In this month’s parish magazine, Rector Alan reflects on the little-known legacy of John Bulwer, seventeenth century pioneer of sign language, who was buried at St Giles-in-the-Fields
I have every confidence in the truth of the following statement: that I am among the very few who have ever read Sectional Page 15 of the 36th volume of the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, under the title ‘Section of the History of Medicine,’ dated 5th May 1943, written by H. J. Lamb, M. B., and headed ‘John Bulwer (fl. 1654), The “Chirosopher,” Pioneer in the Treatment of the Deaf and Dumb and in Psychology.’ Only myself and a lively post-graduate student from the United States who appears to have dedicated a good few years of her life to Dr Bulwer and has brought him to my attention. Oh, and I also need to mention that John Bulwer is buried at St Giles-in-the-Fields, for which reason, I feel, the days of your ignorance with regard to him should certainly come to an end.
The article begins: ‘The name of John Bulwer is little known these days’ (nothing new there then) and goes on: ‘Bulwer lived in an age when men’s minds were reaching out in all directions’ (a wonderful phrase). It was the age chronicled by Samuel Pepys, whose diary, which I am slowly reading, occasionally gets an airing when preaching. ‘It has ever been the humour of my Genius,’ Bulwer wrote in his work Anthropometamorphosis (take your time saying that), ‘to put me upon untrodden Pathes.’ He was the son of a doctor and called himself a doctor but there is no evidence that he ever was a doctor. But who are we to deny him?
His theme was the hand and the gestures it makes (hence ‘chirosopher,’ Gk., ‘hand-wisdom’). ‘I shall attempt to advance in the scrutenie and search after the scattered glances & touches of Antiquity . . . with the intent to reduce them into one continued and intire History . . . to handle Gesture, as the only speech and general language of Human Nature.’ The hand, more than the voice, was for him the most general and common form of communication – ‘As the Tongue speaketh to the Eare, so Gesture speaketh to the Eye’ – and everywhere he saw the hand at work, thus: ‘He that would see the vigour of this gesture in puris naturalibus must repaire to the Horse Cirque, or Sheep Pens in Smithfield, where those crafty Olympique Merchants who need the Hand of no Broker to speed the course of their affairs, will take you for no chapman, unless you strike them good lucke, and smite them on the palm;’ or, again, of biting the finger nails: ‘This gesture is . . . a wilde expression of fierce anger and cruell revenge . . . The Italians, a revengefull Nation, doe most usually declare by this gesture their greedy coveting to be at Hand with revenge.’ It is not difficult to see how his theories emerged particularly from observing deaf-mutes, noting that ‘wonder of necessity which Nature worketh in men that are borne deafe and dumbe: who [can] argue and dispute rhetorically by signes, and with a kinde of mute and logistique eloquence [so as to] overcome their amazed opponents.’
With a work called ‘Chrononomia’ (‘laws of the hand’) Bulwer went on to write a manual of hand gestures for orators and speakers which could amplify the spoken word (now much loved of, and studied by, politicians), not least the gestures of the preacher, as revealed in the following anecdote of Elizabeth 1st: ‘That Virgin Monarch, Queene Elizabeth of famous memory . . . having heard, or rather seene a Sermon that was preached before her . . . was much affected by it, and gave her judgement [after later reading it] that it was one of the best Sermons she ever heard, and the worst she ever read.’
But it is perhaps in his description of gesture for the use of the dumb that his work is best known among some today. In 1648 there appeared ‘Philocophus; or the Deafe and Dumbe Man’s Friend, which contained the following poetic prologue by a friend, Thomas Diconson:
Rejoice you Deafe & Dumber, your arms extend
T’embrace th’inventive goodness of a Friend!
Who heare intends, for your reliefe, to Found
An Academie, on Nature’s highest ground.
The Deafe & Dumbe get Hearing Eies which breake
Their Barre of Silence, and thence learn to speake,
Words may be seene or heard: W’are at our choyce
For to give Eare, or Eie unto a Voyce.
Time, and your patience, does not allow any fuller account of the discoveries of Dr John Bulwer as recounted in Volume 36, though there is much more. Others, later, followed up on his work to bring the art of sign language to the form it has today where it remains indispensible to those who cannot hear or speak and to many with learning difficulties who can, nevertheless, communicate by sign and gesture.
And is it not good to know that, even though so long ago, a parishioner of these parts, about whose life little is really known, ended here that life hereabouts, having gifted to others the means by which those who cannot speak might yet ‘speak’ and convey by signs the thoughts of their minds and the movements of their hearts; that here lies one who then entered that further realm where, to follow the prayer of John Donne, ‘no noise nor silence’ shall be found ‘but one equal music.’ Perhaps, then, in that world of intuition, immediate knowledge and love the gestures of the hand may prove as useful as they do here.