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Ethnography and Cultural Translation in the Early Modern Missions

  • Joan-Pau Rubiés (a1)


Early modern Christian missionaries often learnt about other cultures in remarkable depth, and made an extremely important contribution to the writing of ethnography and to the global circulation of knowledge. While their cultural insight was usually built upon linguistic expertise, missionary writings were of a complex nature, often combining scientific observations and historical speculations with wider rhetorical aims. In fact, issues such as accommodation to local customs became complex ideological battlegrounds. Whilst an earlier historiography may have been tempted to emphasize either the pioneering character of the Christian missionaries as proto-anthropologists, or – in a more critical fashion – their Eurocentric ideological agendas, there is growing awareness of the crucial importance of the native mediators who acted as knowledge brokers, and who also had their own personal agendas and cultural biases. However, the cultural interactions did not end here: in parallel to these complex acts of local translation, missionaries also ‘translated’ cultural diversity in another direction, to the European Republic of Letters, where they increasingly had to defend religious orthodoxy in the context of a rapidly changing intellectual landscape.


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*Department of Humanities, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Ramon Trias Fargas 25–27, 08005 Barcelona, Spain. E-mail:


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1 This has been noted especially of the Jesuits, but the point is also relevant for other religious orders. For an assessment of the Jesuits as cultural mediators, see Curto, Diogo Ramada, ‘The Jesuits and Cultural Intermediacy in the Early Modern World’, Archivium Historicum Societatis Iesu 74 (2005), 322.

2 This is the famous Codex Mendoza, now at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Its authorship is discussed by Nicholson, H. B., ‘The History of the Codex Mendoza’, in The Codex Mendoza, ed. Berdan, Frances and Anawalt, Patricia Rieff, 4 vols (Berkeley, CA, 1992), 1: 2–10.

3 On the related ethnographic works by Olmos and Benavente, see Baudot, Georges, Utopie et histoire au Mexique (Toulouse, 1977).

4 Notably the popular pocket edition produced by Maspéro in two volumes (Paris, 1982). See also the introductory material to the otherwise excellent modern English edition: Fenton, William and Moore, Elizabeth, ‘Introduction’, in Lafitau, Joseph-François, Customs of the American Indians compared with the Customs of Primitive Times (Toronto, ON, 1974). For a fresh assessment, see Motsch, Andreas, Lafitau et l’émergence du discours ethnographique (Paris, 2001).

5 Rogerius, Abraham, De open-deure tot het verborgen heydendom (Leiden, 1651).

6 Bibliotheca Malabarica: Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg's Tamil Library, ed. and transl. Will Sweetman and R. Ilakkuvan (Pondicherry, 2012).

7 This global character has been appreciated especially in relation to the Jesuits: see, for example, Clossey, Luke, Salvation and Globalization in the Early Jesuit Missions (Cambridge, 2008).

8 See, for example, Headley, John M., The Europeanization of the World: On the Origins of Human Rights and Democracy (Princeton, NJ, 2008).

9 Marshall, P. J. and Williams, Glyndwr, The Great Map of Mankind: British Perceptions of the World in the Age of Enlightenment (London, 1982).

10 To consider why and how this religious inspiration for a global vision of a reunited humankind eventually crumbled, providing the basis for a devastating critique of religious excess, would take us to another, radically different moment about one hundred years later, described by French historian Hazard, Paul: La Crise de la conscience européenne (1680–1715) (Paris, 1935).

11 See, in this volume, Simon Ditchfield, ‘Translating Christianity in an Age of Reformations’, 164–95.

12 For a recent edition, see Botero, Giovanni, Le relazioni universali, ed. Raviola, B. A., 2 vols (Turin, 2015). Cardinal Borromeo had asked Botero to write about ‘lo stato nel quale si trova oggi la religione cristiana per il mondo’. For a discussion, see Joan-Pau Rubiés, ‘Nuovo mondo e nuovi mondi. Ritorno a la questione de l'impatto culturale’, in Catto, Michela and Signorotto, Gianvittorio, eds, Milano, l'Ambrosiana e la conoscenza dei nuovi mondi (secoli xvii–xviii), Studia Borromaica 28 (Rome, 2015), 951.

13 As noted by Chabod, Federico, ‘Giovanni Botero’, in idem, Scritti sul Rinascimento (Turin, 1967), 269458; Albònico, Aldo, Il mondo americano di Giovanni Botero, con una selezione dalle Epistolae e dalle Relationi universali (Rome, 1990).

14 It was obviously easier to rationalize such a hierarchy in the Americas than when dealing with the Chinese and Japanese, who might be described as no less civilized than European Christians. Acosta was obliged to claim the superiority of the European alphabet as a system of writing in order to do so: de Acosta, José, Historia natural y moral de las Indias, ed. del Pino-Díaz, Fermín (Madrid, 2008), 206–8.

15 For a general discussion of early modern ethnography, see Rubiés, Joan-Pau, ‘Travel Writing and Ethnography’, in idem, Travellers and Cosmographers: Studies in the History of Early Modern Travel and Ethnology (London, 2007), IV. The classic work by Hodgen, Margaret T., Early Anthropology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Philadelphia, PA, 1964) remains valuable.

16 Valignano, Alessandro, Historia del principio y progreso de la Compañía de Jesús en las Indias Orientales 1542–1564, ed. Wicki, Josef (Rome, 1944), especially chs 4 (Oriental Indians), 17 (Japanese), 26 (Chinese). This work, completed c.1584, but not published during this period, was extremely influential amongst European Jesuit historians such as Maffei, Lucena and Guzmán.

17 For a discussion, see Rubiés, ‘The Concept of a Gentile Civilization in Missionary Discourse and its European Reception: Mexico, Peru and China in the Repúblicas del Mundo by Jerónimo Román’, in Charlotte de Castelnau-L'Estoile et al., eds, Missions d’évangélisation et circulation des savoirs XVIeXVIIIe siècles (Madrid, 2011), 311–50.

18 Some of these men, such as Alonso Zorita and Viceroy Luis de Velasco, collaborated with the Franciscans and echoed the ideas of Las Casas because they shared a stance in favour of the rights of the Indians: see Vigil, Ralph, Alonso de Zorita: Royal Judge and Christian Humanist, 1512–85 (Norman, OK, 1987). Nevertheless, concern with the spiritual and material wellbeing of the Indians did not necessarily imply agreement with Las Casas in his radical critique of the conquest and the legitimacy of Spanish rule.

19 Yepes, Victoria, ed., Una Etnografía de los Indios Bisayas del siglo XVII (Madrid, 1996), 16.

20 See, in particular, the editors’ introduction in Castelnau-L'Estoile et al., eds, Missions d’évangélisation, 1–19.

21 le Gobien, Charles, Histoire des Isles Marianes, nouvellement converties à la religion chrestienne . . . (Paris, 1700). Le Gobien's sources were primarily the writings of Spanish Jesuits, notably the life of San Vitores by the court publicist García, Francisco, Vida y martyrio del venerable padre Diego de Sanvitores, de la Compañía de Jesús, primer apóstol de las islas Marianas, y sucessos de estas islas, desde el año de mil seiscientos y sesenta y ocho asta el de mil seiscientos y ochenta y uno (Madrid, 1683). For quotations I follow the Italian version of 1684, translated and expanded by Ambrosio Ortiz (see n. 23 below). For a recent discussion which emphasizes Le Gobien's reliance on Spanish sources, see de la Rosa, Alexandre Coello, Historia de las islas Marianas, del padre Luis de Morales, SJ & Charles le Gobien, SJ (Madrid, 2013), with my observations in the prologue: ‘Apologética y etnografía en la Historia de las Marianas de Luís de Morales / Charles Le Gobien’: ibid. 7–20.

22 Le Gobien, Histoire, 42–70. For his ethnographic chapter, Le Gobien closely followed Francisco García's account.

23 Hurao was a historical figure who led a rebellion in 1671, but the arguments that Le Gobien puts into his mouth are very different from the account given by his probable source, García, who presents a malicious and presumptuous Hurao and offers little detail: Istoria della conversione alla nostra santa fede dell'Isole Mariane, dette prima de'Ladroni, nella vita, predicatione, e morte gloriosa per Christo del venerabile P. Diego Luigi di Sanvitores (Naples, 1684), 254. However, Le Gobien could have been inspired by the invented speech that García put in the mouth of Aguarín, a Chamorri leader of another, later, rebellion in 1676: ibid. 499.

24 Le Gobien, Histoire, 139–46.

25 de Sahagún, Bernardino, Historia de las cosas de Nueva España, ed. Temprano, Juan Carlos, 2 vols (Madrid, 1990).

26 Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, ed. and transl. Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble, 13 vols (Santa Fe, NM, 1950–82).

27 The ethnographic research by Andrés de Olmos, who was the most expert in Nahuatl language amongst the early Franciscans, had been commissioned by the president of the Audiencia of New Spain Sebastián Ramírez de Fuenleal in 1533 and was completed c.1540. It became the foundation for the work of subsequent historians of Mexican antiquities, including Toribio de Benavente, Gerónimo de Mendieta, Juan de Torquemada and Bartolomé de Las Casas. Olmos's work has only been preserved through these secondary works and some anonymous fragments. See Baudot, Utopie, 159–240. Sahagún, who had taught with Olmos at Tlaltelolco, followed his example, but introduced the key innovation of preserving the Nahuatl transcripts of interviews.

28 d'Olwer, Luis Nicolau, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún 1499–1590 (Salt Lake City, UT, 1987; first publ. in Spanish 1952), 65–77; cf. Baudot, Utopie, 475–507. Although there were deep tensions between the friars and the secular clergy, some of the criticisms faced by Sahagún arose within his own order.

29 Ricci, Matteo, The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven (T'ien-chu Shih-i), ed. Malatesa, Edward, transl. Lancashire, Douglas and Guozhen, Peter Zhu (St Louis, MO, 1985).

30 Criveller, Gianni, Preaching Christ in Late Ming China: The Jesuits’ Presentation of Christ from Matteo Ricci to Giulio Aleni (Taipei, 1997).

31 Standaert, Nicolas, Methodology in View of Contact between Cultures: The China Case in the 17th Century, CSRCS Occasional Paper 11 (Hong Kong, 2002).

32 A point also made by Brockey, Liam, The Visitor: André Palmeiro and the Jesuits in Asia (Cambridge MA, 2014), 288.

33 See Fróis, Luís, Europa-Japão. Um diálogo civilizacional no século XVI, ed. D'Intino, Raffaella (Lisbon, 1993). There is also an annotated English translation: The first European Description of Japan, 1585, ed. Richard K. Darnford, Robin D. Gill and Daniel T. Reff (London and New York, 2014).

34 Fróis, Europa-Japão, 52: ‘que quasi parese incrivel poder aver tão opposita contradisão em gente de tanta policia, viveza de engenho e saber natural com tem’.

35 Scholastic theology, notably Aquinas (Summa Theologiae, Supplementum Tertiæ Parti, q. 41), categorized marriage under natural and civil law, independently of its sacramental character: it served rational and social purposes common to all societies, namely procreation, the education of children and domestic companionship, although these universal aims were expressed through different laws and customs.

36 Standaert, Nicolas, The Interweaving of Rituals: Funerals in the Cultural Exchange between China and Europe (Seattle, WA, 2008), 202–41.

37 Xavier, Ângela Barreto and Županov, Ines G., Catholic Orientalism: Portuguese Empire, Indian Knowledge (16th–18th centuries) (Oxford, 2015), 202–41.

38 [Valignano, Alessandro and de Sande, Duarte], De missione Legatorum Iaponensium ad Romanam Curiam (Macao, 1590). For a recent English edition, see Japanese Travellers in Sixteenth-Century Europe: A Dialogue concerning the Mission of the Japanese Ambassadors to the Roman Curia, ed. Derek Massarella, transl. J. F. Moran, Hakluyt Society 3rd ser. 25 (Aldershot, 2012).

39 The ‘Chinese scholar’ of the True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven, is particularly impersonal. By contrast, real characters inspired the ten dialogues published as Jiren Shipian [Ten Chapters of a Paradoxical Man] (Beijing, 1608), a subtler work of moral philosophy – in effect a Chinese exposition of Christian Stoicism – that has received less attention.

40 Medieval religious dialogues from the Latin West, such as Ramon Llull's Llibre del gentil e dels tres savis, were usually written in Latin or in European vernacular languages, raising the question of whether they were really meant for Muslim or Jewish audiences.

41 On Desideri's fate, see Petech, Luciano, ed., I missionari italiani nel Tibet e nel Nepal, 7 vols (Rome, 1952–7); Sweet, Michael J., Mission to Tibet: The Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Account by Father Ippolito Desideri S.J., ed. Zwilling, Leonard (Boston, MA, 2010); Pomplun, Trent, Jesuit on the Roof of the World: Ippolito Desideri's Mission to 18th-Century Tibet (Oxford, 2010). For the dialogue in Hindi and Italian by the Capuchin Giuseppe Maria da Gargnano in 1751, see A Dialogue between a Christian and a Hindu about Religion by Giuseppe Maria da Gargnano, ed. and transl. David N. Lorenzen (Mexico City, 2015).

42 On Fukan, see Elison, George, Deus Destroyed: The Image of Christianity in Early Modern Japan (Cambridge MA, 1973). In Myōtei Mondō (, 1605), Fukan closely followed Valignano's, Alessandro Catechismus Christianae Fidei, in quo veritas nostrae religionis ostenditur, et sectae Japonenses confutantus (Lisbon, 1586) to attack Buddhism, Shinto and Confucianism; in his Ha Daiusu (, 1620), he sought to prove his anti-Christian credentials by refuting his former arguments. For Chinese Buddhist critiques of Christianity, see Gernet, Jacques, Chine et christianisme. Action et réaction (Paris, 1982).

43 Kouduo richao. Li Jiubiao's Diary of Oral Admonitions: A Late Ming Christian Journal, ed. Eric Zürcher, 2 vols, Monumenta Serica Monograph Series 16 (Sankt Augustin, 2007).

44 Aleni widened the social penetration of the Riccian mission by extending it to the lower strata of provincial literati, without abandoning the strategic alliance with Confucianism.

45 To counter scepticism about the universality of the biblical account, Aleni insisted on the exceptional antiquity and historical reliability of the ‘chronicles of Judea’, referred to the eighth-century Nestorian stele inscription in Sian, and appealed to the continuity of the first human settlers of China – savage nomads travelling eastward – with the primitive monotheism, or natural religion, of Adamic origins (Kouduo Richao, 550–2, 335–6 respectively); in fact, the Incarnation was implicit in the knowledge that Adam and Eve and their descendants had of God (ibid. 229–31). Truly virtuous people that lived before the Incarnation (such as Confucius) may have obtained God's grace or gone to a limbus to await redemption. However, this hardly satisfied converts who were also concerned about their rather more fallible immediate ancestors.

46 For Aleni's attempt to explain how the guardian angels – legitimate figures, but subordinated to God – might have been misunderstood by the idolatrous vulgus, see ibid. 280.

47 Standaert, Nicolas, Chinese Voices in the Rites Controversy: Travelling Books, Community Networks, Intercultural Arguments (Rome, 2012).

48 For a recent English translation, see Hindu-Christian Epistolary Self-Disclosures: ‘Malabarian Correspondence’ between German Pietist Missionaries and South Indian Hindus (17121714), ed. and transl. Daniel Jeyaraj and Richard Fox Young (Wiesbaden, 2013).

49 Lorenzen, David, Flagelo de la Misión. Marco della Tomba en Indostán (Mexico, 2010), 124, paraphrasing Marco della Tomba, Livro in cui si descrivono diversi sistemi della religione dei Gentili dell'Indostano (ms, c.1775), 110–14.

50 See Bibliotheca Malabarica (n. 6 above).

51 For Rogerius's work, see n. 5 above. The theme of hidden monotheism was developed with antiquarian erudition by a certain A. W., Rogerius's anonymous editor, in the prologue. Ziegenbalg composed his own treatises on the subject: ‘Malabarsiches Heidenthum’ (‘Malabarian Heathenism’, 1711) and ‘Genealogia der malabarischen Götter’ (‘Genealogy of the Malabarian Gods’, 1713).

52 Dainichī (Vairocana) was the primordial Buddha of the esoteric Shingon sect of Japan, a universal unchanging principle of wisdom inherent in all things. Although associated with solar symbols, this was not a God of creation, but rather a principle of the Buddhist mysticism of inherent (luminous) emptiness, or Buddha-nature. Anxious to avoid syncretic accommodation, in 1551 Francis Xavier sought to emphasize the distance between God and Dainichī, and began asking about the Trinity. The episode was reported by Fróis, Luís, Historia de Japam, ed. Wicki, José, 5 vols (Lisbon, 1976–84), 1: 40.

53 Rodrigues was learning Chinese but his knowledge was much inferior to those he questioned. What was decisive to his uncompromising outlook was his Japanese experience: the task he had been given of writing a common catechism for the two missions had proved impossible. On Rodrigues, see Cooper, Michael, Rodrigues the Interpreter: An Early Jesuit in Japan and China (Tokyo, 1974).

54 A conference to resolve this issue was convened in Jiading (near Shanghai) in January 1628. At that point, Tian was rejected as too materialistic and thus idolatrous, but the majority accepted Tianzhu. Over Shangdi there seems to have been an impasse. For a discussion of the conference, see Brockey, Liam, Journey to the East: The Jesuit Mission to China, 1579–1724 (Cambridge, MA, 2007), 87–8.

55 Strictly speaking, the terms controversy preceded the rites controversy, but the historical development of the two was closely intertwined.

56 Sahagún, Historia, 61–3 (prologue to the second book of the Historia). Sahagún's detailed explanation of his research methods, written many years afterwards when he edited the final manuscript, was intended to authorize the Nahuatl text as authentic history in relation to the different cultural codes of both the Spanish and the Mexicans.

57 Lorenzo became the first Japanese Jesuit. His role is analysed by Oliveira e Costa, J. P., O Japão e o cristianismo no século XVI (Lisbon, 1999), 87106.

58 Pina, Isabel Murta, ‘Chinese and Mestizo Jesuits from the China Mission (1589–1689)’, in Barreto, Luís Filipo, ed., Europe-China: Intercultural Encounters (16th–18th centuries) (Lisbon, 2012), 117–37.

59 See my ‘Reassessing “the Discovery of Hinduism”: Jesuit Discourse on Gentile Idolatry and the European Republic of Letters’, in Anand Amaladass and Ines Županov, eds, Intercultural Encounter and the Jesuit Mission in South Asia (16th18th Centuries) (Bangalore, 2014), 113–55; also App, Urs, The Birth of Orientalism (Philadelphia, PA, 2010); Xavier and Županov, Catholic Orientalism.

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Ethnography and Cultural Translation in the Early Modern Missions

  • Joan-Pau Rubiés (a1)


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