1592 - 1614
1614 - 1617
1618 - 1621
1621 - 1623
1623 - 1627
1628 - 1670
1628 - 1641
1641 - 1642
1642 - 1648
1648 - 1650
1650 - 1654
1654 - 1656
1656 - 1670
• childhood: Uherský Brod, Strážnice, Nivnice, Přerov, Herborn, Heidelberg
• active at Přerov
• active at Fulnek
• in hiding in Moravia
• in hiding in East Bohemia: Brandýs nad Orlicí, Bílá Třemešná, Horní Branná
• active in exile
Jan Amos Komenský (Comenius) was born on March 28th 1592, the youngest of the five children of Martin Komenský and Anna Komenská. Thus far, there is however no simple answer to the question as to where he was born; some material seems to favour Uherský Brod, while other material favours Nivnice. Komňa is the place that gave the family its origin and name. After the death of his parents, who died in rapid succession at Uherský Brod in 1604, the twelve year old orphan was raised by Martin s sister, Zuzana Nohálová of Strážnice.
In 1605 Comenius attended the Brethren school at Strážnice. When the forces of Istvan Bocskay razed Strážnice, the young Comenius lost not only his second home, but also some of his property from the suburb of Uherský Brod that was also destroyed by military forces at this time. After this turn of events he went to stay with his guardians the Kozáks and Urban Mravenec in Nivnice. The reasons for Jan s guardians having been chosen from Nivnice, and for his having to leave his sisters as an orphan at the age of 12, are unknown.
In 1608 he was sent to the Brethren s school at Přerov, which was supported by the Brethren`s political protector, Karel the Elder of Žerotín. In the upper division of the Brethren`s school Jan obtained above all a knowledge of Latin, and it was during his Přerov period (1608 – 1611) that under the tutelage of Tomáš Dubin he gained the range of knowledge that opened the opportunities of university studies to him. It was at Přerov, too, that he first encountered the teachings of the Polish Socinians, with whom he was later destined to have the greatest number of religious polemics. This teaching, as he himself said, caused the first great shock to his inherited faith. Thanks to his success at his studies, which brought him the favour of Bishop Jan Lánecký and Žerotín himself, he was sent to attend German Reformed schools, specifically the Nassau Academy at Herborn (1611 – 1613) and Heidelberg University (1613 – 1614). His studies at Heidelberg concluded with a theological disputation.
Having obtained a manuscript of Copernicus work On the revolutions of heavenly spheres , Comenius returned to Moravia on foot, via Nuremberg and Prague. He became head of the school at Přerov where he had himself once been a pupil. His primary aim was use the knowledge he had gained for the benefit of his homeland and the Unity of Brethren. Comenius became aware of the poor state of contemporary schooling, and thus directed his efforts towards improving it. He spent his free time in educating himself, and at the same time collected material for the first Czech encyclopaedia, the Divadlo veškerenstva věcí (the Theatrum), which he had conceived of compiling for his compatriots while still a student.
Shortly after his return to Moravia Comenius was consecrated as a clergyman of the Brethren at the Žeravice Synod in 1616. His life, like the fates of hundreds and thousands of his countrymen, was changed by war. The Bohemian Estates Uprising, instigated by resistance to growing Habsburg pressure and begun on May 23rd 1618 by the well-known Prague Defenestration, opened the way to the largest conflict Europe had ever seen, which was to last thirty years and have tragic consequences for the Czech nation. At the outbreak Jan Amos was living on the estate of Jan Skrbenský of Hříště at Fulnek, where he had become rector of the Congregation of Brethren at Fulnek and teacher at the local school, and where he had also started a family; he had brought his first wife, Magdalena Vizovská, with him from Přerov.
During his time at Fulnek (1618 – 1621) Comenius continued to study and to expand his spiritual horizons. During his short time in and around Fulnek he formed a relationship with the Catholic party in the town, the centre and bulwark of which was the Augustinian canonry. Regarding the shepherds of the flock, as the German Catholics were called, much can be drawn from the reports of the local chronicler Felix Jaschke – as for instance the fact that Comenius established apiculture at Fulnek.
Comenius continually followed political developments, which in 1620 culminated in the defeat of the Bohemian Estates at White Mountain. Shortly after the Battle of White Mountain Fulnek was invaded by Imperial Spaniards, who devastated the town and with it the building of the Brethren s congregation and school. Local legend has it that Comenius remained hidden until 1621 at Oderské vrchy near Vikštejn Castle, and then in 1622 on the Žerotín estate near Velké Losiny. In his own works he makes no mention of where he hid on leaving Fulnek. At the beginning of 1622 he suffered a personal tragedy: his wife Magdalena and their two sons (whose names are unknown) died. Comenius, hiding out at various locations in North Moravia and, as a cleric of the Brethren, constantly at risk of being betrayed and handed over to the Imperial military, finally found refuge on the estate of Karel the Elder of Žerotín, in the latter s birthplace at Brandýs nad Orlicí. In 1623 he also heard of the disaster at Fulnek, where he had previously been active, during which his library and a number of manuscript outlines were publicly burned on the town square. Having overcome a certain psychological crisis, Comenius married again in 1624, to Marie Dorota Cyrillová, with whom he was to live for 24 years.
They had four children: Dorota Kristina Komenská
It was during this period that Comenius rose to the fore of the Unity of Brethren. From 1625 to 1626 he undertook many important journeys in their service, the aims of which were to prepare and organise for the emigration of members of the Brethren, and to obtain political and moral support from abroad.
He also contributed to saving the Žerotín library at Náměšť nad Oslavou and the Kralice printworks, which was successfully transported to Wrocław in Silesia. Comenius reached Leszno in Poland, the refuge of the Brethren since the time of the first persecution in 1547, by way of Zgorzelec and Sprottau, where he first met the Silesian craftsman and prophet Kryštof Kotter.
In Berlin he met with the leader of the Moravian Protestant nobility, Ladislav Velen of Žerotín, and in the Hague even with the exiled King of Bohemia himself, Frederick V of the Palatinate, to whom he gave the optimistic prophecies of Kryštof Kotter, announcing the imminent defeat of the Habsburgs. Comenius spent the last period of his residence in East Bohemia (1626 – 1628) at Bílá Třemešná near Dvůr Králové, at the manor of the Brethren knight Jiří Sadovský of Sloupno; even here he was constantly at work.
A visit to the château library at Vlčice, belonging to Adam Zilvar of Silberstein (von Silberstein) had a great effect on Comenius; it was here that he found, amongst other rare books, the Saxon grammar of Elias Bodin, the Didaktik oder Lehrkunst of 1621, which was to influence his own later work. Comenius is also known to have stayed at Horní Branné, whence he had travelled from Bílá Třemešná to visit the château of Václav Záruba of Hustířany, where he also met the prophetess Kristina Poniatowska. Poniatowska s life and predictions would later be published by Comenius in his Historia relevationum.
The Counter-Reformation and the persecution of the heterodox, however, went hand in hand with the success of the Imperial army led by Albrecht of Waldstein (Wallenstein). Waldstein`s victories strengthened the position of Emperor Ferdinand II Habsburg to such an extent that he was able to decide to definitively settle the Czech question in Habsburg favour by the issuing of a new constitution, the Renewed Provincial (Land) Ordinance.
Further, by a special patent of July 31st 1627, the Emperor instructed all the non-Catholic Estates that they should either sell their property and emigrate within six months, or convert to Catholicism. It was for this reason that Comenius and his family, with others, left for Leszno, arriving there in February 1628. Comenius departure into exile closed an important chapter in his life and works.
Comenius spent a total of 19 years of his life at Leszno, in three extended periods, and the town became his second home. His first and longest residence, from 1628 to 1641, in particular was a period of great creative endeavour for him. He also began to teach at the Brethren`s higher school here. His efforts concentrated in the preparation of textbooks, and in methodological and linguistic studies.
At the beginning of the 1630s, due mainly to the entry of the Swedes into the war against the Habsburgs in 1630, the Czech exiles entertained hopes that they would soon be able to return home. When in 1632 the Saxons, allies of the Swedes, were driven by Imperial forces from both Prague and Bohemia, and the Swedish King Gustav II Adolph fell, promising the Protestants liberation from Habsburg overrule, Comenius opportunities for an early return to his homeland receded. With the murder at Cheb (Eger) of Albrecht of Waldstein (Wallenstein), who had been negotiating behind the emperor s back with regard to a possible accommodation with the Swedes and Saxons, and even with the Czech emigrants, the hopes of the Czech exiles too died.
Along with the ever more arduous scholastic responsibilities entrusted to him when he became rector of the Leszno Gymnasium, Comenius also took on new duties for the Brethren; he was one of the leadership, and in 1632 was even ordained as their bishop and, concurrently, secretary. It was at this time that great attention was awoken by his pansophic thoughts and efforts, too. Among Comenius friends were the English clergyman John Dury, who worked to unite the evangelical churches and for peace between nations, and the merchant venturer Samuel Hartlib; the latter was one of the organisers of scientific life in England, and a partisan of Comenius plans for the reform of the sciences, schooling and education.
Comenius, respected for his pansophic work, accepted an invitation from Hartlib and the English Comenians to work for a time in England, and aid them in realising plans within the framework of the reform of schools and the sciences. He arrived in London at the end of September 1641. Comenius found here not only a great understanding of pansophy (universal wisdom), but also offers of material maintenance, influential friends and the opportunity to realise his plans with state assistance.
The English Civil War of 1642. together with the fragmentation of his adherents into various political camps, prevented Comenius from carrying out the planned reforms, however. Among the fruits of his stay in England, though, was the outstanding work the Via lucis.
During this period, an interest in Comenius work began to be taken by such figures as Cardinal Richelieu, the Transylvanian princely Rákóczi family, and even the Americans, who were then establishing the first schools on the other side of the ocean. Comenius, however, chose from many offers to accept that of the Swedes, which was interpreted and mediated by the Dutch merchant and arms manufacturer Louis de Geer, to propose the reform of their educations system. A not inconsiderable part in this decision must have been played by Comenius conviction that the Swedes could contribute most to the liberation of the Czech Lands from the Habsburgs.
On his way to Sweden Comenius visited the Netherlands for the thirds time, meeting the French philosopher René Descartes. At Swedish recommendation he settled in the town of Elbląg where, with a number of assistants, he worked on textbooks for schools. He was drawn ever more, however, to work on pansophy. Later Comenius had to face the disfavour of the Swedes, who were affronted both by his failure to meet the deadlines for submitting the textbooks and by his personal involvement in attempts at political and religious reconciliation in Poland, which was not in accord with the interests of Sweden as a great power. His participation in the ecumenical meeting at Toruń, where questions relating to reconciliation and standardisation between the churches were resolved, was a source of unwelcome problems to Comenius even within the Brethren, and of unpleasantness on the part of Swedish Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna.
When he delivered the worked-up textbooks to Sweden, Comenius used the opportunity to personally ask the Chancellor and Queen Christina to support his nation and his church.
The year 1648 was a year of bitter disappointment for Comenius as the Peace of Westphalia put a definitive end to all of his political hopes. Disillusioned, he left Swedish Elbląg to return to Leszno, where he worked until 1650. It was at this time that his second wife died, leaving him with a large family; in 1649 he married again, this time to Jana Gajusová.
One beacon of light in Jan Amos life was the happy marriage of his daughter Alžběta Komenská, who wed the best of his collaborators, Petr Figulus Jablonský.
Comenius found a new hope in Transylvania (1650 – 1654), whence he travelled from Leszno in 1650 at the invitation of the princely Rákóczi family. He made use of the journey to visit numerous congregations of the Brethren in Slovakia. He crossed Slovakia four times in the years 1650 1654, but there is little reliable documentation of his travels. It can be said with certainty that he visited colonies and congregations of the Brethren in Skalica, Trnava, Púchov, Lednica, Levoča and Prešov, as he was asked at the Synod of the Brethren in 1650 to relate the results of his meetings. His journey ended at Sárospatak, because he had accepted the offer of Sigismund Rákóczi to reform schooling in Transylvania, and in particular the Sárospatak Gymnasium. Jan Amos, on the other hand, wanted to involve the prince in the nascent anti-Catholic coalition. In addition to his work relating to the improvement of the Latin school, he also wrote a number of outstanding, mainly didactic, books whilst here.
Comenius enjoyed the favour of the Princess Mother Zuzana Lórántffy and in particular the trust and support of the aforementioned Sigismund, who knew Jan Amos as the famous author of Latin textbooks. During his stay in Transylvania Comenius also entered into a close relationship with a friend from his youth, Mikuláš Drabík, an exile in Lednica, who via Comenius conveyed to the Rákóczis his prophecies regarding the central role that Transylvania was to play in the supposedly imminent final struggle against the Habsburg enemy. At the same time, the marriage of Prince Sigismund to Princess Henrietta Maria of the Palatinate, daughter of the former King of Bohemia Frederick V of the Palatinate (which Comenius himself had a hand in mediating and arranging in 1651) was politically hopeful.
The death soon thereafter of the prince and princess weakened Comenius position at Sárospatak, and the increasing malice of his Hungarian colleagues, lead by the rector of the school Janos Tolnai, so embittered him that in 1654 he decided to return to Leszno.
Another motivation for Comenius to return must surely have been a longing for his countrymen and kin, but there was also the international political situation to consider. In the years 1654 to 1655 the chance arose for the creation of an anti-Habsburg coalition comprising revolutionary England, Sweden and Transylvania.
Czech exiles in Poland once again began to believe that this could be a good time to have the Czech question resolved. In 1654 they turned to the leader of the English Republic, Oliver Cromwell, with a request for financial and military support. They even prepared from among their number, and from their own coffers, a military force that, under the command of the Swedish Colonel Václav Sadovský of Sloupno, a onetime pupil of Comenius from Bílá Třemešná, was to invade Bohemia and there call, in their view, for a nationwide uprising. The exiles hopes grew further when, in 1655, the new King of Sweden, Charles X Gustav, successfully opened a campaign against Catholic Poland. Comenius too welcomed the Swedish victory with his Panegyric on Charles Gustav (the Panegyricus). For this, the Czech exiles and the Protestant minority as a whole were declared traitors by the Catholic public. Leszno in particular, the refuge of non-Catholics, was a thorn in the majority s side, particularly after the Swedes suffered their first defeats in Poland and began to withdraw. One of the upshots of this enmity was the razing of Leszno in 1656, and with it the destruction of the heart of the Unity of Brethren in Poland. Comenius barely escaped with his life and the lives of his family; what was more painful for him was the loss in the fire of Leszno not just of his property, but of his manuscripts.
After the destruction of Leszno Jan Amos had to seek a new refuge. He accepted the invitation of Lawrence de Geer, the son of the merchant and patron Louis de Geer, to go to Amsterdam in the Netherlands, which became his last home (1656 – 1670). At the decision of the city council, from 1656 Comenius received a regular income and a subsidy towards the completion of his didactic and pansophic works. A year later he devoted a new edition of the Schola ludus (School as Play) to the councillors.
The interest of the Dutch burghers in education spurred Comenius to bring together, fill out and publish his works as an educator (the Opera Didactica Omnia, ODO), in select and chronological order. Even now, he did not abandon his hope of a return to his homeland; in 1658 he rejected an invitation from the circle of Oliver Cromwell to move the remaining Brethren to Ireland.
After the dashing of all his hopes by changes in the political situation in Central Europe, Comenius still believed in revelations, in particular those of his former fellow pupil Mikuláš Drabík but also the prophecies of Kryštof Kotter and Kristina Poniatowska, which he gradually put into print. Revelations, which in the European published material of the time were a favourite genre, followed Comenius political aims; in this way he sought to wake European consciousness to the suppression of religious and national freedoms.
After the death of Lawrence de Geer Comenius began to more seriously consider settling somewhere closer to his homeland or to Petr Figulus Jablonský, who at this time lived with his family at Memel, now Klaipeda.
At the same time, Jan Amos did not cease to work on his most extensive pansophic work, which he called the General Consultation on the Improvement of Human Affairs (the Consultatio). The importance of this work to Comenius is shown by the fact that shortly before his death he adjured his son Daniel (Daniel Komenský) and friend Kristian Vladislav Nigrin to complete and publish it.
An important moment in Comenius life came with information from friends in England that in 1662 the Royal Society had been founded; a society driven by tuition and education was mentioned as early as in his Via lucis, for which reason he regarded the establishment of such a society as an inheritance of his thinking.
At the same time, Comenius had throughout his life exerted himself to enable every person to be taught about the advances of science to date, and about the development of society; he himself was an admirer of technical invention.
Comenius pansophic and pan-reformative concepts, which he applied in his works, began however to exceed the framework of the possible afforded him by the burghers of Amsterdam, and the chances of their realisation in his time thus receded. Comenius became embroiled in conflicts and polemical exchanges with several contemporaries, who failed to understand the advanced nature and liberality of his thinking. They also condemned his faith in prophecy; among them was Samuel Maresius.
Several of Comenius problems stemmed at the same time from the inconsistency between the real social and political interests of the ruling players in Europe, and how Comenius understood them. This was also manifest within the framework of his participation in the negotiations between England and Holland at Breda in 1667, where he presented his Angelus (Messenger of Peace). In 1669 Jan Amos replied to Maresius criticism of the chiliasts in the De zelo (Fraternal Admonition). Maresius Antirrheticus, which was also critical of Comenius General Consultation on the Improvement of Human Affairs (the Cosultatio) was the spur for his self-justifying autobiography the Continuatio admonitionis (Continuing Fraternal Admonition).
At the end of his life, Comenius had to cope with the death of Petr Figulus, who left behind a widow and five children not yet in their majority (Samuel Amos Figulus, Jan Theodor Figulus Jablonský, Daniel Arnošt Jablonský, Petr Figulus, Marie Alžběta), in whom Comenius cares were concentrated.
Until his very last days, Comenius did not cease to follow political and spiritual developments in Europe, and to continue his creative endeavour. He died in the middle of work on an unfinished treatise at the age of 78, on November 15th 1670. He was buried on November 22nd at Naarden in a small church belonging to the Walloon Church. Between 1935 and 1937 the then Czechoslovak government converted this former place of worship into a dignified mausoleum.
More detailed information regarding the life of J. A. Comenius can be found in the sources listed under the heading of basic literature on the life of J. A. Comenius.