Alexander Nadson, director of Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library in London





In the late 15th and early 16th centuries the Renaissance in Western Europe reached its peak. There are many factors which contributed to this. The tragic fall of Constantinpole in 1453 brought flood of Greek refugees, and with them the rediscovery of classical Greek civilization; the new geographical discoveries broadened the people's idea of the world. But the most decisive factor was the introduction of printing, which must be ranked among the greatest inventions of the mankind. Its advent marked the beginning of the era of "mass culture", because it made possible the rapid dissemination of new ideas among a great number of people. The history of printing began with the appearance the famous Bible, printed in 1456-58 in Mainz by Johann Gutenberg. After that date the printing spread rapidly to other European cities. One of the most important centres of early printing was Venice. It was there that in 1488 Aldo Manuzio founded his famous press which produced several first editions of classical Greek and Latin authors. However Manuzio was by far not the first or the only Venetian printer. There were several others who produced books in various languages. Thus the year 1506 saw the publication of the Czech Bible, while the first Slavonic book in Cyrillic script in Venice was printed in 1512. By coincidence, in the same year 1512, only some twenty miles away, a young Belarusian scholar obtained a degree of Doctor of Medicine at the University of Padua. His name was Francis Skaryna who a few years later was destined to become the first Belarusian printer.

At that time Padua was politically dependent on Venice. Skaryna must have known that city pretty well, for in a prayer printed by him some ten years later he refers to St Mark the Evangelist as the "glory of Venice (Venetsiiskaia pokhvala)". Perhaps it is not too fanciful to suppose that the flourishing printing and publishing industry in Venice gave him the idea of starting printing in his native tongue.

Francis Skaryna was born in the ancient Belarusian city of Polatsak, son a merchant named Luke. The dates of his birth and death are not known, and are variously estimated as c.1485-1540 (more probable) and c.1490-1551. He was very reticent about his religion, although the external evidence seems to show that he was a Catholic. It is not clear, however, whether he was born Catholic or became one later in life. One thing is sure that he was not a stranger to the Eastern Byzantine tradition. This was characteristic of Belarus of that time, where tolerant spirit was prevailing, and people did not speak of belonging Catholic or Orthodox faith, but rather to the "Roman" or "Greek" rites. In the royal charter granted to the city of Polatsak in 1498 it was stipulated that half of the city's dignitaries should belong to the Roman, and the other to the Greek rites.

Most probably Skaryna was initially educated by the Franciscans who since 1498 had their convent in Polatsak. They were Franciscans of strict Observance, known in Belarus and Poland as "Bernardines", from their most famous son, St Bernardino di Siena (1383-1444). They had a devotion to the Name of Jesus, which may be also detected in writings of Skaryna: in fact his name forms the basis of the acrostic incorporated in the Akafist in honour of the Name of Jesus, which he published in his prayer book in 1522.

In 1504 we see Skaryna at the University of Cracow, where in 1506 he receives the degree of Bachelor of Arts. In 1512, as has been mentioned before, he obtains the degree of Doctor of Medicine at the University of Padua. In the examination records he was referred to as "distinguished Doctor of Liberal Arts (eximius artium doctor)", but it is not known where he obtained that degree.

The years that followed were no doubt spent in preparation for his life's work, namely the production of a printed Bible in Belarusian. As his working base he chose Prague, probably because he found there facilities which were not available in his native country. His sponsors were Belarusian merchants. One of them, Bohdan Onkau, was member of the city council (radtsa) of Vilna. The first book, the Psalter, appeared on 6 August 1517. It was followed by other books of the Old Testament. Althogether he produced 23 books in Prague, but had to interrupt his work in 1519 for an unknown reason. Some authors think that the reason was the plague which was then raging in Prague. He returned to his native country and settled in its capital Vilna, where he opened a printing press in the house of the mayor of that city, Iakub Babich. There in 1522 he produced a prayer book for laymen, entitled Malaia podorozhnaia knizhka (Little travellers' Book), followed in 1525 by the Acts and Epistles of the Apostles. After that date his life seems to have been somewhat unsettled. For some time he served at the court of Prince Albrecht of Prussia in Königsberg, was employed as private secretary and physician to the Catholic bishop of Vilna, engaged in lawsuits over the inheritance of his wife Margaret, and even inprisoned by the creditors of his deceased brother Ivan. By 1535 he went back to Prague where he found employment as a gardener in the botanical garden, newly established by king Ferdinand I in Hradcany castle.

The complex figure of Skaryna has been attracting the attention of scholars for nearly two centuries. There is no unanimity of views about the language of his translations, whether it was Belarusian with an influence of Church Slavonic and Czech, or Church Slavonic saturated with Belarusian elements. Be that as it may, there is no denying the importance of Skaryna's pioneering work in introducing vernacular elements into religious texts, thus making them more accessible for ordinary readers. By doing so he also laid the foundations for the development of Belarusian literary language.

The Scottish biblical scholar and linguist E. Henderson in 1826 compared the language of the first chapter of Skaryna's  Book of Genesis with corresponding passages in Church Slavonic, Latin Vulgate and Greek Septuagint versions. He came to the conclusion that Skaryna's translation was made from the Latin Vulgate with the access to texts in other languages. Vladimirov in his monumental Doktor Francisk Skorina, ego perevody, pechatnyia izdaniia i iazyk (Doktor Francis Skaryna, his translations, printed editions and language. StP. 1888) was the first to show the dependence of Skaryna's texts on the Czech Bible of 1506. His conclusions were confirmed later by A. Florovski in Cheskaia bibliia v istorii russkoi knigi  (The Czech Bible in the history of Russian Book, Prague 1940-46) and other scholars.

Skaryna's biblical editions contain prefaces and postscripts. The latter are short notes giving place and date of publication as well as the name of the publisher, i. e. Skaryna himself. The prefaces, on the other hand, are original works. Their literary form has been subject of study by Prof. A. B. McMillin who concludes his article on Skaryna's prefaces with the following sentence: "The inspiration of Skaryna's life and work, including the exemplary reconciliation of complex ideas with unforced and lucid explication, elegant and polished writing with plain, sometimes even homely expressions in his original exegetic writing, ensure him an enduring and uniquely important place in the history of Belarusian culture." 

The question of sources used by Skaryna in his prefaces still remains open and requires further study. Vladimirov has already noted that he must have used the works of St Jerome (c.345-420) who translated the Bible into Latin; and of the Franciscan scholar Nicholas de Lyra (c. 1270-1349), whose Postillae Litterales  and Postillae Morales  were for a long time regarded as a definite commentary on the Bible. Jerome is mentioned by Skaryna by name, as are also St Ambrose (c.339-97) and the pope St Gregory the Great (c.540-604). Prof. Hans Rothe in his thought-provoking article gives examples of Skaryna's stylistic forms reminiscent of those found in Latin, and suggests that it would be interesting to compare them with the style of certain Latin fathers of the Church. 

Among the books published by Skaryna in Vilna, the most remarkable is Malaia podorozhnaia knizhka, a prayer book for laymen of Byzantine (Greek) rite, printed in 1522. In addition to the standard material found in books of this kind, it contains much of what is original and not found elsewhere. Of particular interest is the part containing the akafists, or hymns in honour of various saints, written on the model of the famous Greek Akathistos Hymnos  in honour of the Mother of God. Skaryna was the first to publish the entire collection. One of them, the akafist  in honour of the apostles Peter and Paul, contains an acrostic in the letters of the Slavonic alphabet. Moreover it includes the following praises of saint Peter: "Hail, Vicar of God, for whose sake you loved spiritual things (Raduisia, Bozhyi namestniche, i toho dlia dukhovnyia vozliubivyi)"; and: "Hail, head of glorious Rome, who have left there after you the shepherd of the flock of Christ (Raduisia, Rimu slavnoho hlavo, pastyria stada Khristova po sobe v nem ostavivyi)". One of the praises of St Paul reads: "Hail, you who suffered martyrdom in glorious Rome together with the Vicar of Jesus (Raduisia, ty vo prekhval'nom Rime vkupe s namesnikom Isusovym muchenie prinial)". In the second edition of this akafist in 1628 by the Orthodox confraternity in Vilna these passages were omitted or changed out of recognition...

The other two akafists, those in honour of the Name of Jesus and of Saint John the Baptist, contain acrostic on the name of Skaryna himself. Thus it is not unreasonable to suppose that Skaryna was the author of all three hymns just mentioned, especially since they are not found anywhere else. He may be also the author of some shorter prayers, in particular the beautiful prayer in praise of the Mother of God. If one includes some verses found in the prefaces to the books of the Bible, it may be said that Skaryna was the father of Belarusian poetry. 
There are three prayers by the 12th century Belarusian saint Cyril, Bishop of Turau. Their inclusion by Skaryna in his prayer book points out to the existence of an age-long local, "Belarusian", tradition.

Skaryna's editions are remarkable for their elegance of form, and may be considered as masterpieces of early printing art. The nineteenth-century art historian V. Stasov did not hesitate to call Malaia podorozhnaia knizhka a "Slav Elzevier". It and other books are full of ornamental initial letters, and richly illustrated with wood engravings, all of them in the style of South German graphic art. Some of the engravings and initial letters are "borrowings" from contemporary publications, in particular from Liber Chronicarum  of Hartman Schedel (Nuremberg 1493) and Israel Meneken. G. Pichura concludes his study of Skaryna's engravings with the following sentence: "His heritage is one which his 'brothers of Rus' contemplate with considerable and justifiable pride".

Skaryna was the first, not only in Belarus, but in Eastern Europe to use the new invention of printing to bring the light of knowledge to his people. Of course, for him knowledge was first of all the knowledge of the Word of God, and by introducing vernacular elements in his editions he made accessible to many what had been previously a prerogative of the few. The decision to use the vernacular was made deliberately, as can be seen from the following passage from Skaryna's preface to the Acts of the Apostles: "The prophets were given the spirit to speak only in Hebrew or Chaldaic. To the Apostles on the other hand, and to all those who believe in Christ, the Holy Spirit was given, so that they could proclaim the Divine truth, the word of salvation and the kingdom of God in all languages under the sun".

At the same time in his prefaces Skaryna popularised the ideas of Western scholarship such as the notion of "liberal arts", the origin of natural law etc. He was also ahead of time in his "ecumenical" approach ? his will to serve all people without distinction of religion.

The sentiments which inspired Skaryna in undertaking his work are made clear in the preface to the Book of Psalms: "Seeing the great usefulness of such small book, I, Francis, son of Skaryna from Polatsak, decided to print the Psalter... first of all for the glory and praise of God one in Trinity, and His Immaculate Mother Mary, as well as all the angels and saints of God, and for the common good, especially because merciful God caused me to be born in this world from among these people."

For, as he declares in the preface to the Book of Judith: "The beasts of the desert know from birth their lairs; birds that fly in the air know their nests; fish swimming in the sea and in the rivers  sense their whirlpools; bees and their like defend their hives. In the same manner people have great love for the place where they were born and brought up according to God's will."

There are people whose stature grows as the time passes. For Belarusians, Francis Skaryna is  no doubt one of these. Today there is hardly a schoolboy in Belarus who does not know who he was. Belarusians residing outside their native country also remember their great countryman, who, like them, spent the greater part of his life away from Belarus. They achieved much in the field of Skaryna studies at the time when the political atmosphere in Belarus was not favourable to academic freedom. One name stands out among those involved in Skaryna studies, that of Vitaut Tumash (1910-1998). Like Skaryna, he was doctor of medicine. After the Second World War he settled in the United States and dedicated all his free time to the study of the life and work of his illustrious predecessor. The number of his publications on the subject, under his own name and various pseudonyms, amounts to more than fifty. For the last fifteen years of his life he was an invalid, having suffered a series of strokes. Despite this in 1989 he produced the most complete and thorough bibliography on Skaryna
When in the late 1960s the idea of founding a Belarusian library in London was born, it was unanimously decided that it should bear the name of Francis Skaryna. Thirty years on, the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library has become a unique institution of its kind in the West, with extensive holdings in all branches of Belarusian studies. The Skaryna section occcupies the pride of place. It contains hundreds of works on the subject, not to mention five (and a fragment of the sixth) original Skaryna editions from 1517-18. 

In an age abounding in remarkable men, Skaryna was one of the foremost. At home in the West, in his native country he was perhaps ahead of his time. He was a man of the Renaissance and a humanist in the true sense of the word, striving towards God through service to his people here on earth. And in this he is both an inspiration and example to Belarusians of all generations.


Alexander Nadson
London 14 June 2001

Originally published at


Selected Works in the English Language on Skaryna

1. Cleminson R. et al., Cyrillic Books printed before 1701 in British and Irish Collections.  A Union Catalogue. London 2000. Pp. 3-8: descriptions of Skaryna editions in London  (British and Francis Skaryna) and Cambridge (Trinity College and University) libraries.
2. Dingley J., "Some Recent Soviet Publications on Francisk Skaryna. A review article".  The Journal of Byelorussian Studies, Vol. IV, No.3-4, London, 1980, pp.148-154.
3. Henderson E., Biblical Researches and Travels in Russia. London, 1826. Pp.103- 110: short account of Skaryna's work, and linguistic analysis of the first chapter of the  Book of Genesis.
4. McMillin A. B., A History of Byelorussian Literature . Giessen, 1977, pp. 40-52.
5. McMillin A.B., "Francis Skaryna's Biblical Prefaces and Their Place in Early  Byelorussian Literature". The Journal of Byelorussian Studies, Vol. VI, No.1, London,  1988, pp.3-11.
6. Nadson A., "Religious Trends and Books in the Sixteenth-Century Belarus". Solanus,  New Series, Vol 8, London, 1994, pp.33-52.
7. Nadson A, "Skaryna's Prayer Book". The Journal of Byelorussian Studies, Vol.II, No.4,  London 1972, pp.339-350.
8. Pichura G., "The Engravings of Francis Skaryna in his Biblija Ruska (1517-1519)". The  Journal of Byelorussian Studies, Vol. I, No.3, London 1967, pp.147-167.
9. Rothe H., "Sounds and Words: Reflections on Reading Skaryna" The Journal of  Byelorussian Studies, Vol. VI, No.1, London 1988, pp..20-28.
10. Tumash V., Five Centuries of Scoriniana XVI-XX. Piats stahodzdziau Skaryniiany  XVI-XX.  New York 1989, 284 pp.

* In some English-language works (due to the influence of Russian language sources) Skaryna's name is spelled as Skorina.