Writing Tamil Catholicism

Literature, Persuasion and Devotion in the Eighteenth Century


In Writing Tamil Catholicism: Literature, Persuasion and Devotion in the Eighteenth Century, Margherita Trento explores the process by which the Jesuit missionary Costanzo Giuseppe Beschi (1680-1747), in collaboration with a group of local lay elites identified by their profession as catechists, chose Tamil poetry as the social and political language of Catholicism in eighteenth-century South India.
Trento analyzes a corpus of Tamil grammars and poems, chiefly Beschi’s Tēmpāvaṇi, alongside archival documents to show how, by presenting themselves as poets and intellectuals, Catholic elites gained a persuasive voice as well as entrance into the learned society of the Tamil country and its networks of patronage.
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 840879.
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Margherita Trento, PhD (2020), University of Chicago, is associate professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, and affiliated to the Centre d’Études de l’Inde et de l’Asie du Sud (CNRS/EHESS) in Paris.
List of Figures
Notes to Translation and Transliteration

Introduction: Catholic Literary Practices in Eighteenth-Century South India
 1 Genealogies of Tamil Catholicism
 2 Microstoria and the Global in the Local
 3 The Beginnings of Catholic Literature in Tamil
 4 The Making of an Archive
 5 Chapter Outline and Threads across the Chapters

Part 1 Spiritual Institutions

1 Spiritual Exercises for Tamil Saints
 1 Being a Catechist: Preaching and Literature
 2 Being a Catechist: Caste and Profession
 3 Bringing the Spiritual Exercises to the Mission
 4 Spiritual Retreats between Italy and India
 5 Missionary Strategies and Tamil Locations

2 Tamil Manuals for Catholic Selves
 1 Creating a Catholic Self: The Ñāṉamuyaṟci
 2 Disciplining the Catholic Self: The Vētiyaroḻukkam
 3 The Dangers of a Self in Transition
 4 The Catholic Self and Its Other: The Vētaviḷakkam
 5 Conclusions: Catholic Selves, Dangers and Discipline

Part 2 Rhetorical Education

3 Catholic Poetics and Politics of Space
 1 Jesuit Humanism and Devotion
 2 Kaveri Delta Politics
 3 A Mirror for a Tamil Christian King
 4 The Ēlākkuṟicci School of Rhetoric
 5 Ēlākkuṟicci as a Christian Maṭam

4 A Tamil Grammar of Persuasion
 1 A Textbook of (Christian) Tamil: The Toṉṉūlviḷakkam
 2 Amplificatio as Poruḷ
 3 The Grammar of Society
 4 Ignorant Enemies
 5 Conclusions: Tamil Poetry and the Grammar of Persuasion

Part 3 Catholic Poetry in a Tamil World

5 Writing for Eighteenth-Century Catechists
 1 Christian Epic and Tamil Peruṅkāppiyam
 2 Worldly Publics, Divine Patrons
 3 Angelic Time and the Relocation of Devotion
 4 Tamil Demons and Christian Wonder
 5 Staged Conversions

6 Reading as an Eighteenth-Century Catechist
 1 Paper and Palm-Leaf Trails
 2 Catechist Dynasties
 3 Śaiva Neighbors and Rivals
 4 Towards the Colonial Archive
 5 Conclusions: Catholic Lay Identities in the Longue durée


Anyone interested in the history of Tamil literature, of early modernity in India and the Indian Ocean, as well as in the global history of Catholic missions.
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