Bengt Gottfried Forselius

Bengt Gottfried Forselius (c. 1660 – autumn 1688) was a pedagogue of Swedish origin, who was of great service in promoting popular education and literacy in Estonia at the end of the Swedish era. He reformed the Estonian literary language, made it easier for Estonians to read, and for two years trained a number of schoolteachers at his own school. 

Forselius was born in the village of Madise in western Harjumaa county, the son of a pastor from Umeå in northern Sweden. He studied at the Tallinn Gymnasium and law at the University of Wittenberg. From 1683 to 1684 he taught at Risti in Läänemaa county in a school for the peasantry set up by his brother-in-law, Gabriel Herlin for 50 Swedish and Estonian boys. Development of the education of the peasantry had been made a priority in the Kingdom of Sweden by King Karl XI. In 1684 the Superintendent of Livonia, Johann Fischer, established a school for the peasantry at Piiskopi Manor near Tartu, which is known in Estonian cultural history as Forselius’ seminary. In 1685 the school was forced to move to Tartu. The school’s teachers were Forselius and two Estonian teachers from his home district. Over the next two years, 160 Estonian boys gained an education at the school. Many of them later worked in peasant schools as teachers or sacrists. There is a well-known story in Estonian culture of how in 1686 Forselius went to visit the king in Sweden with two of his Estonian schoolboys and demonstrated the boys’ skill in reading. In 1686 Forselius’ school evidently closed its doors, but his activities were continued by new peasant schools, whose establishment was bound by a decree of the king that year: a peasant school was to be opened at every church in Livonia. In September 1688 Forselius visited the king in Stockholm again, and he was made the inspector of Estonian rural schools on the recommendation of Johann Fischer. Unfortunately the ship on which Forselius was travelling home from Stockholm sank with all on board in the Baltic Sea.

Forselius used novel pedagogical methods in his teaching, which made it possible to learn to read faster than before. In 1686, apparently, a reading-book appeared in Riga, compiled by Forselius on the basis of his work at Risti and in Tartu and which used an orthography somewhat different to that of Heinrich Stahl’s grammar. Stahl’s German-based orthography was intended for German pastors to acquire the Estonian language. Although Forselius’ orthography also was based substantially on High German, it applied a spelling close to the actual speech of the people (for example, dispensing with the German-specific foreign letters.) and was intended for the children of Estonian peasants learning their mother tongue. The reader from 1686 has not survived, but it was published later in at least five editions, the earliest preserved specimen being from 1694. The Forselius’ reader, which had proved itself as effective teaching matter, was adopted to the South Estonian language probably by Adrian Virginius. The earliest preserved Forselius reader in this Tartu variety dates from 1698. The church authorities were opposed to Forselius’ orthographic innovations, regarding them as ugly and odd, and at first they banned his reader. However, on the basis of Forselius’ system a new Grammatica Esthonica was compiled in 1693 (under the name of Johann Hornung), which replaced the first Stahl grammar, dominant in use until then. Forselius’ “old style of writing” is regarded as the first systematic orthography for Estonian. It was applied until the mid-19th century, when the “new style” was adopted, based on Finnish orthography.

Forselius’ intensive activity over a few years had a very great influence on the development of Estonian popular education and the literary language. Whereas in the middle of the 17th century there were only a few peasant schools operating on Estonian territory, and there were practically no teachers who knew Estonian, with the support of royal power, and in spite of the opposition of the local German nobility, in 1687-1688 there were already 11 peasant schools functioning in Estonia with about 176 pupils and 38 schools in Livonia, with more than 884 pupils, where most of the teachers were graduates of Forselius’ school. One may speak of Forselius’ pupils as the first Estonian intellectuals. Forselius dared to dream of general literacy among the people. At the end of the 17th century, literacy among Estonians was at the rate of about 5-8%. Printing of books in Estonian became more frequent: whereas between 1525 and 1625 there appeared 12-15 books in Estonian, between 1631 and 1710 there were at least 40-45.

S. V. (Translated by C. M.)

Forselius’ Estonian reading book

AEHIK…. Riga: 1694, [24] lk. [3. trükk. 1. (1686) ja 2. trükk (1687) pole teadaolevalt säilinud. Järgnevad trükid: 1698, 1700?. Kättesaadav: ja]