Jesuit Colonial Medicine in South America: A Multidisciplinary and Comparative Approach, edited by Franz Obermeier

In: Journal of Jesuit Studies

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Kiel: Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel, 2018. Pp. 198 (pdf online edition).

The essays published in this volume were first presented in 2017 at a conference in Kiel, Germany. The title suggests that the volume brings a multidisciplinary and comparative approach to the question of Jesuit medicine, but this is not the case. Rather, the contributions are largely bibliographic literature or linguistic, and there is only one essay written by an anthropologist. This means, among other things, that the historical context is minimal.

The volume contains an introduction, written by the bibliographer Franz Obermeier, and contributions by four other authors. In his own essay, Obermeier describes two Jesuit medical texts written in the missions among the Guaraní in the Río de la Plata region of South America. Sabine Lenke-von Heidenfeld discusses Guaraní medical concepts and practices prior to the arrival of the Jesuits. The linguist Sieglinde Falkinger examines the Jesuit missions established in the Chiquitos region of eastern Bolivia, and analyzes the medical terms reported in dictionaries and terms used for the body. The linguist Leonardo Cerno discusses the standardization of the Guaraní language in the Jesuit missions as demonstrated in the Pohã Ñanã, one of the Jesuit medical texts that Obermeier describes in his own essay and that was written in Spanish and Guaraní. In the final essay, Diego Medan offers a bibliographic analysis of an 1898 study of Jesuit texts on medicinal plants written by Pedro Arata.

There is little about the medical practices of Jesuit missionaries in this book. Obermeier sets the tone for the volume in his introduction that I found to be myopic and heavily reliant on European, and particularly German, studies, showing an apparent unfamiliarity with recent scholarship published outside of Europe. Moreover, there is no discussion of the major archival sources for the Jesuit missions. There are only fleeting references in several footnotes to the Coleção de Angelis (Biblioteca Nacional, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) and the Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu located in Rome. Moreover, the historical context is missing.

In her contribution on Guaraní medical beliefs and practices, Lenke-von Heidenfeld makes brief references, for example, to the Jesuit use of quarantine during epidemics, but with no analysis. She also makes a curious statement regarding the generic Spanish term peste used to describe epidemics: “Especially European diseases like smallpox and measles posed a big challenge to the Jesuit health care system because of the high infection and mortality rate among Indians, for which reason the Jesuits called these diseases pest (black death) [emphasis added] (44).” The author concludes her otherwise useful essay by noting that

as a result the shamans not only lost their functions as healers and their prestige. Christianity and its norms literally undermined their existence. The healing practices of the shamans were rational within the indigenous worldview and provided a valid explanation for the causes of diseases. In confrontation with Western culture they lost their power and their healing skills. They were able to cure diseases arising amidst their system. Their power ended at the boundary of the European world and its diseases (59).

It would have been interesting if the author had continued her narrative through to the early period of the Jesuit missions, and particularly the give and take of the power relationship between the shamans and Jesuits, and particularly the use of epidemics by the shamans to challenge the authority of the “black robes.” Falkinger mentions some Jesuit medical practices in the Chiquitos missions such as the use of purges and bloodletting (108).

What is lacking in this volume that ostensibly deals with Jesuit missionary medicine is a discussion of Jesuit medical practices and responses to public health crises such as the recurring epidemics that killed thousands of mission residents. One series of mortality crises between 1733 and 1740 that consisted of epidemics and famine conditions during a period of the mobilization of thousands of mission militiamen killed more than eighty thousand Guaraní. The Jesuits left detailed records of the effects of epidemics such as censuses that summarized mortality, and other records detailing the effects of contagion. Obermeier does cite a 1738 document from the Coleção de Angelis, but there are other more detailed discussions of epidemics and medical practices. One such example is a post-Jesuit expulsion file, which provides a detailed description of the medical responses to a 1780s smallpox outbreak at two missions.

Overall, I found this volume to be disappointing. Its narrow bibliographic focus identifies several useful Jesuit medical texts, but there is no discussion of actual medical practices in the field and the effects and effectiveness of Jesuit medicine in the face of serious public health crises. As a bibliographic exercise this volume is also limited. The literature review is overly Eurocentric, idiosyncratic, and myopic. Obermeier and the other authors do not cite a number of related and useful studies published outside of Europe. The essays in this volume contribute to our understanding of Jesuit medicine, but in an extremely narrow way.


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