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April 2012 Item of the Month

A unique funeral oration in the Routh Library

In the library of Martin Joseph Routh 1755-1854 is an anonymous looking vellum bound volume, Routh 60.F.27, containing three 16th-century tracts, at first sight not of particular interest. The first two are replies to an attack on the ancestry of the humanist Paul Scaliger who was variously said to have been Croatian, Hungarian or German. The third item in the volume, discussed here, was published in Königsberg in 1547.

Image of the title page of Hoppe's oration. (Ref: Routh 60.F.27/3)
The title page of Hoppe's oration (Routh 60.F.27/3).

Oratio funebris in obitum nobilis ac clarissimi uiri Doctoris Abrahami Culuensi … was written by Johann Hoppe ca. 1520-1565 who was a graduate of Wittenberg University and Professor of Ethics at the newly founded Academia Albertina in Königsberg, then in the Duchy of Prussia. It forms an early and very important source for the biography of Abraomas Kulvietis who was a friend and colleague of Hoppe’s and also the first Lithuanian Protestant reformer. The significance of the Routh copy of this work is that it is now the only example known to exist. Two copies were recorded in the 1890s as being in the library of the Academia Albertina. Königsberg suffered damage from two air raids by the Royal Air Force in August 1944 and the city was then virtually levelled by further bombing and heavy street fighting before it fell to the Soviet Army in April 1945; the university and municipal libraries were completely destroyed and both copies are presumed to have been lost during this period. A manuscript copy of the printed version surfaced in 1970 in Cracow but comparison with the original demonstrates that it is corrupt in many places. It is interesting to note that this is not Durham’s only connection with Königsberg; the Cathedral Library possesses a collection of some 130 17th-century addresses and dissertations from the Academia Albertina, many of which are very rare.
Abraomas Kulvietis or Abraham Culvensis was born into a family of minor nobility in Kulva in Lithuania between 1510 and 1512. In 1529 he obtained a bachelor’s degree at the University of Cracow and subsequently embarked on a career as a ‘perpetual student’. He was studying in Louvain by 1533 and first came into contact with Protestant ideas there. He subsequently attended the Universities of Leipzig and Wittenberg and finally, in 1540, obtained a doctorate in canon and civil law at the University of Siena, which was at this time a centre of Italian Protestant thought. On his return to Lithuania under the protection of the wife of Archduke Sigismund the Old, an Italian noblewoman named Bona Sforza, Kulvietis set up a school in Vilnius for the sons of the nobility. This swiftly came to the attention of the church authorities in 1543, and, after a warning from Bona Sforza, he was forced to flee to safety in Königsberg, in the Lutheran Duchy of Prussia, where he spent the last two years of his life. He was allowed back in 1545 to die on his estate, but, as he was now an excommunicate, he was not permitted a church burial.
Hoppe’s oration is also significant in that it reproduces Kulvietis’ Protestant declaration of faith made in a letter to his patroness, Bona Sforza. This is the first such declaration published for distribution in Lithuania. Kulvietis’ ideas owed much to the Italian reformer, Bernardino Ochino, whom he probably knew in Siena, but his denunciation of the corruption and oppressive nature of the Catholic Church in Lithuania was all his own. His statements on his religious ideas were more tentative, especially on the number and validity of the sacraments, although he was clear on the primacy of salvation by God’s mercy rather than good deeds. The highly controversial nature of this document may partly explain why only one copy has survived into the 21st century.

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