Peasant education

One important part of Swedish religious policy was the promotion of literacy among peasants and the publication of Estonian religious literature, intended to strengthen the official religion — Lutheranism. One of the central ideas of Martin Luther’s teaching was that one should be able to read the Scriptures and the principles of religion in one’s mother tongue. The dissemination of Lutheran ideology and of the above-mentioned principle was furthered by the invention of the printing press, and the spread of the printed word, which had become established by the time Reformation started. The origins of the Estonian book are connected with the Reformation. Unfortunately, only fragments of one book printed in the 16th century have survived, but there are records that several Estonian-language publications were in use in Tallinn. During the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church was also engaged in educational activities and the publication of religious books, probably to counterbalance Lutheranism. The Jesuits’ activity in South Estonia resulted in the publication of some Estonian Catholic books at the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century.

The publication of Estonian language books gained momentum in the 1630s. The dissemination of printed texts was promoted by the establishment of printing shops in Tartu, and most importantly, in Tallinn where the majority of 17th-century publications were issued — they were religious books (service books, hymn books, prayer books) addressed to clergymen. As of the mid-17th century the Bible had been translated into Estonian, but it was not published as a full text during the Swedish reign. Only the New Testament was issued (1686) in the dialect of South Estonia.

The Swedish clergy intended to teach Estonian peasants to read and write, and to found village schools. As in other fields, more systematic work in promoting education started in the 1630s. This was contemporary with the promotion of village schools both in Catholic and Protestant countries throughout Europe; on the Swedish mainland, a network of village schools was created in the 1620s. In Estonia, peasant schooling had long been the responsibility of the lower clergy, the cantors; later, children were taught at home. In some parishes schoolmasters were employed and village schools functioned. A change in the system of schooling was caused by a church law put into effect under the reign of the absolutist monarch Charles XI (1672–1697); this prescribed the establishment of village schools throughout Estonia and introduced a payment system for schoolmasters. For a short time a seminary was open in mid-Estonia which trained village teachers. Although this was soon closed down upon the death of the principal, it signified a new stage in the development of Estonian village school. In four years 160 young men of Estonian origin were trained who were later active in schools all over Estonia. It is very difficult to estimate the literacy of a peasant population in the 17th century, but on the analogy of German students in Tallinn city schools in the 17th century, it can be averred that they were able to comprehend simple religious texts, the catechism, etc.

Details about this article