This article takes as a starting point for a contextual exploration of the dialogue as a form of cross-cultural interaction the accounts of disputations between Francis Xavier and his companions and various Buddhist monks during the first years of the mission in Japan (1549-51). The essay considers the differences among a lay popular version of these disputations offered by Fernão Mendes Pinto, the account publicized by Francis Xavier in his letters to Europe, and the internal working documents produced by his companions Cosme de Torres and Juan Fernández during these encounters. The latter reflected the complexity of the exchanges that took place in Yamaguchi in September 1551, offering many echoes of Buddhist arguments that stretched the Christian theological capacity. More interesting still is the process by which the Jesuits came to reject the possibilities for convergence through analogy and chose instead to emphasize doctrinal and moral differences, often employing arguments that echoed, unwittingly, the recent divisions within European Christendom.
The issue of how European images of the East were formed, used, and contested is far from simple. The concept of oriental despotism allowed early-modern Europeans to distinguish themselves from the most powerful and impressive non-European civilizations of the Ottoman Middle East, Persia, India, and China on grounds which were neither fundamentally religious nor linked to sheer scientific and technological progress, but political and moral. However, it would be incorrect to treat this as a pure European fantasy based on the uncritical application of a category inherited from Aristotle, because both the concept and its range of application were often hotly contested. By assessing the way travel accounts helped transform the concept from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, this article argues that oriental despotism was not a mental scheme that blinded Europeans to the perception of the true Orient, but rather a compelling tool for interpreting information gathered about the Orient, one which served a common intellectual purpose despite important differences of opinion in Europe about the nature of royal power.
The English edition of the Bibliotheca Malabarica, a manuscript catalogue of the Tamil works collected by the young Lutheran missionary Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg during his first two years in India (1706-8), attests to his prodigious effort to acquire, read, and summarize all the works of the “heathens” of South India that he could possibly get hold of. Most of this literature seems to have originated from local Śaiva mattams. Besides epics and puranas, the collection included many popular works on ethics, divination and astrology, devotional poetry, or folk narratives and ballads. Ziegenbalg seems to have acquired these through his Tamil teacher in Tranquebar—an elderly schoolmaster—and his son. In this respect, a focus on the social and cultural dynamics by which local knowledge was transmitted to Europeans is no less important than identifying the literary sources for their interpretation of Hinduism. A fascinating work, the Tamil correspondence conducted between 1712 and 1714 by the Lutheran missionaries with a number of learned Hindus reveals their desire to embark on a kind of inter-religious dialogue as a foundation for their Christian apologetics. The replies received from his “heathen” correspondents would inform much of Ziegenbalg’s interpretation of Śaivism as a form of natural monotheism. Translated into German and published in Halle, they also became part of the Pietist propaganda concerning the mission, exerting a much wider impact than Ziegenbalg’s unpublished monographs about Hindu doctrines and theology. But how authentic were these Tamil voices? Close analysis suggests that even if we conclude with the editors that the letters were what they claim to be, that is a direct translation of the work of many independent Tamil correspondents, the extent to which there was a religious “dialogue” based on reciprocity is open to question.
The embassy of Don García de Silva y Figueroa, sent in 1614 by Philip iii of Castile and ii of Portugal to negotiate an alliance with Shah Abbas against the Ottomans, was a fiasco. Not only did it fail to secure a deal, but within three years of the ambassador’s departure from Ispahan, in 1622, Persian troops, with the help of English ships, conquered the strategic island and fortress of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, marking a turning point in the decline of Portuguese power in Asia. For many historians the embassy was doomed from the start, notwithstanding the lavish gift offered to the Safavid ruler, because the Spanish ambassador could never offer Shah Abbas what he wanted. This analysis however assumes that the two sides understood each other perfectly well, and that the cultural distance between the ambassador and Shah Abbas was no obstacle to perfectly accurate political calculations. Taking advantage of the plurality of agendas and perspectives that can be documented during these exchanges, including English adventurers and commercial agents, various Carmelite and Augustinian friars, and the independent observer Pietro della Valle, this article seeks to test the degree of cultural commensurability in inter-cultural diplomacy, proposing a model that takes account of cultural distance without falling into a facile version of cultural relativism.
An influential historiographical tradition has opposed the accounts of extra-European worlds produced by sixteenth-century travel writers to the concerns of humanists and other European men of learning, even detecting a 'blunted impact' up until the eighteenth century, when the figure of the philosophical traveller was proclaimed by Rousseau and others. It is my argument that this approach is misleading and that we need to take account of the full influence of travel writing upon humanistic culture in order to understand how the Renaissance eventually led to the Enlightenment. A first step consists in analysing the collective impact of accounts of America, Africa and Asia, rather than opposing the 'New World' to other areas. Moreover, whilst quantitative estimates offer a route for the assessment of 'impact', it is the qualitative aspect which is most clearly central to the cultural history of the period. Even 'popular' observers were often subtly influenced by concepts and strategies formulated by the intellectual elites. Under close scrutiny, it appears that humanists—and here I adopt a broad definition—had a crucial role in the production and consumption of travel accounts, as editors and travel collectors, as historians and cosmographers, and eventually—from the turn of the seventeenth century—as 'philosophical travellers'. The article seeks to illustrate these roles with reference to some examples from the first phase of the encounter. In particular, the early accounts of the Columbian expeditions by Nicolaus Scyllacus and Peter Martyr of Anghiera can be shown to have elaborated Columbian material more faithfully than is usually understood to be the case. Similarly, the historiography of conquest published after the middle of the sixteenth century reveals the widespread application of humanist standards to the literature of encounter produced in the previous sixty years.
Abstract: Understanding why early modern Europeans transformed systematic cultural comparisons into an essential intellectual resource for their new, ‘modern’ narratives of world history is crucial to re-assessing the origins of the Enlightenment and its legacy. It also clarifies why the concepts of civilization and, eventually, culture, became central to the hierarchies underlying European self-understanding, replacing (but also subsuming) religious categories. This chapter offers a contextual reading of the early modern genealogy of ethnological comparatism, paying particular attention to various works produced between the 1550s and 1750s by authors such as Bartolomé de Las Casas, Alessandro Valignano, Athanasius Kircher, Hugo Grotius, François Bernier, La Créquinière, Jean-Frédéric Bernard and Lafitau. By doing so, it distinguishes three debates that clarify the logic underlying the interaction between ethnographic evidence, antiquarian erudition, and a variety of religious and philosophical concerns. The essay concludes by suggesting that the specific regime of comparatism that characterized the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment was defined by the connection between ethnological comparisons and a deep reconfiguration of ancient history, one that took non-European sources seriously.
The essays in this collection explore diplomacy as a form of cultural translation. Out of necessity, Europeans sought new ways of conducting diplomacy in the changing environment of the early modern world, as they grappled with challenges from within their old but crumbling respublica christiana, and also with changing relations with powers and communities beyond it. Reflecting the current vitality of research into early modern diplomacy and practice that has extended the boundaries of what we consider as constituting “diplomacy,” these essays collectively examine how Europeans, on state and sub-state levels, interacted with powers from the Near East, Asia and Africa. In doing so, they contribute to a more nuanced understanding of how increasingly globalized diplomatic agents deployed symbolic and rhetorical languages that could be shared amongst different participants.