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Book of the Week: Vaclav Steyer’s Postilla

page 516 featuring image of Christ

“In the beginning was the Word…”
John 1:1

Matej Vaclav Steyer
Prague, 1691
xBS2348 C8 S74

The word postil or postilla is an abbreviated term for a marginal note or Biblical commentary. Derived from the Medieval Latin phrase,“post illa verba textus” (after these words), postils were intended to provide clarification and spiritual instruction.

English chronicler, Nicholas Trivet, first described such texts in the thirteenth century. Within the next hundred years, the term postil became exclusively synonymous with an annual cycle of homilies or sermons. Martin Luther was the author of some of the most famous postils, including Enarrationes epistolarum et evangeliorum quas postillas vocant, Kirchenpostille (1527), and Hauspostille (1542).

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Like the Bible, postils were written and translated into many different languages. The first translation of the Bible into Czech, for example, was written between 1365-1375. The Dresden Bible, as it was called, is the oldest complete Bible in any Slavic language. Bibles printed in Czech appeared throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Translations were based on both Vulgate Latin and the original languages of the Bible: Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic.

By 1620, the publication of non-Catholic Bibles in Bohemia and Moravia were prohibited. In an effort to increase strictly Catholic texts, a group of Jesuits were entrusted to do the work. The St. Wenceslaus Bible was published in 1715 by a Jesuit society founded in honor of the saint.

page 507 featuring Jesus and cross, includes title "Postilla"
Matej Vaclav Steyer (1630 – 1692) was a Czech Jesuit priest, preacher, translator, religious writer, and linguist who, with his mother Marie Steyerova, founded a society whose purpose was to publish and distribute Czech Catholic books. In addition to the St. Wenceslaus Bible, Steyer published other religious texts including Eternal Hell’s Dungeon (1679), Czech Hymns (1683), and his very own Postilla (1691).

Steyer’s Postilla was written during a very polarizing time in Bohemia, when Protestants were publicly persecuted and exiled. The Habsburg era from 1620 to the late 18th century was known as the “Dark Age” by the Czech people, as the nation suffered from a declining population, war, famine and disease. The German Habsburgs prohibited not only religious freedom, but national liberty and identity, replacing the Czech language and culture with German language and influence. Thus, Steyer’s publication was an attempt to hold on to the cultural and linguistic values by printing the Catholic text in Czech.

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The hardships of the Czech nation continued under various rulers and shifting borders. During the twentieth century, Czechoslovakia was divided country, with regions occupied by both Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II. Although “liberated” by the Soviet Union after the war, increased dissatisfaction with the communist regime quickly led to turmoil and rebellion. In 1968, the reform movement known as the Prague Spring initiated another series of tumultuous events for the people of Czech Republic.  

One such story is brought to us by Peter Semelka, a Czech immigrant who fled to the United States just one year after the Prague Spring erupted. Semelka and his wife only brought their most valuable possessions, including a copy of Vaclav Steyer’s Postilla. The book was presented to former Utah Governor, Calvin Rampton, as a tribute of gratitude for the support and friendship the Semelka family received during their first year in Utah. Peter Semelka wrote in a letter to the Governor, 

“This book is a document of great value, proving the love and esteem of the Czech nation of their mother tongue. In 1691, when this book was written, the Czech nation suffered under the yoke of the German Habsburgs, who tried to suppress not only the national liberty but to drive the nation of their language, introducing the German language and the German influence to the occupied Czech country…. The writer, Vaclav Steyer, realized that only the church and the School can help to maintain the Czech language and wrote his Postil for the use of the priests and teachers, so that they may preach, teach and spread the Word of God in Czech language.” 

Now held in Rare Books, the survival of Postilla demonstrates the power of the book. As Semelka noted in his interview with the Salt Lake Tribune, “…thousands of people have fled their country in order to save the most precious thing to each of us — liberty and human dignity,” and, of course, their books.

Contributed by Lyuba Basin, Rare Books Curator

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