The Popular Enlightenment In Motion: Or What it Meant to Write in Latvian in the 18th Century

Pauls Daija (University of Latvia)

Between the 1760s and the 1820s approximately sixty Latvian language books were published by Baltic German Lutheran pastors. This occurred in the Latvian speaking regions of the Baltic Sea provinces of the Russian Empire during the time of serfdom, when the Latvian language was still regarded as a peasant language and the Latvians themselves a peasant class rather than a nation. The number of Latvian books published in this period is no less surprising for an expert of Latvian book history than their content, which is mostly secular. The books included not only practical manuals in agriculture, but also belletristic fiction, including the first secular poems, short stories and novels. The implicit attempt of these books was to cover every single aspect of a peasant’s everyday life. The seemingly different books embodied a project whose objective was to make a citizen from the uncivilized peasant/savage. This “secular turn” in previously religiously oriented Latvian writing practices was, in essence, revolutionary. How can this turn be described and interpreted from a contemporary point of view? To what extent was it emancipative, to what extent restrictive? What relation did it have to the European Enlightenment? Was it successful, and what were the consequences of the project in terms of 19th century nation building? This paper will attempt to give an insight into these questions from a comparative perspective, looking at the “secular turn” in Latvian book history as the result of cultural transfer from the German Volksaufklärung.

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