxon invasions in the 6th century, continued to reduce the Slavonic speaking Sorbs to about 120,000 before World War II.

The Lower Lusatian official emblem

The Lower Lusatian official emblem © The British Library Board

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Collections

In the following text, codes which appear in brackets after references ([Ac.855.ba]) indicate British Library shelfmarks.

The birth of Sorbian literature came with the Reformation and the need for the translation of religious texts. Lusatia's political division was reflected in the development of its language which grew into two standardised forms. The number of books printed was very small and many translations remained in manuscript including the first Lower Lusation translation of the New Testament (1548) by M. Jakubica. The first Lower Lusatian printed book is Albin Moller's Zpevnik a katechism (Hymnal and catechism) (1574) of which only one copy is known to have survived. The British Library has a facsimile copy published in Berlin in 1959 [Ac.855.ba]. Moller was also interested in astronomy and the Library has a German edition of his Schreib Calendar... auf das Jahr... (1584) [8610.bb.62(2)] as well as later ones from 1605, 1606 and 1616 [1608/635]. The first Upper Lusatian printed book was a translation of Luther's Little Catechism of Warichius in 1595 (reprinted in 1597).

The earliest Sorbian printed text in the British Library dates from 1603 and is the Lord's Prayer contained in Hieronymus Megiser's Specimen quinquaginta (Frankfurt, 1603) [G.20009], a collection of the Lord's Prayer in 50 languages. Sorbian also appears as one of the languages in the earliest multilingual dictionary - Megiser's Thesaurus polyglottus (Frankfurt, 1603) [826.a.10,11]. The Thirty Years War put an end to the infant printing activity and publishing was resumed only towards the end of the 17th century. Sorbian early printed books are very rare. Only some twenty titles were issued by 1700 and these were mostly of religious character. Very few secular works were printed but some manuscripts that have survived, were published by later scholars.

Study of the Sorbian language began in the 17th century and the British Library has the earliest Upper Lusatian grammar; Principia lingua Wendicae by the Jesuit J. X. Ticinus, published in Prague in 1679 [G.16748] and Abraham Frencel's celebrated dictionary De originibus linguae Sorabicae (1694) [68.a.15(1)] and [1333.e.22]. There is also Wendische grammatica by G. Matthaeus and Vocabularium latino-serbicum [1568/3568] by the Catholic author J.H.Swetlik, both from 1721. Between 1688 and 1711, Swetlik took on the task of translating the Vulgate for the Catholics but it was never printed. Translations of biblical texts, carried out by Protestant theologians, had an enormous influence on the development of both Lusatian languages. M. Frencel's Upper Lusatian translation of ss. Matthew and Mark was printed in 1670 and was followed in 1706 by his complete New Testament. In 1728 this was incorporated into a complete Bible [1410.c.4] which is held by the British Library together with its revised editions of 1742 [3061.c.1] and 1797 [3061.dd.9]. The first Lower Lusatian New Testament was printed in 1709 [C.110.e.14] and, like the Upper Lusatian version, was printed in parallel German and Lusatian columns with the title page in German. The Lower Lusatian Old Testament did not follow until 1796 [3061.e.6]. Both are in the British Library collections.

Panslavism, which under the influence of the French Revolution and German romanticism, started as a movement among intellectuals, scholars and poets in various Slavonic countries, also awakened an awareness of a Sorbian national identity and greatly influenced Sorbian literary development. Poetry in Sorbian began to flourish and was mostly published in periodicals that started to appear in the second half of the 19th century. The British Library has the first collected works of the major Upper Lusatian poet of the time, Handrij Zejler, published in 1883-1891 [012265.h.4]. During his own lifetime, Zejler's work appeared mostly in journals, but the Library holds his Lusatian grammar entitled Kurzgefasste Grammatik der sorbenwendischen Sprache nach dem Budissiner Dialekte (1830) [12976.d.24]. The greatest 19th-century Sorbian poet, Jakub Bart-Cisinski, also came form Upper Lusatia but, unlike Zejler, was a Catholic. The Library holds his first collection of poems, Kniha sonettow, published in Budysin in 1884 [1578/5548] as well as first editions of his later works published at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. The Lusatian literary revival of the 1920s and 1930s is represented in the Library by many publications including several monographic series.

The British Library has the longest running Sorbian journal, Casopis Macicy Serbskeje (1848-1918) [Ac.8954] which played an important role in the development of national cultural traditions, language and literature. Its publisher, Macica Serbska, was a patriotic learned society, founded in 1845, on the lines of similar bodies in other Slavonic countries, and the British Library holds most of its other publications. There is also J. Wjacslawk's catalogue [Ac.8954/2] from 1924 of the Macica's library. The Treaty of Versailles after World War I crushed any hopes of Lusatian independence, which confirmed its territorial inclusion in the Weimar Republic. Brutal germanisation came to a head under the Nazi regime when Domowina (the "Homeland"), a Lusatian national organisation established in 1912, was closed down and the contents of its library dispersed.

After 1945, Lusatian territory became part of East Germany and the GDR's constitution ensured equality of rights for the Sorbian minority. School instruction in the Sorbian languages was secured as well as provisions for broadcasting and publishing. Domowina resumed its work including publishing; the number of journals and books issued increased, covering not only Lusatian authors but also maintaining an active translating activity. The Serbski Institute in Budysin was founded for the study of Sorbian language, literature and culture. The British Library has a complete run of the Institute's publications including studies and reprints of rare early books and manuscripts. During the 1960s, the British Library negotiated an exchange programme to ensure a regular supply of Lusatian publications in addition to new, secondhand and antiquarian purchasing.

Economic changes that have swept the former GDR since 1990 have, inevitably, put the Sorbian minority under an increased pressure to assimilate with the German population. The democratisation process, on the other hand, provides a greater freedom for the expression of activities often based on religious traditions. A lively publishing programme is still being maintained and the British Library continues to acquire a representative selection of material to ensure the continuity of what is estimated to be one of the best collections of Lusatian publications world-wide.

Catalogues and other resources about Lusatian (Sorbian)

Lusatian (Sorbian) material available elsewhere in the British Library

Contact

Susan Halstead, Curator, Czech, Slovak and Lusatian Studies
European Studies
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7588

E-mail: susan.halstead@bl.uk