Project traces extensive correspondence of 17th century philosopher Jan Amos Comenius

Jan Amos Comenius, photo: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Researchers have made accessible nearly six hundred letters written or received by Jan Amos Komenský, or Comenius, the 17th century philosopher and thinker. The digitalisation and visualisation of Comenius’s correspondence was carried out by the Department for Comenius Studies and Early Modern Intellectual History of the Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences as part of a larger project of Oxford University called Cultures of Knowledge.

Jan Amos Comenius,  photo: Wikimedia Commons,  Public Domain
What is the aim of the database and what light does it shed on the famous 17th century scholar and pioneering educator? I discussed these questions with Vladimír Urbánek from the Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences, one of the researchers behind the project.

"At the very beginning was an idea to create some tool for the use of researchers. That idea can be traced back to the 1990s, when the department for Comenius Studies of the Czech Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Philosophy created a sort of primitive database in Excel. It was in Czech and solely for research purposes of the department.

"Later on, in 2009, the department began to cooperate in the Oxford-based project called Cultures of Knowledge and we were lucky to become the most important international partner of the Oxford project in its first and second phase.

"So we put together the catalogue of Comenius’s correspondence, which belongs to the founding subprojects of a large database, which was the main product of the Cultures of Knowledge project, and it is called Early Modern Letter Online or EMLO.

"It was not an easy task, because all the letters are deposited today in 49 institutions, mostly libraries and archives, in twelve European countries."

So this larger project does not focus solely on Comenius, right?

"That’s true. This project focuses on how intellectual communication and intellectual exchange functioned in the early modern period in Europe, from the mid-16th century until mid-18th century. So Comenius is only part of this much larger picture.

"But at the very beginning of this project, the catalogue of Comenius’s letters was one of the six founding sub-projects from which this much larger enterprise expanded over the next decade."

So how many letters written by Comenius have been made accessible so far through your database?

"It was not an easy task, because all the letters are deposited today in 49 institutions in twelve European countries."

"Today, we have 569 letters, some 400 sent and 119 received. They are all accessible now in the database of Comenius’s correspondence within this much larger database Early Modern Letters Online.

"We have of course collected scans of all those letters, and they are described in a very complex way. The database has also some other important functions related to statistics and visualization, which help us put Comenius into a wider context and to see his place on the map of the so-called Republic of Letters of the 17th century.

“It also makes it possible to compare his correspondence network with the networks of other scholars and intellectuals of that period."

As you have already said, we can actually trace Comenius’s correspondence, where he sent his letters or where letters from other people came from. What purpose does this information serve?

“The main purpose for such visualization of data is to show on the map the geographic horizon of Comenius’s correspondence, in other words, how different places were interconnected.

“We can study questions related to the notion of the centre and the periphery of knowledge of Europe of that time. We can see how the places from which Comenius sent his letters, such as for example Leszno in Poland in East Central Europe, were connected.

“We can see how these places, through Comenius’s correspondence, communicated with such centres of knowledge as Paris, London or Amsterdam, and what was the role of these nodes of knowledge in his correspondence network.”

Jan Amos Comenius,  photo: Wikimedia Commons,  Public Domain
I noticed there are significant differences in the number of letters recorded from various years. Why does it reveal about Comenius and the historical context?

"That’s very interesting, of course. We have some years, which are represented very well by Comenius’s correspondence, for example the mid 1640’s, or the second half of the 1650’s. And I must say this depends to a great extent on how these letters were preserved in the papers of the people with whom Comenius was in touch with.

“Of course we have a large collection of his letters preserved within the archive of the Unity of Brethren. This is the largest collection in fact which is nowadays deposited in the National Museum library in Prague. These are mainly scribal copies which he made for his own purposes.

“For other years, we are less lucky, for example the beginning of the 1650’s which Comenius spent in Hungary in Sárosapatak in the service of the Calvinist princely family of Rákóczi.

“One of the reasons for that is that the correspondence of that time was to a great extent related to political, diplomatic and even military issues, and probably a big portion of that correspondence was destroyed after the letters were delivered.”

Do you think there might still be some letters waiting to be discovered?

“I am sure about that. Even during the last couple of years, when we were working on revising some metadata within the database, we found for example, quite unexpectedly, a scribal copy of the very first of Comenius’s letters to Samuel Hartlib, who was based in London.

“This is the letter from January, 1634. Until the discovery of that letter at the University library in Basel, we only had an extract of this letter, which is kept by the National Museum library.

“Today, we have 569 letters, 400 sent and 119 received, which are all accessible in the database of Comenius’s correspondence.”

“Thanks to the discovery, we now know many details which were not in the extract, including the date, including Comenius’s literary and pedagogical plans, and so on.

“And I am sure there will be more discoveries. I see no reason why not. From time to time, researchers come across letters written by famous historical figures, such as René Descartes, so why not Comenius?”

So that means you will be gradually updating your database…

“Absolutely. That’s right. Right now, one of the colleagues from our department is working on upgrading the database, revising the metadata according to the new findings and according to the first volume of the critical edition of Comenius’s correspondence.

Finally, as far as I know, there is also a plan to create a similar project for visualising and digitizing the correspondence of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk the first Czechoslovak president.

“This is another very important project that will focus on mapping the international networks of Masaryk’s correspondence in the years preceding the beginning of Czechoslovak First Republic.

“The main aim of this project is to show how Masaryk used his pre-war communication and correspondence network for supporting his political action during the war which led to the foundation of Czechoslovakia.

“This project was launched one and a half years ago and the colleagues from the Masaryk Institute and the archives of the Academy of Sciences are involved in that.”

So what is the role of the department for Comenius Studies in this project?

“We meet regularly with them to discuss various issues that are common to our projects. We also cooperate on the larger plan to create a website and database called Historical Correspondence Online.

“The main idea of this website is to make accessible information about similar projects dealing with historical correspondence somehow related to the history of Czech lands, to figures like Comenius, Masaryk, but also various writers, travellers, scientists, medical figures and literary figures.

“We hope that in the future we will be able to compare different networks to see where they overlap, to see how ideas, concepts, manuscripts, books, circulated within these circles, and how the discussions about scholarly problems, but also about religious and political problems evolved.”