Who was John Bulwer and his link to British Sign Language?

John Bulwer (May 16, 1606 – October 16, 1656) was an English physician and early Baconian natural philosopher who wrote five works exploring the Body and human communication

Who was John Bulwer and his link to British Sign Language?

John Bulwer (May 16, 1606 – October 16, 1656) was an English physician and early Baconian natural philosopher who wrote five works exploring the Body and human communication, particularly by gesture. He was the first person in England to propose educating deaf people, the plans for an Academy he outlines in Philocophus and The Dumbe mans academie.

John Bulwer was born in London in 1606 and continued to work and live in the city until his death in October 1656 when he was buried in St Giles in the Fields, Westminster. He was the only surviving son of an apothecary named Thomas Bulwer and Marie Evans of St. Albans. On her death in 1638 John Bulwer inherited some property in St Albans from which he derived a small income. Although information about his education is unclear, there is evidence that he was probably educated in Oxford as an unmatriculated student in the 1620s. His known friends had nearly all been educated there and he supported William Laud and the High Church party during the Civil War. Later in his life, between 1650 and 1653, he acquired a Medicinae Doctor (M.D.) at an unknown European university. In 1634 he married a woman known only as the “Widow of Middleton” who predeceased him. No children from this marriage are known to have been born. Later in life Bulwer would adopt a girl named Chirothea Johnson, and, as he states in his will “bred her up from a child as my own”. She may have been deaf.

His published work – Chirologia: or the natural language of the hand. Composed of the speaking motions, and discoursing gestures thereof. Whereunto is added Chironomia: or, the art of manual rhetoricke. Consisting of the natural expressions, digested by art in the hand, as the chiefest instrument of eloquence. London: Thomas Harper. 1644.

Although issued as a single volume Chirologia and Chironomia have different pagination. Bulwer always referred to them as separate works but over time they have come to be seen as a single volume. Francis Bacon had described gestures as “Transient Hieroglyphics” and suggested that Gesture should be the focus of a new scientific enquiry, Bulwer was the first to undertake the task. For Bulwer Gesture was a universal character of Reason.

The hand “speaks all languages, and as universal character of Reason is generally understood and known by all Nations, among the formal differences of their Tongue. And being the only speech that is natural to Man, it may well be called the Tongue and General language of Human Nature, which, without teaching, men in all regions of the habitable world doe at the first sight most easily understand”

Chirologia is often cited as Bulwer’s link to later Deaf studies because it focuses on hand gestures which have come to be seen as the domain of deaf communication. In fact the book only mentions the deaf in passing.


He believed it was Nature’s recompense that deaf people should communicate through gesture, “that wonder of necessity that Nature worketh in men that are born deaf and dumb; who can argue and dispute rhetorically by signs” (page 5). The handshapes described in Chirologia are still used in British Sign Language. Bulwer does mention finger-spelling describing how “the ancients did…order an alphabet upon the joints of their fingers…showing those letters by a distinct and grammatical succession” , in addition to their use as mnemonic devices Bulwer suggest that manual alphabets could be “ordered to serve for privy ciphers for any secret intimation” (Chironomia, p149). Chirologia is a compendium of manual gestures, citing their meaning and use from a wide range of sources; literary, Religious and Medical. Chironomia is a manual for the effective use of Gesture in public speaking.


Credits – Wikipedia

Accessibility ASL AUSL BSL Sign Language

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