THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

08 May 2019

A Spanish pioneer of deaf education and his early English readers

For Deaf Awareness Week we recall the groundbreaking work of Juan Pablo Bonet (dates unknown) and his Reducción de las letras y arte para enseñar a ablar los mudos [‘Simplification of letters and art of teaching the dumb to speak’].

Title-page of Bonet’s Reducción de las letras
Title-page of Bonet’s Reducción de las letras … (Madrid, 1620) 71.a.18.

The engraved title page by Diego de Astor shows the mottoes: ‘Sic natura vincula solvit artis’ and ‘Ita ars naturae vincula solvit’ (‘As Nature loosens the chains of Art [we might say, ‘invention’] so Art loosens the chains of Nature] and an emblem of a hand of art picking the lock which nature has placed on the tongue of a dumb man. In another emblem a mother bird (nature) has undone the grille which ‘art’ had put over the entrance to her nest.

Bonet’s method was first to teach the written letters; then teach the hand signs for the letters; then teach the pronunciation of the letters. Bonet comments that the pupil learns to lip-read by himself and the teacher must not take credit for this.

Bonet was of the first teachers to devise and record in print a sign alphabet, and his system has had some influence on modern sign languages. However, he was also typical of his age in believing that signing was only a step towards an ideal of oralism rather than a valid form of communication in itself.

Sign for the letter A in Bonet's alphabet Signs for the letters B,C and D in Bonet's alphabet
The first four letters of Bonet’s sign alphabet, from Reducción de las letras…

There was only one edition of the Reducción in its time and bibliographically speaking it’s striking to me that various English-speakers are known to have owned copies of this first and only edition.

In the British Library we have three copies:

One (71.a.18) is from the King’s Library and therefore can’t be traced back before George III (1738-1820).

Another (556.b.20.(1.) probably belonged to Sir Hans Sloane (see the Sloane Database), and a third (1043.l.5.) to Sir Paul Methuen (c. 1672-1757).

Samuel Pepys had a copy (now in Cambridge, 1396(2)) (Gaselee 16; Knighton p. 136).

And not far away from the BL, in Gordon Square, Dr Williams’s Library has had a copy since 1727 (1038.H.11; Catalogus 1727, p. 46). I maintain that this copy belonged to Dr William Bates (1625-99), owner of 97 Spanish books. He was a contemporary of Pepys but they don’t seem to have known each other.

Bates didn’t write his name in this copy, but he did sign a similar work in English, John Bulwer’s Philocophus: or, The Deafe and Dumbe Mans Friend, Exhibiting the Philosophicall verity of that subtile art, which may inable one with an observant eie, to heare what any man speaks by the moving of the lips ...(London, 1648) [Dr William’s Library 1064.R.13]

Title-page of John Bulwer’s 'Philocophus'
Engraved title-page from the BL copy of Bulwer’s Philocophus  1041.c.23

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance collections

References/Further reading

Stephen Gaselee, The Spanish Books in the Library of Samuel Pepys (Supplement to the Bibliographical Society’s Transactions ; no. 2 ) ([London], 1921). Ac.9670.bba.

Catalogue of the Pepys Library, Supplementary series, I, Census of Printed Books, ed. C. S. Knighton (Cambridge, 2004) YC.2005.b.109

Simplification of the Letters of the Alphabet and Method of teaching Deaf-Mutes to speak ... Translated from the original Spanish by H. N. Dixon ... with a historical introduction by A. Farrar. ([Harrogate], 1890). 8310.cc.38

Bibliothecae quam vir doctus, & admodum Reverendus, Daniel Williams, S.T.P. Bono publico legavit, catalogus (London, 1727). 125.d.8.

Barry Taylor, ‘Los libros españoles del Dr. William Bates (1625-1699) en la Dr. Williams’s Library de Londres’, in El libro español en Londres: la visión de España en Inglaterra (siglos XVI al XIX), ed. Nicolás Bas and Barry Taylor (Valencia, 2016), pp. 13-60. YF.2017.a.19281