Juan Pablo Bonet, 1573-1633: The Miracle Worker

Rasputin did for the Romanovs simply because, despite being a dreadful man, he was good at dealing with the prince’s hemophilia.  The Empire fell, a century of tragedy followed.  No real good came of it.

A happier end is the story of Juan Pablo Bonet.

Bonet was a linguist and secretary attached to the Spanish army, with which he saw action in Africa, Saboya and the Milanesado.  Almost as an aside, he became a member of the household of his commander, Juan Fernandez de Velasco, 5th Duke of Frias.  It was there that he became aware of the second son Luis (born 1610)  and the trouble his tutors were having with the boy’s deafness.

The condition was hereditary in that family, popping up now and then and bringing with it a good deal of personal anguish, but practical concerns as well.  Where a peasant’s child would have had no choice but to live with it and get on as best he could, for a member of the higher aristocracy, this was not an option. The Duke’s son would be coming into money and responsibility in due course and at the very least, he needed to know how to read.

Bonet was of course not the first of the family’s household to be interested in this problem.   Pedro Ponce de Leon, a Dominican monk and herbalist, had had some success with his teaching methods while instructing earlier members of the de Velasco family; his colleague Fray Vicente de Santo Domingo as well had done preliminary work and left notes.

Bonet decided that he could do a better.

And so, it seems, he did. Working on precepts of these other men (their notes were in the family archives), he got the boy to learn the alphabet and lip reading.   Bonet went further.  If not actively mute,  the subject was to learn how to enunciate as well – a radical notion.  Bonet came up with a method of signing, and insisted that learning it be a family enterprise; if the deaf child had to learn sign language, so must everyone else under that roof.  It took a village.

By 1620, he published his Reducción de las letras y arte para enseñar a hablar a los mudos (“Summary of the letters and the art of teaching speech to the mute”), a collection of four essays on teaching the deaf, along with graphics of Bonet’s signed alphabet.  A specialists kind of work, but invaluable to those who needed it, and a foundation for other efforts in other times and places.

He died thirteen years later, relatively little mourned outside his own circle of acquaintances, and reviled by a member of Ponce de Leon’s order who felt that Bonet was trying to take credit for the work of their fellow Dominican de Leon, described by a chronicler as “a simple monk skilled with plants but without education.”

No matter.  The work itself is recognized now, and more important, it has changed the lives of millions for the better.

One thought on “Juan Pablo Bonet, 1573-1633: The Miracle Worker

  1. Many misconceptions about Rasputin, he is often labeled as maniac and bloodthirsty monk, in fact, Rasputin is an regulary politician, what makes him different from other politicians is Rasputin loves his country and his peoples so much, dignified and an pacifist, a quality which is highly unusual in that era, and perhaps, untill now

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