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CTV Channel documentary: Francysk Skaryna's Psalter

The Psalter. This book by Francysk Skaryna begins the era of Belarusian book printing. The documentary takes you back to those days to see how the Psalter was created, what the printing press looked like and what paper and paints were made of.  

Anastasia Benedysyuk, CTV Channel: 
In fact, the Psalter is Skaryna's first investment project. Earlier than Russians and Ukrainians, we, Belarusians, received the first printed book in our native language.

Where was Skaryna born? Was he behind the printing press? Find answers to these questions in our movie from the cycle "To the 500th anniversary of Belarusian book printing." We also reveal the secrets of Skaryna's appearance and name. 

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August 6th, 1517, Prague. Historians still argue what the author of The Psalter, Francysk Skaryna, wanted to say when writing this phrase on the first page of his book. Did he mark the day of publication or did he just decide to begin the work in such a way? Anyway, on this day the Belarusian writer Francysk Skaryna from the glorious city of Polotsk was much ahead of time.

Not Russians, Ukrainians or Lithuanians, but Belarusians were the first to receive a printed book in their native language.

The Psalter became a kind of Bible. And, despite the assurances that the word of God cannot go from an impersonal machine, Skaryna convinced everyone in the opposite. The publication of the book was a huge step forward, a kind of Renaissance for Bible. What’s more, Skaryna challenged the previous traditions of religious books by the fact that he changed the sequence of the Bible’s books by typing The Psalter first. Although some people consider the publication to be only a breakthrough of the pen, a kind of an experiment, researchers are absolutely sure that the work on creating the book was planned to the smallest details, especially in terms of technology.

However, the process of creating the first and the most famous book by Skaryna was both very difficult and enticing.

It started with the production of the paper itself, which at that time was called “cherpannoy” (scooped paper). Why did people use to call it in such a way? Paper was usually made from linen, and sometimes cotton, hemp or any other fibrous mass were used instead.

First of all the raw materials were processed with the help of large water mills and turned into something similar to liquid dough or glue. Further, using a frame with a sieve, the master scooped up paper pulp and waited for the water to drain off (in Russian “scoop” is “cherpat”, that’s why the paper got this very name). The size of the frame depended on the size of the page the master wanted to get.

Eventually, paper mass left without water was put under the press for firing.

Since paper makers used to work with bare hands, if you look at the ancient paper through sunlight, you can sometimes find a fingerprint of the master on it.

The production of paper was rather expensive, so Skaryna did not use the materials of the highest quality. But he did this only to make the price of the book not so high so that as many people as possible could afford to buy it.

It was an absolutely right decision. Representatives of different classes bought the book, including even peasants. It became evident from the inscriptions, which each of the books’ owners made on the front pages. Moreover, it is clear as day that if people bought the book, they learned to read.

Today, renovated and almost born-again, The Psalter is almost at home: 16th-century-styled interior of the library and rare books around. The old book is now surrounded by humidity sensors and other protection measures, which only underlines its high status.

For the publication of The Psalter Skaryna chose one of only two printing houses working at that time in Prague. Its owner was a merchant Severin. While the book was printed, the author, inspired and committed to his work, lived right there in the attic. Skaryna worked at Severin’s printing house for another three years.

So who is Francysk Skaryna, the legendary educator and one of the most outstanding people from Belarus?

The life of the future writer began in Polotsk, Francysk’s father and brother were traders, which means that they were a very educated and respected family.

At first little Skaryna studied at the Bernardine monastery in the Belarusian town of Polotsk. However, later he was not least offered to become a monk, but was sent to study in Krakow at the Jagiellonian University. Perhaps, it was the place where Skaryna had the first ideas of writing a book.

In Krakow, young Francysk studied medicine for five years, but he received his doctorate only at the University of Padua in Italy, 1512. At that time the university in Padua did not work, but after the meeting of the whole board, Skaryna was allowed to take exams for free to become a doctor of medicine.

Now we can find his portrait among the portraits of forty most outstanding graduates of the University of Padua in one of its halls.

But the man, well-known to all of us as a writer, was not only the doctor of medicine.

Francysk Skaryna was also a secretary of the King of Denmark, and a good friend of such Renaissance titans as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael.

What’s more he was the very excellent botanist and landscape designer, who helped to create the whole park of citrus trees for the King of Bohemia.

All the sides of this talented person are very clearly reflected on the pages of The Psalter. Turning over the ancient book, we immediately notice beautiful illustrations, elements of flowers, plants and citrus trees.

We also can’t help but pay attention to the original layout of the font. Somewhere words are printed in the shape of a flower vase, and somewhere letters resemble smiling faces. Both adults and children will obviously like such a book, won’t they?

Many secrets and mysteries are still waiting for the researchers and scientists who work with the pages of The Psalter. However, one thing is absolutely clear.

Francysk Skaryna and his first book have forever gone down in history, and will remain a source of pride, a symbol of education and spirituality for a long time, not only in Belarus, but also throughout the world.

CTV Channel documentary: Francysk Skaryna's Psalter