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Stjepan Krasić: Pape i hrvatski književni jezik u 17. stoljeću (The Popes and The Croatian Standard Language in the 17th Century)

In the biography of Dominican Stjepan Krasić we may read that he spent a long series of years in Rome as a scientist. He was mostly interested in subjects related to the Croatian history. This must have helped him to notice, while thumbing through the archives of the former Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Congregation de Propaganda Fide — today Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples or Society for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome) something that others have overlooked: in the 17th century, Croatian language was studied in all European ecclesiastical schools and universities, along with other five great languages. After he has published his discovery, history of development of the Croatian standard language will never be the same again.

Times, about which Krasić is speaking, were exceptionally unfavourable for Croats. They subsisted in four state entireties: The Habsburg Monarchy, The Ottoman Empire, The Venetian Republic and The Republic of Dubrovnik. Because of that fact, all significant social and cultural events were proceeding long way from home, in Rome. Croatian intellectuals were trying to find a way to turn the tables on the historical fate. They were aware that apart from the Catholic religion, there is another factor important for the continued existence of a nation: the language. Such opinions found a rich soil in Vatican offices, especially in the 16th century, after the Trident Council in the beginning of the Catholic revival.

Benevolence of the Holy See towards Croatia was definitely not accidental. The Holy See always believed that the Church schism in the year 1054 was only temporary, and was trying in all possible ways to bridge over the created abyss. Such disunion was especially noticeable among the Slavic nations. Considering that, at least from the 15th century onwards, there was a conviction among the Slavs that they are all descending from Croats, it is not surprising that the Holy See has chosen Croats and their language as the most appropriate means for settling the circumstances regarding the Church among the Slavic nations. Krasić says that Italian humanist Enea Silvio Piccolomini (1405-1464), later to be Pope Pio II (1458-1464), put into circulation the information that Dalmatian language is not only the most beautiful, but also the oldest and the most spread Slavic language (page 35). During one of his diplomatic journeys across the Middle Europe, he has heard the legend of Croatian brothers Czech, Lech and Mech, who have escaped due to difficult circumstances in Croatia towards north and became ancestors of Slavic nations the Czechs, the Poles and the Russians. Other great intellectual of those times have also known about this legend, including those from the mentioned nations. All of this has contributed to the decision, reached by the Popes, that Croatian language should be the joint ecclesiastic language of all Slavs.

However, the fact that the Croatian language was not yet standardised represented a great difficulty to the realisation of this Papal idea. Croats were speaking and writing in three dialects: the Chakavian, the Shtokavian and the Kaikavian. It seemed that the first mentioned dialect, the Chakavian, would become the Croatian standard language. It was much more expanded than it is today and the most of the literary works were written in it. On the other hand, both in Croatia and abroad the opinion prevailed that it was the most beautiful and the purest Croatian language. Even writers from Dubrovnik, who were born Shtokavians believed it to be true. Still, standardisation of the Croatian language took a different road. Great contribution to such development of the situation was given by Bosnian Franciscans. They wrote numerous, mostly devotional and patriotic books for the people in the Shtokavian dialect. Because of their quality, those books were distributed even through other Croatian territories. Bartul Kašić made the final step. Jesuitical Order, to which he belonged, gave special attention to Catholics in the Ottoman Empire. They came to a conclusion that standard language should not be invented or imposed, but the most dispersed dialect should simply be chosen. And in those times it was the Shtokavian. Task to write the first grammar book was trusted to Bartul Kašić, the Chakavian from the island of Pag. He published it in Rome in the year 1604, under the title Institutionum linguae illyricae libri duo. He has completed some of the other works, too, the most significant being the translation of the Holy Bible, which, unfortunately remained in manuscript. If it were different standardisation of Croatian language would probably have a different course. The main characteristic of his works is that he uses the Ikavian Shtokavian dialect as the most dispersed popular dialect that anyone might understand.

And so, prerequisite conditions to learn Croatian in schools were being created. Today it seems as scattering ashes in order to let live coals come to life again in their full strength. Popes have issued two significant decrees. The first one is by the Pope Gregory XV, issued December 6th, 1622. By this decree, Departments of Illyrian and Arabic language are being founded. All ecclesiastic orders that owned monasteries in the territory of the Venetian Republic or in other places where it was possible to find lecturers for the mentioned languages, were obliged to found such departments as soon as possible. The other, for Croatian language even more significant decree, was issued by Pope Urban VIII on October 16th, 1623. By this decree he asked all superiors of all ecclesiastic orders, congregations and institution involved in education and preparation of missionaries for their work, to found departments for the following languages (along with the Latin language): the Hebrew, the classical Greek, the modern Greek, the Arabian, the Chaldaean (the Syriac) and the »Illyrian« language. This decree referred not only to the area of the Venetian Republic, but also to all territories in Europe. And those who failed to perform the duty were severely punished.

Only one significant question is left unsolved: which are the areas belonging to the Illyricum, and congruently, which is the Illyrian language? After the thorough study, the Holy Rota Court delivered the judgement issuing the bull in the year 1655, stating that Illyricum includes Dalmatia, the narrower part of Croatia, Bosnia and Slavonia. On that occasion, the geographical map was created. The language spoken in those parts is Illyrian, which is the synonym for Croatian and Slovinian language. The idea of uniting all Slavic nations was ready to begin its realisation.

Today we are aware how significant and beneficial for Croats were all these moves made by the Holy See. With its language politics, it has set the basis for the unique Croatian standard language, it has created the means to help its realisation (the grammar, the dictionary, the orthography), and it has encouraged literary and scientific creation. In that way, the idea of the union of the nation in all its national territory was kept alive, that is, the Holy See has inspired the union of Croats almost three centuries before they won their union. And it did it in such way that there was no damage done to the Croatian nation.

Krasić’s book is a valuable guide through the path of shedding light on dark places of the development of Croatian standard language. It clearly demonstrates that this language is independent and that the history of its standardisation is very long. This puts the stop on all violent merging of languages, and nations, in the name of the South Slavic, Yugoslavian, and now the West Balkan idea. Croats and their language have been a part of the European civilisation for centuries. Cause to their challenging history was the fact that they were the guards on the contact line between the West European and Christian civilisation with other civilisations. Krasić writes about that, too, but with a scientific distance, which is another quality of this book of his.

Miljenko Stojić

• Publisher: Matica hrvatska, Zagreb — Čitluk, 2004

• 160 pages

• ISBN 953-150-133-5

Most (The Bridge), 1-2, Društvo hrvatskih književnika / The Croatian writers’ association, Zagreb, May 2005, pages 20-21

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