“nihil est in intellectu quod non prius fuerit in sensu”

Orbis sensualium pictus (1672).

Comenius’ Orbis sensualium pictus (1658), or, as verbosely translated by Charles Hoole, A World of Things Obvious to the Sense Drawn in Pictures, is–yes–yet another once-very-popular Latin schoolbook, used for about 200 years! But it is, significantly, not a grammar of Latin. More significantly, it is illustrated, wherefore some people allege that it is the first illustrated book intended for children [1]. Which is just plain wrong. Illustrated books for children existed in the fifteenth century, though they were not meant for the schoolroom. Rather, they were made for “private religious devotions (primers), for edification, or even for diversion” [2]. Nor was Comenius the first to contemplate or experiment with the implementation of illustration in schoolbooks; he was just the first one who whose product was really successful [3]. The book is one of his later works, the culmination of many years of theorizing, and so I should first briefly talk about Comenius and his relevant ideas.

Jan Amos Komenský (1592-1670), whose name was Latinized in grammar school, as was the custom, was a Moravian (Czech) theologian and educator. Comenius is considered the “father of modern education” [4] though he was largely ignored by scholars in the English-speaking world until mid last century. His ideas for educational reform are very closely linked with his Protestant theology, and he was able to produce quite a few writings on the subject despite (or might we say on account of?) being chased about Europe by religious persecutors. In his first period of hiding, he came to the conclusion that the corruption of human society was due to poor education, and that the best kind of education was a Christian one. For him, “the purpose of all true knowledge is Christ” [5]. From his desire for men to better understand God sprouted his theory of (and abortive attempt at creating) a ‘universal language,’ as an “antidote to confusion of thought” [6]. He decided that this language was Latin (after, of course, the aforementioned attempt).

He did not, however, approve of Quintilian’s time-honoured method of education, which dominated the European school systems; it put an excessive premium on grammar. Comenius saw grammar not as an end in itself, as many grammarians of his time seem to have, but as a means to an end, which was also a practical (Protestant) end [7]. Indeed, he stressed a vocational education with religious teaching over a classical one with its pernicious pagan influences; an encyclopedic education over a grammatical one [8]. He wanted children to get through grammar as quickly as possible so that they could get on with more relevant learning. “Father of modern education,” indeed.

At this point, I’d like to say that Milton, who was a contemporary of Comenius, also thought that grammar should be learnt quickly, and as a means to an end. But Milton’s end was literature, which Comenius was actually willing to forgo [9]! “Father of modern education,” indeed!

Comenius realized that “proper knowledge of the world depended on the cultivation of the senses and on an adequate relation of language to experience” [10]. That is, that people learn via sensory perception and so teaching with words alone wasn’t good enough, because words are inextricable, intangible referents to real things and useless without prior experience of the thing itself [11].

Thus we have Orbis pictus, which is in fact a simplified version of an earlier text of Comenius’, Janua linguarum reserata (The Gate of Languages Unlocked), with added illustrations. It is something like an encyclopedia or vocabulary, intended to be a supplement to classroom grammar books, and it was an instant hit. Its first edition was in German and Latin–Comenius “urged the use of the vernacular along with Latin, for their mutual clarification” [12]. Each of the 150 chapters of the book has a subject with an accompanying woodcut picture and–but a photo will do more than a description, so here:

Chapter 38: The outward parts of a Man.

And just for fun:

Chapter 44: Deformed and Monstrous People.

This is Hoole’s English translation, that is, he replaced the original German with an English translation of the Latin. Again, just as in his ‘translation’ of Lily’s Grammar, the English is set on the left, which is significant in itself but also since the true first edition has the vernacular on the right. In his preface, Hoole advises the teacher (or parent) to first lead the child through the pictures and inscriptions; then to read the English descriptions of each chapter–Hoole touts the book as a tool for learning the vernacular, too; and finally to read the Latin. The visible method wasn’t just supposed to teach, but to “delight and teach” (which seems to be my life’s current leitmotif).

And truly, it was a delight to peruse! This is not to say I was pleased with the pictures artistically, because, to be honest, they’re rather third-rate. I am even tempted to say that Comenius’ preoccupation with practicality is manifest in the illustrations themselves since any attempt at aesthetic appeal was obviously abandoned, except that this was apparently just the German style [13]. (Later editions would ameliorate this deficiency.) Despite this, I found myself giggling at the “symbolical alphabet” at the beginning of the book:

Phonetic Alphabet.

It’s funny that the Latin sentences really haven’t got much bearing on the alphabet, but that it’s the amusing and highly subjective animal sounds that are supposed to be the mnemonics. I also wondered whether children would’ve been bemused that the Owl “ululat” as well as the Wolf, or that the Cat, Carter, and Jay all clamant. Then, reading a few chapters, I found–to my chagrin–that I was actually learning new words! The more or less one-to-one correspondence between Latin and English words was effective–refreshing for a Classics student whose life is consumed by flipping through cumbersome dictionaries. The pictorials were quite helpful as well–except for this one:

Chapter 37: "The Seven Ages of Man."

Glancing at this, I puzzled over how the forehead could be a senex, and speculated as to why 12 of the 25 articles in the picture might have been omitted in the text–a consequence of English puritanism perhaps? I figured out a few pages later that it was just a misprint, which was emended in the third edition.

Chapter 39: The Head and the Hand

Chapter 39: The Seven Ages of Man from the 12th edition (1777).

The chapters aren’t classified in any way, at least not intentionally. For Comenius had a “unified view of all existence” and eschewed “artificial classifications” [14]: “Already Comenius had begun to develop the idea that in nature there were no division, classification in his view being an artifice of man that did violence to the organic continuity of the real world…The growth of intellect was marked by changes in degree, not in kind” [15] (which rather reminds me of Robert Frost’s poetry). Accordingly, the subjects, which encompass natural science, biology, mathematics, history, athletics, morals and virtues, religion and more, become progressively more complex. So I was momentarily bemused to find that after chapter I, the “Invitation,” the first subject was God, who, to my mind, is not a simple concept at all. But of course God would be foremost, although, I see that the Son and Holy Ghost were wisely excluded from his description, though they do figure in the illustration.

Chapter II: God (1777 edition).

Orbis pictus was so successful that it enjoyed many reprints and editions, even multilingual ones. It also catalysed a new wave of illustrated schoolbooks, one of which I’d like to share:

From Nolens Volens: or you shall make Latin whether you will or no (1677) by Elisha Coles.

“Nolens Volens: or you shall make Latin whether you will or no.” It sounds a bit despotic to me. This textbook is one-third Latin grammar and two-thirds “Visible Bible,” which is divided into 24 sections according to the alphabet (I is grouped with H; X is given short shrift). Each section has a series of words with corresponding pictures and Biblical passages in both English and Latin.

Perhaps the proportions of the book themselves are telling. Elisha Coles’ programme seems not so much to inculcate a sense of Latin as to familiarize children with the Bible and Christian morality. The captions of the pictures are in English, which strikes me as counterproductive in a book that purposes to teach Latin. This means that the Latin words aren’t arranged in any order, which does nothing to facilitate their acquisition.

I think it’s worth noting that the illustrations here surpass even the mediocrity of those in Orbis. For example:


“Blood”–I would have thought it rain, but then there are no clouds. Objects are often found mysteriously floating in mid-air.


I couldn’t figure out what the “ear-ring” was until I read the caption. More unnatural is that body parts are usually disembodied (cp. Chapter 38: The outward parts of a Man, from Orbis):


K(nees)...and kidneys, which I think look rather like cashews--not a good mistake to make.


Other things look virtually the same!


If I didn’t already know what nostrils were, I’d be very hard put to tell the difference between nostrils and nose from the above. The pictures don’t do as much as their labels; they don’t teach as much as they “delight.” If Comenius uses illustrations to represent his words, Coles uses them more to adorn them, or else his intentions were foiled by a lousy artist.

All photos courtesy of the Osborne Collection, Toronto Public Libraries.

1. To name a few books: The Renaissance in the Streets, Schools, and Studies: Essays in Honour of Paul F. Grendler; The World of the Book, Cowley; The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators, Silvey; An Introduction to Childhood Studies, Kehily.
2. p. 26, Introduction by James Bowen in Orbis Sensualium Pictus: Facsimile of the Third London Edition 1672.
3. “Although several grammarians like John Wilkins, Francis Lodwick, and Cave Beck had written books of this type, Comenius added another cognitive level by incorporating emotions, feelings, and other abstract concepts,” p. 59, Grammar Wars: Language as a cultural battlefield in 17th and 18th century England by Linda. C. Mitchell; “As early as 1617 Lubinus had suggested that languages should be studied through books with short sentences accompanied by illustrations…Comenius, however, was comparatively slow to realize the possibilities,” p. 24, Bowen.
4. p. 62, Mitchell; p. 112, Teaching Adventure Education Theory: Best Practices, by Bob Stremba.
5. p. 5, Bowen.
6. p. 21, Ibid.
7. p. 57, Mitchell.
8. p. 62, Ibid.
9. p. 67, Ibid.
10. p. 14, Bowen.
11. p. 58, Mitchell.
12. p. 22, Bowen.
13. p. 28, Ibid.
14. p. 13, Ibid.
15. p. 18, Ibid.


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