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Exhibitions of the Rare Books Department

A. Voznesensky

16th-17th Century ABC Books, Grammars and Dictionaries

From the wide range of early printed Cyrillic books, we selected those intended for providing opportunities to easy access to all the other books. They deal with the language, since bad or insufficient knowledge of the language causes difficulties with reading. In distinction from many literary works or scientific treatises, such books will remain essential until information passes on in text form.

In medieval Slavonic book tradition, books of this kind were copied and published repeatedly. However, very few of them have survived to the present day, and primarily, due to the active usage of them, leading to their physical deterioration and then to destruction. The collection of the Department of Rare Books of the National Library of Russia contains a very representative selection of such books, although phisical condition of some items leaves much to be desired.

Among the 16th-17th century Cyrillic publications are a number of manuals on the Church Slavonic language, and not all of them have the same purpose. In general, they are divided into two large groups: educational books and scientific works. The first mainly embraces the books that were used for teaching reading. In the Middle Ages, the Eastern Slavs issued for this goal ABC books and primers teaching to transcribe speech. Then, armed with this knowledge, the pupils continued on to the reading. After the study of the primers, the pupils practised the reading of exercises which were usually chosen from the Book of Hours and the Psalter, because of the importance of these two books for every Orthodox Christian. The Book of Hours contained the order of daily services prescribed by the Orthodox religion. The Book of Psalms included the main prayers for Christian worship, in addition, it was an indispensable ritual book for appropriate saying farewell to the dead.

Primer on the Slavonic Language. Lvivв, 1671. Title page.
It is noteworthy that the practice of using the Book of Hours for exercises in reading was embodied in the 1596 edition in Vilna (now Vilnius), The imprint of the publication stated, 'this is the Book of Hours. It is preceded by the ABC to teach to children wishing to learn to read.' Unfortunately, all copies of this book are held in British libraries outside of Russia.

There was no common viewpoint how to name textbooks for teaching reading skill. The tendention to divide the books of this kind into two categories: ABC books and primers, depending on their contents, was established by bibliographers who defined an "ABC" as the most simple and elementary manual. Publishers themselves called book in various ways: the ABC, as did the Moscow printer Vasily Fedorov (No. 1), and the Primer, as it was usual in south-western Russia (No. 2), and even Grammar (No. 3). Often printers did not give names to these books at all, they believed that one title on the first page, indicating that 'this is the Beginning of Learning For Children' (№ 4), is enough.