Map 1. Comenius's itinerary.
1590-1611: Origins. Born in south-eastern Moravia. Ophaned as a young child. Educated at the schools of the Czech Unity of Brethren in Uherský Brod, Strážnice, and (from 1608 to 1611) the gymnasium at Přerov.
1611-14: Education. In preparation of the ministry, and with funding from the Unity, Comenius completes his education at the flourishing Reformed (or Calvinist) academy in Herborn (1611-13) and the leading Reformed university in Heidelberg (1613-14).
1614-20: Early career. After returning to Moravia, Comenius is made headmaster in Přerov, ordained as a minister of the Unity of Brethren, and then promoted to head teacher in the Fulnek in 1618.
1620-28: In limbo. The defeat of the Friedrich IV, Elector Palatine and ‘Winter King’ of Bohemia’, in the Battle of the White Mountain outside Prague on 8 November 1620 marks the onset of a series of disasters which punctuate the rest of Comenius’s career. In June 2021, Fulnek is burned. In December, the clergy of the Unity of Brethren are expelled from the Czech lands. While in hiding on the lands of a leading Czech nobleman in eastern Bohemia, Comenius loses his first wife and two sons to the plague in Přerov. In September 1624 he marries Marie Dorota (Dorothy) Cyrillová (d. 1648), the daughter of Jan Cyrill, a leading senior (i.e. bishop) of the Unity, who had participated in the coronation of Friedrich IV and was central to the network of Bohemian refugees. Comenius travels to raise support for the Unity in Poland, Brandenburg, and Dutch republic; but in 1628 all members of the Unity – lay as well as clergy – are exiled from their homeland. The return of his people to their homeland will remain a primary motivation for Comenius for the rest of his life.
1628-41: Exile in Leszno. Comenius settles with a large group of exiles in Leszno, a Polish town near the border protected by a leading Protestant magnate. He becomes teacher in the local gymnasium, and senior of the Unity of Brethren in 1632. His textbooks for language teaching – Janua linguarum reserata (The Gateway of Languages Opened, 1631) and Vestibulum Januae Linguarum (The Antechamber to the Gateway of Languages, 1632) – are reprinted and adopted across Protestant Europe.
1641-42: Visit to England. From at least 1633, Comenius is in contact with Samuel Hartlib, possibly through the mediation of Hartlib’s brother Georg, who had studied with him in Heidelberg. In 1636 Hartlib invites Comenius to England. Comenius sends his first sketch of pansophia, which Hartlib publishes without permission in Oxford as the Conatuum Comenianorum praeludia (1637). Comenius is finally lured to England in the autumn of 1641, but the outbreak of the civil wars in England scuppers the hopes of implementing his reforms there. During the winter of 1641-2 he pens the Via Lucis, which remains unpublished until 1668.
1642-48: Under Swedish patronage in Elbing. Comenius’s return journey to Poland takes him through Holland (where he met Descartes), Germany, Denmark and Sweden, where he is engaged to compose a new series of language textbooks for the Sweden, under the patronage of the Dutch copper magnate, Louis de Geer. To complete this work, he settles in Elbing (Elbląg), a city in Polish Prussia currently controlled by Sweden.
1648-50: Return to Leszno. When Sweden fails to restore the Unity of Brethren to their Czech homeland during the negotiations leading up to the Peace of Westphalia, Comenius leaves Swedish service and returns to Leszno as the leading senior of his exile community. His second wife dies, leaving him with four children; and he remarries for the second time.
1650-54: In Sárospatak. Comenius accepts an invitation to head the Reformed gymnasium in Sárospatak, and joins the service of the still militantly anti-Habsburg prince of Translyvania, whose activities promise to help restor the Unity to their homeland in nearby Moravia. His most famous textbook, the Orbis sensualium pictus is written in Sárospatak but not published until 1658.
1654-56: Disaster in Leszno. When these hopes are disappointed, Comenius returns again to Leszno. In 1656, he reluctantly backs the invasion of Poland by the Swedes. In April 1656, Polish troops capture Leszno and burn it to the ground. Comenius loses his library and most of his manuscript writings, including an encyclopaedic dictionary of the Czech language.
1656-70: Final years in Amsterdam. Comenius accepts the invitation of the son of his former patron, Laurentius de Geer, to settle in Amsterdam. He publishes his collected educational writings, the Opera didactica omnia, in 1657/8, and begins publishing his opus magnum on universal reformation, the Consultatio catholica. His decision to publish the Lux in tenebris -- a series of visions prophesying the overthrow of pope and emperor and the restoration of his people to their homeland – embroils him in controversy with the local Dutch religious authorities. In 1668 he finally publishes the Via Lucis, with a dedication to the young Royal Society. The masterpiece, the Consultatio catholica, remains incomplete at his death, and the manuscript disappears for centuries, until finally rediscovered in the 1930s.
Maps 2-3. Comenius's correspondence. Map 2: places of sending and receipt. Map 3: locations of extant manuscripts.
As Comenius moved about Europe, he dispatched letters to and received them from correspondents in an even larger swathe of mostly Protestant Europe. Despite twice witnessing the destruction of his library and personal papers -- in Fulnek after 1620, and in Leszno in 1656 -- some 566 letters survive, scattered over 36 different archives in 32 cities in many different European regions. The largest archive deriving directly from the seventeenth century is the papers of his friend and collaborator, Samuel Hartlib, now in the University of Sheffield. The larget retrospectively gathered collection is in the National Museum Library in Prague. A brief history of attempts to assemble and edit Comenius’s correspondence, with a bibliography of published editions, compiled by Vladimír Urbánek is available in EMLO.
Credits. Maps 2-3 were created by Iva Lelkova, using data from Jiří Beneš, Marta Bečková, Markéta Klosová, Lenka Reznikova, Vladimír Urbánek, and Cultures of Knowledge, 'The Correspondence of Jan Amos Comenius' in Early Modern Letters Online. Image 2 was created using Palladio, an analytical and visualisation tool created by the Humanities+Design Lab at Stanford University.