Comenius’ Didactica Magna: A Latin-English Summary

Discover how Latin was taught at a time when people spoke it fluently.

Dr. Viktor Becher
8 min readAug 16, 2023
A 17th century depiction of a schoolboy with his teacher (image: Bibliotheca Augustana)

Do you find memorizing long lists of vocabulary dull and boring? Well, it’s not only dull, but also ineffective, as John Amos Comenius showed in the year 1657, when he published his seminal book Didactica Magna (“Great Didactic”) in Latin. Comenius argued that we acquire a language by using it, not by learning grammar rules, and developed a new teaching method based on listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

Comenius’ method met with huge success. His books were translated into more than 15 languages and sparked a revolution in language pedagogy throughout Europe.

Today, we need Comenius’ work more than ever, because many of his insights have been forgotten through the course of time. This is seen most clearly in the teaching of Latin, where ineffective methods prevail that date back to the time before Comenius. Let us revisit the Didactica Magna and discover how to learn and teach Latin the right way!

Note: I have shortened some of the Latin quotes to make them easier to digest.

Our Plastic Brain

In a famous quote, Comenius observes that the human brain is capable of absorbing vast amounts of knowledge:

Apte etiam cerebrum nostrum, cogitationum officina, cerae, cui vel sigillum imprimitur vel ex qua imagunculae finguntur, comparatur. Ut cera omnem admittens formam, quovis modo figurari et transfigurari patitur, ita cerebrum omnium rerum simulacra suscipiens, quidquid mundus universus continet, in se recipit.

Our brain, the factory of our thoughts, can be compared to wax, which is impressed with a seal or formed into little figures. Just as wax, susceptible to any form, can be figured and refigured in arbitrary ways, thus our brain, receiving images of all things, can capture anything that exists in the wide world.

Comenius’ use of the wax metaphor was prescient. Today we know that the brain can restructure itself physically. Neurologists call this “neural plasticity”. Comenius did not need an MRI scanner to know this. He observed that some individuals become fluent in five, six or even more languages. It seemed logical to him to assume that the brain can somehow adapt itself to the world.

Wasting Time in School

But why are there people who fail at learning a single language? Comenius saw the fault in the teaching methods of the 17th century:

Quod perspicue et dilucide ob oculos poni poterat, id obscure, perplexe, intricate, velut per aenigmata mera, offerebatur.

What could be presented perspicuously and clearly, schools offered in an obscure, confused and intricate fashion, as if in riddles.

Comenius here refers to abstract rules such as “transitive verbs require a direct object”, which most school children just cannot process (most adults cannot either). He observes that simple workers, by spending time abroad, learn foreign languages more easily than students do in school:

Promptius lixae et calones et cerdones quicumque, inter culinarias, militares, aliasque sordidas operas, addiscunt quamvis a vernacula sua discrepantem linguam, immo duas vel tres, quam scholarum alumni unicam Latinam.

Sutlers, army servants and other lowly workers, while doing kitchen, military or other dirty work, acquire any language different from their own, even two or three languages, more readily than school children acquire Latin only.

Comenius concludes:

Quod pessimum temporis et laborum dispendium unde nisi a vitiosa methodo venire potest?

What else could cause this horrible waste of time and energy than a faulty method?

He assumes that many children hate school for the same reason:

… tam dura plerumque adhibita fuit methodus, ut scholae vulgo pro puerorum terriculamentis, et ingeniorum carnificinis, habitae sint.

… such an arduous method has mostly been used, that schools have been widely regarded as scary places and torture chambers of young minds.

If you have no fond memories of school, the likely reason is that you were taught with the very methods that were abolished by Comenius, but slowly crept back in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Languages Are Tools

Comenius went to great lengths to point out that language is not an end in itself, but a tool for communication.

Linguae discuntur non ut eruditionis aut sapientiae pars, sed ut eruditionis hauriendae, aliisque communicandae instrumentum.

Languages are not learned as part of erudition or wisdom, but as a tool for acquiring erudition and transmitting it to others.

Think about it: it’s not your knowledge of Latin that makes you educated, it’s your knowledge of Latin literature. Words are only meaningful insofar as they denote things in the real world:

Verba enim quid nisi rerum involucra et vaginae?

What are words other than envelopes and sheaths of things?

From this, Comenius infers:

Ergo, verba non nisi rebus coniuncta doceantur et discantur; eo modo quo vinum cum vase, gladius cum vagina, lignum cum cortice, fructus cum putamine venduntur et emuntur et transportantur.

Therefore, words should only be taught and learned in connection with things, in the same way that wine is sold, bought and carried in a jar, a sword in its sheath, wood with its bark, fruit with its peel.

Not only are words inseparably connected to things, things are also intertwined with each other. This led Comenius to assume that vocabulary is learned best when presented in context:

Unde sequitur vocabula rerum separatim discenda non esse, cum separatim res nec exstant, nec intelliguntur: sed prouti coniunctae sunt, hic aut illic existunt, hoc aut illud agunt.

Whence it follows that vocabulary items should not be learned separately, because things neither exist separately, nor are they understood separately, but as they are joined with other things, occur here or there, do this or that.

Returning to his characterization of languages as tools, Comenius observes that craftsmen are a lot more successful in transmitting their knowledge than most language teachers. He attributes this to their practical approach:

Mechanici artium suarum tirones non speculationibus detinent sed mox operibus admovent, ut discant fabricare fabricando, sculpere sculpendo, pingere pingendo, saltare saltando etc.

Craftsmen do not detain their apprentices with theorizing, but let them do work soon, so that they learn to build by building, to sculpt by sculpting, to paint by painting, to dance by dancing, etc.

Comenius wants language teachers to proceed in the same way. They should prompt their students to use the target language as early and often as possible:

Omnis lingua usu potius discatur quam praeceptis. Id est audiendo, legendo, relegendo, transcribendo, imitationem manu et lingua tentando, quam creberrime.

Every language should be learned by use rather than rules. That is, by listening, reading, rereading, copying, trying to imitate (the teacher) by speaking and writing, as often as possible.

Comenius saw this as the most effective way to stimulate adaptation in the brain, or, in his words, to “impress” the target language onto the brain, like a seal is impressed onto wax.

Comenius’ Method in Practice

To demonstrate the application of his theory, Comenius authored a number of Latin textbooks. Here is an excerpt from his Orbis Sensualium Pictus (published in 1658), consisting of a picture and a description in Latin and English:

A picture from Comenius’ Orbis Pictus (source: Bibliotheca Augustana)

Ignis ardet, urit, cremat … Eius scintilla candelam (5) vel lignum (6) accendit, et flammam (7) excitat, vel incendium (8), quod aedificia corripit …

Fire burns, scorches, consumes … Its spark can light a candle (5) or piece of wood (6), and kindle a flame (7), or blaze (8), which can take hold of buildings …

The numbers in the text correspond to the numbered items in the picture. Note how the Orbis Pictus implements the tenets of the Didactica Magna:

  • Similar words are presented together. If you’re a learner of Latin, how often have you wondered about the difference between ardere, urere and cremare? Here you have all three in their logical order (fire first burns, then scorches, finally consumes), along with their English equivalents. Impossible to forget.
  • Words are presented in context. How do you say “light a candle” in Latin, or “kindle a flame”? It’s all here.
  • Pictures establish the link between words and things. They ensure that students understand without doubt what each word refers to, even if their knowledge of the auxiliary language (here English) is incomplete.

Note also the absence of grammatical explanations. Comenius did not want to distract readers from the text’s meaning. He did find grammatical instruction necessary, but only as a learning aid that could be disposed of later. He wanted students to go through the following steps (which can partly be done in parallel):

  1. Learn the necessary minimum of grammar, which should take no longer than a couple of weeks. Add more grammar later.
  2. Go through the Orbis Sensualium Pictus or a similar book multiple times, memorizing useful words, collocations, and phrases as they occur in context.
  3. Do exercises that combine grammar and vocabulary, e.g. “What’s the perfect tense of ignis ardet, urit, cremat?” — “Ignis arsit, ussit, cremavit.” First in the auxiliary language, later in Latin.
  4. Do exercises that make use of grammar and vocabulary in communication, e.g. “Timesne ignem?” — “Non timeo.” (“Are you afraid of fire?” — “I’m not afraid.”)
  5. The end goal: read the best Latin authors. Comenius explicitly mentions Seneca and the Christian Bible.

Employing the Senses

A crucial insight of Comenius, and hallmark of his method, is that multiple senses should be involved in the learning process:

Ut omnia facilius imprimantur, sensus adhibeantur quotquot possunt. Ex. gr. auditus cum visu, lingua com manu, perpetuo iungatur.

As many senses as possible should be employed, so that everything is absorbed with less effort. For example, hearing should be linked with seeing, speaking with writing, perpetually.

Comenius explains that the teacher should teach:

… non solum scilicet enarrando, quod sciri debet, ut auribus illabatur; sed et pingendo, ut imaginationi imprimatur per oculos.

… not only by reciting the learning matter, so that it enters the ears; but also by drawing it, so that it is impressed onto the mind through the eyes.

The students should then actively engage with the learning matter:

Illi vicissim discant mox et pronuntiare lingua et exprimere manu: ut a nulla re discedatur, nisi postquam auribus, oculis, menti, memoriaeque satis impressa sit.

They, in turn, should soon learn to both recite (the learning matter) with the tongue and write it with the hand; so that no topic is left without having been impressed onto the ears, eyes, mind, and memory.

It is easy to see how the Orbis Pictus facilitates this kind of learning. Comenius recommended that students copy the text from the book to their notebooks, read it out loud, try their hand at a drawing, explain the meaning of words to each other, etc.

Comenius Today

Fast forward to today. Modern language pedagogy has rediscovered (or reinvented) Comenius’ insights. As a result, language classrooms resound with lively interactions, songs, speech practice, and group work, just as Comenius envisioned.

The teaching of Latin, on the other hand, seems to be stuck in the 19th century. First-year students are confronted with grammatical subtleties and asked to memorize lists of incoherent vocabulary. The results are meager: who is nowadays able to read a Latin text at sight?

It’s time to dust off Comenius’ books and become fluent in Latin!

P.S. Although Comenius wrote the Orbis Sensualium Pictus for twelve year old pupils, it is too difficult for modern readers who have been schooled ineffectively. A good place to start is Comenius’ Vestibulum Linguarum (printed edition here), which will prepare you for the Orbis.

Did you enjoy this summary? Read my other summaries here.