In 1658, the Czech scholar John Amos Comenius published what’s been called ‘the first children’s picture book’. It proved extremely popular and was republished many times, in many different languages. What brought it to my attention was the fact that it included 150 pictures of ‘the visible world’, a rare treat in an early modern publication.
It was designed to teach Latin and, in the 1705 edition, English to young people, so most of its illustrations depicted the sorts of things a child might be expected to know from life. They would find, for example, pictures of youth at study and at play, stilt-walking or bowling.
However, the ones that caught my eye were the many illustrations of working life. If you, like me, teach or write about early modern economic history, you’ll know that this particular subfield has an ‘image problem’. Perhaps thanks to a strong seam of ‘iconophobic’ Calvinism, post-Reformation England was not exactly awash in imagery of any kind and I have often found it particularly difficult to find images of economic life. One can find many pictures of kings and noblemen. But there are frustratingly few depictions of ordinary people doing their jobs, whether as artisans, traders or labourers. This gap is partly filled by the broadside ballad woodcuts on EBBA that Mark Hailwood has discussed here before. However, it remains difficult to find the sort of rich visual material that one can find, for instance, in Dutch ‘Golden Age’ paintings or in nineteenth-century periodicals.
So, when I came across Comenius’ Visual World I was extraordinarily pleased to see not only many pictures of various well-known occupations – blacksmiths, shoemakers, etc. – but also women at work. There is a rapidly growing scholarship on the working lives of early modern women and this is a subject that I love to teach, yet we seem to be lacking in visual evidence. Here, however, we find women dressing flax, spinning, sewing and washing.
Even more appealing is the allegorical image of ‘diligence’ as a woman with a sickle and a rake. Unlike the (male) ‘Sluggard’ lounging under the tree in the background, she imitates the ants and the bees. She ‘loveth labours’ instead of idling on ‘holy days’. It is unsurprising, I suppose, to see labour itself visualised as a woman – all of the other virtues are embodied as women too. Still, it is pleasing, and rare, to see a pictorial acknowledgement of women’s contributions to the early modern economy. Source: I found the book through Charles McNamara’s piece on ‘In the Image of God: John Comenius and the First Children’s Picture Book’ on Public Domain Review. A free pdf of the 1705 English edition is available on the Internet Archive.
Update, 20/01/15: John Styles raises some very important questions about the provenance of these images in the comments below. In short, these are probably recycled German images rather than genuinely English ones.