Heinrich Stahl


Heinrich Stahl (c. 1598/1600 – 17./7. VI 1657) was a prelate of German origin who wrote some of the first longer texts in Estonian and the first grammar of the Estonian language, which gave direction to the development of the Estonian literary language in its earliest stages.

Stahl was born in Tallinn, the son of an alderman of the Great Guild into a worthy family which, however, was not among the nobility. He probably got his education at the Tallinn town school (Trivialschule). He entered the University of Rostock in 1617, and that of Wittenberg in 1621, where he graduated in 1622 as a Master of Philosophy, although he also studied theology at both universities. Stahl received financial support for his studies from the Tallinn council. In 1623 he joined the University of Greifswald, but he could no longer study there, because the Tallinn council did not extend his stipend. He came back to Estonia, where he was ordained as a pastor in Järvamaa. In 1627 he was promoted to Dean of Järvamaa, and in 1632 of Virumaa. From 1633 to 1638 he was also pastor of Kadrina. In 1638 Stahl became the assistant to the new bishop of Estonia, Joachim Jhering. Together they set about teaching the catechism to the Estonians and systematically holding Estonian-language sermons. In 1638 Stahl became senior preacher at the Tallinn Dome Church, rector of the Consistorium and Dean of Harjumaa.
In 1641 he was appointed as senior clergyman, or superintendent, of Ingria and Alutaguse, with his seat at Narva. In this post Stahl hoped to spread Lutheran Christianity among the population of Ingria as successfully as he had among the Estonians, but his efforts on behalf of the central government of Sweden to organise church and educational life clashed with opposition from the Narva council and the local nobility. Likewise the mainly Orthodox Ingrians were in no hurry to exchange their faith for Lutheranism, preferring instead to flee to Russia. Stahl died of the plague in Narva and is apparently buried in the Swedish church there, which later became the German church of St. John and was destroyed during the Second World War.
According to the preface to the North Estonian New Testament which appeared in 1715, Stahl published his first Estonian-language book, Kurtze und einfältige Fragen die Grundstücke des Christenthumbs betreffend ('Short and simple questions on the Essentials of Christianity') in 1630, but not a single copy of it has been preserved. One of Stahl’s major works was the handbook intended for the clergy, Hand vnd Hauszbuches Für die Pfarherren, vnd Hauszväter Ehstnischen Fürstenthumbs ('Hand- and Home-book for the clergy and fathers of the Principality of Estonia', 1632-1638), the text of which runs parallel in German and Estonian, containing Luther’s small catechism (I), a hymn-book (II), gospels and epistles for the whole year (III), and church services and prayers (IV). Stahl’s handbook, comprising 1000 pages, appeared until 1700 in several revised editions and about twenty thousand copies. Stahl’s second important work for Estonian culture is a substantial collection of sermons, somewhat more personal to the author, Leyen Spiegel ('The Layman’s Mirror', I, 1641; II, 1649), which is also in German and Estonian parallel text. This contains a little information about the Estonians’ living conditions, and is the first to mention the figure of Kalev in print.

Stahl also compiled a handbook for the Estonian language, Anführung zu der Esthnischen Sprach ('Introduction to the Estonian Language', 1637), which contains 34 pages of Estonian grammar and 101 pages of a German-Estonian dictionary with about two thousand words. The grammar is based on Latin, using German orthography like all of Stahl’s other Estonian texts, and brings out other features in common with German as well. Stahl’s authoritative works and grammar shaped the Estonian literary language throughout the 17th century – at least until the appearance of Grammatica Esthonica (1693) under the name of Johann Hornung, which took account of the linguistic principles of B.G. Forselius.

Starting from the national awakening in the mid-19th century, when Eduard Ahrens worked out a new orthography based on Finnish grammar, Stahl has often been seen in a negative light. One accusation has been the deliberate distortion and Germanisation of the Estonian language by Stahl. Over the past few decades scholars have mostly not shared this charge. For example, in her monograph on Heinrich Stahl (2014), Piret Lotman points out that Stahl was not thinking in the nationalist terms that were characteristic of the 19th century: he lacked any interest in folklore or linguistics regarding Estonians or their language. Stahl was a dedicated orthodox Lutheran, whose only aim was to spread the word of God. Aligning the Estonian language with German in Stahl’s grammar served a utilitarian, not an ideological purpose: it was intended for clerics of German origin to help them acquire Estonian more easily. Since Stahl’s aim was not to create a literary language, it was hard for the Estonians to acquire and read it by Stahl’s method. This was why Forselius and his colleagues worked out a new orthography, intended for the Estonians, and which is now known as the ‘old orthography’ (as opposed to the ‘new orthography’ created by Eduard Ahrens in the 19th century, which is in use even today).

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


Works in Estonian

About Heinrich Stahl
Külli Habicht, Eesti vanema kirjakeele leksikaalsest ja morfosüntaktilisest arengust ning Heinrich Stahli keele eripärast selle taustal. Doktoritöö. Juhendaja: Huno Rätsep. Tartu Ülikooli filosoofiateaduskond, eesti ja soome-ugri keeleteaduse osakond. Tartu: Tartu Ülikooli Kirjastus, 2001, 289 lk.
Piret Lotman, Heinrich Stahli elu ja looming. Tallinn: Eesti Rahvusraamatukogu, 2014, 253 lk.
Külli Habicht, Pille Penjam, Külli Prillop, Heinrich Stahli tekstide sõnastik. Toimetaja: Valve-Liivi Kingisepp. Tartu: Tartu Ülikooli Kirjastus, 2015, 548 lk.