Electrifying the 'Via Lucis': communication technologies and republics of letters, past, present and future
In his Latin treatise, "Via Lucis (The Way of Light)", the great Moravian pedagogue and pansophist, Jan Amos Comenius (1592-1670), offered an account of the whole of human history conceived as the gradual spread of communication. Organised in terms of the six days of creation, his narrative culminates in the expectation of a dawning seventh day of rest, in which a universal college will use universal communication to gather universal books as the basis for universal education. The most important product of Comenius's brief stay in England during the winter and spring of 1641-2, the plan's prospects were dashed by the outbreak of the civil wars the following summer. Instead of settling down in England to create his universal college, Comenius continued his wanderings, exchanging as he moved across the face of northern Europe an endless series of letters, pansophic schemes and utopian blueprints with a whole generation of intellectual refugees likewise displaced by the wars ranging simultaneously from the Baltic via central Europe to the British Isles. Amidst this constant flux, the "Via Lucis" remained unpublished until 1668, when it appeared with a dedication to the newly founded Royal Society, which Comenius regarded as the fulfilment of the proposal he had penned a quarter century earlier.
Comenius illustrates in striking fashion a connection between the terms of our subtitle. Crises both create diasporas and increase the urgency of communication amongst them, while simultaneously rendering that communication far more difficult both for contemporaries to conduct and for historians to reconstruct. In the seventeenth-century case, the problem of reconstructing the movement of letters exchanged between a mid-century generation of intellectuals who were themselves constantly on the move is one which the age of print has proved unable to solve. Reconstruction of the international republic of letters created by the early modern revolution in epistolary communication can, however, be assisted by the consolidation of a new international scholarly community facilitated by the ongoing revolution in digital communications. Having indicated out the nature of the problem with reference to Comenius, this talk will also outline a new COST networking project designed to address this problem: http://www.cost.eu/domains_actions/isch/Actions/IS1310.