I have been clearing from my son’s room the books he has now outgrown – down to the Amnesty International bookshop with them all. Children (I was reminded while doing this) are still given encyclopedias when young, books that offer to tell them everything about the world before them.
Thinking about such books led me to Jan Amos Komensky, ‘Comenius’, the Czech pansophist and ‘Father of Education’. Between 1650 and 1654, working in
It is the first illustrated encyclopedia for children, simultaneously giving a huge push to their Latin vocabulary. It sets off with a bizarre alphabet, in which every letter is alleged to be pronounced by a suitable animal. Thus fired to surpass the mere animal kingdom, the child is led into the word clusters and basic concepts associated with God, The World, Heaven, Fire, Air, Water, and onwards to the things in the earth: its fruits, metals, gems, flowers, animals, and then into the human world, with its life stages, trades, activities, amusements. It is strictly Eurocentric, with one brisk account of Mohammadism. The ‘visible world’ notion does not stop the book from discussing moral concepts.
And every page is illustrated, with a woodcut, many of them highly engaging. I imagine that the text was tinkered with in transmission. Comenius advocated such advanced notions as universal education (both sexes equally, and for all abilities), minimal rote learning, and regarded corporal punishment in schools as inevitably counter-productive. When the Orbuscomes to describing all aspects of a school, it is in a section which must have been adapted to local and normal conditions during the book’s progression across
I have put together in a single image the intriguing way the woodcut artist chose to depict the soul; the seven ages of man (and woman); the picture of domestic pets (“The Dormouse and other greater Mice, as the Weesel, The Martin and the Ferret, trouble the house” explains the text); and a depiction of a domestic amenity I did not know early modern Europe had, the ‘Stove’ room, designed to be warm and cosy. It is depicted adjacent to a bedroom, complete with chamber pot. I doubt many 17th century children needed to be told its function (“A chamber pot is for making water in”), but the Latin word ‘Matula’ can’t have cropped up that often.
Alongside, I’ve put most of the double page about marriage, as a specimen, and because it appealed to me (“After this they are called Husband and Wife; when she is dead, he becometh a widower”).
Supposing Comenius’s project had triumphed… He was a Bishop in the Moravian Brethren, a Christian Church that did NOT teach that only its adherents were the saved. Suppose Comenius had managed to teach such tolerance, alongside the vital importance of a universal education based always on practice and encouragement. Suppose his vision of