Date of this Version
Kosmas: Czechoslovak and Central European Journal, New Series, Volume 2, number 2 (2021), 22-41
In Nebraska, a family of Czech ancestry possesses a precious and unusual family artifact—an antique early-modern book, which was passed down in the family from generation to generation as their most precious treasure, a book that is much older than most carefully investigated family genealogies. The book has neat calligraphy and prints, leather binding, and comprises more than a thousand pages, though the first batch of pages is missing. The inside of the cover bears a pencil-written date: 1542. There are no title pages, no forewords, and no introductory chapter(s). The family lore tells that they kept it hidden in order to avoid purges of Protestant literature; they believe it was placed in dough, then baked and kept in a huge loaf of bread, hidden in an old chimney and buried underground to prevent its destruction. Finally, having saved the book, the family brought it with them on their long passage over the Atlantic Ocean, and so it ended up in Nebraska in their possession. The family is aware of their ancestors having come from a Moravian Protestant community, yet they wonder who the author could be?
In 2014, the Štěpán family, immensely proud of this historical treasure, approached Dr. Stephen Lahey, a specialist on early modern and Hussite theology, in order to determine the manuscript’s authorship and learn more about the family history through the manuscript. The whole manuscript was digitized by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln libraries. As an instructor of Czech, with some experience in similar projects, I was fortunate to join Dr. Lahey on a fascinating detective journey of examining the precious publication. Through close reading and transcribing, by the elimination of various other postils, and finally by closely examining the actual print and markers, with final help and the expertise of archivist David Mach from the Czech National Library in Prague we were able to determine the authorship, and the exact edition. It was two years of an exciting research journey. The early modern volume, written in early Brethren Czech, was identified as a Czech translation of a postil by Johann Spangenberg, published in 1557.