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What did the Seto people read?

The ‘illiterate’ Setos and literary culture

Poor education and illiteracy belong to the leitmotifs of the description of Seto culture, which have passed on from the times of Jakob Hurt and Oskar Kallas to the 20th century. On the one hand this has been regarded as a shortcoming behind the economic and cultural backwardness of the community. On the other hand, the cultural space uncorrupted by modern institutions enabled archaization and exotization of the Seto people.

As most of the Setos were indeed illiterate in the early decades of the 20th century it was assumed that the tradition recorded from them was still untouched by influences of literary culture. Moreover, illiteracy was regarded as a guarantee of the authenticity of the collected material. The role of the schools established in the Pskov Guberniya in the 19th century has been considered negligible in Seto education. A difference was made by the incorporation of the Seto areas in the Republic of Estonia in 1920, bringing about a general compulsory school attendance and Estonian-medium education. Most of the Seto stories were recorded in the 1920s and 1930s, by which period the peoples’ educational level had risen considerably and literary culture had become a natural part of the story-tellers’ everyday life. Therefore a question arises how justified it is to regard those texts as a representation of the ‘illiterate’ Setomaa. In order to explain the literary influences observed in the repertoire of Seto story-tellers the article examines the education opportunities for the Setos before the advent of the Republic of Estonia and tries to find traces of literacy in the records of Setos being given their first family names as well as in the story-tellers’ biographies.