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“To know Tongues is comly” – the Janua linguarum reserata of John Amos Comenius

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 29 April 2016

Comenius tableJan Amos Komenský, 1592-1670, also known by the Latin version of his name as Johan Comenius, was another of those great 17th century scholars.  His protestant family were members of the Moravian Church.  He studied at the University of Heidelberg, and before that at the Herborn Academy where he learnt the diadatic method.  His was an age of war and persucution, and eventually he fled to Poland, later spending time in Sweden and visiting England in 1648.  He finally ended up living in Amsterdam, where he died.  There is a fine Rembrandt portrait which it is suggested depicts him.

Comenius 2 picsHe was influenced by Francis Bacon, and in turn became hugely influential as Piaget shows (see link below).  The book we have by him, his Janua linguarum reserata… was originally written when he was in in exile in Poland, and was published in 1631.  The English translation was called (in short) The gate of languages unlocked: or, A seed-plot of all arts and tongues; containing a ready way to learn the Latine and English tongue.  There were many editions and it would take someone with a good knowledge of the editions to divine exactly which volume we have, as when it was rebound and the pages badly cropped, in the 19th century, it lost its title page and part of the introduction.  The end of the introduction and part of the tables were bound (then, or earlier) out of sequence, between pages 18 and 19. Comenius 3 The book aimed to have a structured breakdown of learning, divided into 1,000 sentences, with an extensive Latin index at the end.  Our version is a parallel translation, Latin on the left page and English on the right, except the last page where it is reversed, probably due to a dozy printer.  Despite its tatty condition – a few worm-holes on ther back pages and very well read – it remains an entertaining book.  The front pages begin as follows –

1. Whither the study of Tongues tendeth.

God created the world, full of the works of wisdom; and placed man in the midst of the Creatures, that by contemplating them, and Using them, and Discoursing on them, hee might have delight.  There is therefore a threefold end of our life in the World, namely that – wee view the works of God; wee learn to use them well; wee propagate to others such knowledg and use, by the help of Tongues

wherefore we learn to speak (with one Tongue or more) that wee may attain the Knowledg of Things; but wee seek the Knowledg of Things, that wee may not mistake in the Use.  Therefore mark well.  To know Tongues is comly; more comly, to understand the things themselves, whereof it is to bee spoken; but most comly to know how to use the knowledg of both.  Tongues therefore ought to bee learned, not without the knowledg of Things, but together with it.

Comenius hackneyThere are plenty of great lines – sentence 835, “Whores and fornicators are beaten with rods or whips : Hackney-whores are branded with marks…”, 339 “Cattel happily increaseth , when their wombs are of good breed.”   “Hackney whores” is a phrase also used by Ned Ward in The London Spy (1699), and in various  sayings and proverbs of that time, like “If Paris be the hell of hackney-horses, ’tis the Paradise of whoremasters and hackney-whores” and “whores are the Hackneys which men ride to hell.”

An eager student began to gloss the index of our copy but gave up after two pages!

Why do we have it?  Well, Selwyn Oxley collected many books that might talk about language, even in passing, and the word ‘tongues’ must have made this an interesting acquisition for the ‘ephphatha’ collection.

Comenius on Wikipedia page

Piaget on Comenius

Williams, Gordon, A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature. 1994  p.636

2 Responses to ““To know Tongues is comly” – the Janua linguarum reserata of John Amos Comenius”

  • 1
    Tomas White wrote on 27 January 2017:

    Hello and many thanks for this. Is there a facsimile version that I might be able to consult? Or possibly even the copy itself? I am a PhD student at the UCL IoE and the quotation in your blog (“Whither the study of Tongues tendeth…”) is something that is of great interest to me.

  • 2
    Removed Account wrote on 27 January 2017:

    You can certainly view the original here, but try searching online & in the UCL catalogue for a digital version.

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