The story of the Jesuits — how the Society of Jesus charted the world

As Jesuit missionaries spread further across the globe, the order's founder wanted to ensure that its members remained connected. The result of this was an unparalleled network of knowledge which superseded religious tensions.
hippopotamus by jesuit in china flora and fauna
A drawing of a hippopotamus in one of the earliest natural history books on China. Its author was Michał Piotr Boym, a Polish Jesuit missionary. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/ Bibliothèque Universtaire Moretus Plantin.
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By 1517, a young Augustinian monk and professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg by the name of Martin Luther had had enough. Convinced that the Roman Catholic Church needed to be reformed and purged of corruption, he presented 95 theses that summarised his objections to the pastoral practices and theology of his day. Neither Europe nor the church would ever be the same again. While the Roman Catholic Church reacted vigorously and opposed Luther and other reformers, the opposition did not simply amount to a ‘counter reformation‘. Almost everyone agreed that some reform was urgently needed, even if there was disagreement on whether this should imply a complete break with the past structures of the church. There had already been calls for reform from within the church’s own traditional ranks; and new groups formed and proposed different ways to reanimate the faithful.

One such group, approved by Pope Paul III as a new religious order in 1540, was the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, as they soon came to be known. These ten men, who came from within the borders of present-day Spain, France, and Portugal had first met at the University of Paris, where they were studying for the degree, Master of Arts. Having achieved this goal, they wished to dedicate themselves to missionary work in the Holy Land to oppose the growing Muslim influence of the Ottoman Empire but were refused permission to do so by the local Franciscans in Jerusalem, the traditional custodians of sacred Christian sites.

They then decided to head to Rome to offer their services to the Pope to work for reform from within the church and to go wherever the Holy See judged they could be useful. They soon found themselves at the forefront of the confessional battles over whose vision of reform should prevail, that of the Roman Catholic Church or that of the reformers and their followers. But while the Jesuit educational project certainly did not ignore or fail to engage with the controversies of the day, religious strife was not the only defining feature of the early modern world or of the work of the Society of Jesus.

To pursue their objectives, the Jesuits did something that they had originally determined that they should not do: establish schools. The order’s principal founder, Ignatius of Loyola, had fretted that taking on responsibility for institutions would hinder their mobility and availability for the mission, but he was soon persuaded that education could be a potent instrument of cultural influence and religious transformation. Their first college was established in Messina in Sicily in 1548. Dozens of colleges were built throughout Italy under the patronage of the local nobility and of rulers and within decades there were several hundred Jesuit institutions of learning across Europe, Latin America and Asia. But none was more important than the Collegio Romano or Roman College, established in 1551 and dedicated to religioni et bonis artibus, ‘religion and solid learning [the arts]’ – a simple motto summarising what it sought to achieve. These new schools became powerhouses of learning and repositories of knowledge, regulated by carefully crafted guidelines, known as the Ratio studiorum, which outlined in great detail a curriculum that included the subjects of the traditional trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy), as well as philosophy, theology, and other subjects, including elaborate theatrical performances. They thus prescribed a rigorous training both in the classical studia humanitatis and in the sciences, with a special emphasis on mathematics, physics and astronomy.

It was at the Roman College that the Jesuits engaged in debate with Galileo. Most prominent among them was Christopher Clavius (1538– 1612), who taught mathematics and astronomy to generations of students. Clavius’s 1574 Latin edition of Euclid’s Elements became a popular text book, was reprinted dozens of times over an 80-year period and earned him the title of the ‘Euclid of the 16th century’. The college was also where that most remarkable of 17th-century polymaths and eccentric par excellence, Athanasius Kircher (1602–80), set up his famous hall of wonders and cabinet of curiosities, which became the Roman College Museum. The sources for the objects and information that he so copiously reproduced in his works were in great part his fellow Jesuits, engaged in the principal and original pursuit of the Society – working in its missions across the globe. For better or for worse, it was an exciting and transformative age of maritime exploration and discovery and the Jesuits took full advantage of the new horizons beyond Europe, which they no longer considered their final frontier.

To underscore their intentions, Ignatius sent Francisco Javier (or Francis Xavier), one of the founding companions, to India six months before the final approval of the Order on September 27, 1540. From Goa and Cochin he travelled to Indonesia and Malaya, before becoming the first missionary in Japan. While in Japan he realised the importance of Chinese civilisation and compared it to the influence that ancient Greece and Rome had exerted on Western culture. He made it as far as the Chinese island of Sanchuan, off the coast of Guangdong province, but died before he could set foot on the mainland – a task that was taken up by the next generation of missionaries in East Asia.

Other Jesuits subsequently made their way to the Philippines, to Mexico, Peru, and Paraguay as well as to New France in present-day Canada. In the Americas they engaged with the indigenous peoples and learned many of their languages, including Aymara and Wendat (Huron). They explored and mapped the Amazon; and the Italian missionary, Eusebio Francesco Kino [or Chini] (1645–1711) journeyed across the western United States between 1698 and 1701 and proved that California was not an island but a peninsula. Both his findings and those of the Jesuits involved in the famous ‘reductions’ in Paraguay were meticulously mapped and published, several in hand-coloured editions that illustrated the locations of the various missions. In Japan the Sicilian Jesuit, Girolamo De Angelis sent back the first European report on the existence and location of the island of Hokkaido (then referred to as Ezo) as early as 1621. The adventures of these individual men were remarkable, but their contribution to the creation of organised networks that transmitted information and knowledge did not happen by accident but was the result of careful planning and foresight.

This brings us back to the beginnings of the Society of Jesus. The ideal of missions, as summarised by Jerónimo Nadal, one of the order’s most prominent early members, in the phrase ‘the world is our home’ (nuestra casa es el mundo), soon became a reality that affected the lives and fortunes of hundreds of men who had been sent to far-flung missions across the world. But Ignatius worried that this international dispersal, which the society had embraced as its particular charism, might nevertheless also spell the end of the society as such, for without communication among its members, esprit de corps could soon dissipate and disappear. To counter this risk to its internal unity and cohesion, he created and mandated an elaborate system of reporting and letter writing from the peripheries back to the centre – Rome – every year. From Rome, Ignatius and his assistants responded to the questions and concerns that had been raised by missionaries in the field. They resolved disputes and recommended particular courses of action to individuals and their superiors in a specific region – including throughout Europe. At the same time, they also made an effort to communicate to everyone, regardless of where they were, what the order as a whole was thinking. This system was enhanced by personal encounters that took place at regular intervals. Every ‘province’, or regional unit, of the society was charged with sending to Rome every three to five years a ‘procurator‘, a man who had been locally elected by his fellow Jesuits to represent them and their concerns. His task was to communicate in person the state of that mission to the society’s leadership. Procurators also met with each other while in Rome and brought back to their respective outposts instructions from the Superior General, together with news from Rome and from members of the society working in Europe and in other countries and continents.

The result of all this written communication was one of the largest archives to issue from a single ‘non-governmental organisation’ in the 16th and 17th centuries. The documents that have been preserved range from personal and official letters, financial reports, property deeds, ethnographic treatises, dictionaries and devotional books translated into native languages, from Nahuatl (Aztecan) to Chinese. The archives also preserve a large collection of manuscript maps, paintings, and drawings of fauna and flora in countries as distant as Peru and China, Japan and New France. Ignatius himself left us one of the largest collections of personal correspondence of any figure of the 16th century, with over 8,000 extant letters, most of which are preserved in Rome. What makes this collection all the more remarkable is that so much of it has survived, despite the suppression of the Society of Jesus in the 18th century and the nationalisation of all church properties by the unifier of Italy, Giuseppe Garibaldi in the 19th century. Parts of these extensive archives are now in Vatican or Italian state collections, but most of the documents have found their way back to the headquarters of the Society of Jesus in Rome. They reflect the religious and cultural history of the early modern world and are regularly consulted by historians.

What made it possible for Jesuits to travel so extensively at a time when such journeys were limited to a minuscule group of carefully selected passengers, whether merchant, missionary, or colonial agent? They were quick to take advantage of the division of the known world decreed by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, in the wake of Columbus’s ‘discovery‘ of the Americas, that allowed Spain to explore and colonise the New World, and Portugal to explore and colonise the East. (Portuguese Brazil was one notable exception in the West, and the Spanish Philippines was the other exception to this rule in the East.) Missionaries found passage aboard these ships and came under the jurisdiction of one or another system of royal patronage. The Portuguese Padroado real or the Spanish Patronazgo real regulated all secular and ecclesiastical affairs in the territories and colonies under their governance or spheres of influence.

These shipping routes made it possible to send back to Europe both letters and artefacts, some of which had never been seen before in Rome, Lisbon, or Madrid. The Portuguese route was very long and tedious and took almost thirty months, from Lisbon to Japan, with long breaks in Mozambique, Goa, Malacca, Macau and Nagasaki. The journey was marked by the treacherous rounding of the Cape of Good Hope, originally referred to as the ‘Cape of Storms‘, where many ships sank in the early decades of navigation.

In 1565 the Augustinian Friar, Andrés de Urdaneta (1498–1568), discovered a route from the Philippines to Acapulco that made use of the Black Current, taking the Manila Galleon northwards to Japan and picking up the North Pacific Drift, then sailing across the Pacific and first making landfall at Mendocino in California. Urdaneta’s crossing from Cebu took only four months and one week (between June 1 and October 8). From Acapulco, they travelled over 725km by land to the Atlantic coast at Veracruz – a crossing that had its own dangers, in particular from marauding bandits who often attacked the convoys. Once they had reached the Atlantic coast, they re-embarked and crossed the ocean for six to eight weeks until they reached the mouth of the Guadalquivir River, near Cádiz. The last part of the journey was sailing the final 83km upstream to Seville, the colonial and financial headquarters of the Spanish empire. If all went well, this route from Manila to Seville could be covered in about nine months, less than half the time required by the Portuguese.

Jesuits were initially sponsored by the Portuguese crown, and in particular by King John III, but they subsequently made use of both routes, notably after the union of the crowns of Portugal and Spain under Philip II in 1580. They also travelled overland and by ship on more local routes, for example between Lima and Mexico or between Nagasaki, Macau, and Manila. Regardless of which route they took, correspondence was always at risk of being lost, especially at sea.

To ensure the arrival of their correspondence, the Jesuits in Japan and China would usually make three copies of each letter and send them on different ships, in the hope that at least one copy would survive and reach its final destination. The Roman archives of the society sometimes preserve all three copies, sometimes only one or two copies, and sometimes there are only references to a letter – that had obviously not reached Lisbon or Rome as a result of the perilous voyage. Correspondence was not always lost because the ship sank. With the ascendancy of the Dutch and English maritime empires in the 17th century, Portuguese and Spanish ships were sometimes captured and documents confiscated. This explains why some of these letters and reports are preserved to this day in archival and library collections in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

Manuscripts were not the only way to transmit information. The Society of Jesus put to good use the first great ‘information technology’ revolution in Europe: the invention of the Gutenberg hand press. They realised that the missionaries’ correspondence and reports were of great interest to the European public. Reading eyewitness reports about places such as Japan, which had been mentioned centuries before by Marco Polo as a legendary island filled with silver (but without any concrete evidence of its exact location), was as exciting to readers in the 16th century as it might be for us to see images from the Mars rover that took months to reach earth. The Jesuits were well aware of the value of these reports to further their own mission as well as to counter Protestant claims of being a more ‘universal’ church.

These letters were edited and subsequently published in many languages by the leading printing houses of Europe, beginning with collections of letters printed in Portugal and Spain by the royal presses. Other prominent printers included Kristoffel Plantijn [or Plantin] (1520–89) and Jan Moretus (1576–1618) in Antwerp, as well as Johann Mayer (1576–1615) in Dilingen. In Italy, besides generations of the wealthy Zannetti family of Rome and the influential Giunti publishing house of Florence, there were the Gioliti of Venice and Sébastien Cramoisy (1584–1669), the royal printer in Paris, to name but a few. Cramoisy took advantage of Jesuit correspondence coming from both the East Asian and New World missions. These included his editions of accounts of the Japanese martyrs, of the missions among the Huron (Wendat) people, and of the accounts (‘relations’) of the Jesuit martyrdoms in New France (Quebec) in the mid-17th century.

It is significant that these imprints were circulated not only in Europe but also across continents. For example, the report by Pedro Morejón from Japan describing the beginning of the persecution of Christians in 1614 was brought to Rome as a manuscript, edited, translated into Italian, and published by Bartolomeo Zannetti. From Europe it was sent to Mexico, recast into Spanish and printed locally by Joan Ruiz just two years later. It was then translated into English, reprinted in 1619 on the Catholic press at the English College of St Omer in France, not far from Calais, and smuggled into England for the benefit of local Catholics.

But it was not only Catholic presses, official or clandestine, that were interested in these books. As politically or religiously ‘incorrect’ as it may have been to print them, one effect of Gutenberg’s revolution was to create an insatiable desire for knowledge and information. And with an eager market of consumers, it was not long before printers realised how lucrative a commercial undertaking this was. One example is an early Elizabethan era imprint, the History of Travayle in the West and East Indies […], printed in London in 1577 by Richard Jugge. This volume reproduces letters from the Portuguese Jesuit missionary, Luís Fróis, including the first detailed description of Japan ever published in the English language. The compilation was prepared by Richard Willes (1546–79), who had met the archivist of the Society of Jesus, Giovanni Pietro Maffei (1533–1603), in Rome before returning to England in 1573. Although Willes chose to abandon the society and his Catholic faith, he did not hesitate to cite in the printed text itself his ‘old friend Maffei’ as his privileged source of information. Even the word he first used for Japan in English, ‘Giapan’, is clearly influenced by the Italian word, ‘Giappone’, which he would have learned from his former Italian confrères.

We have another example in the English cleric and academic, Samuel Purchas (1577–1626), who continued the work of the great travel writer and proponent of the American colonisation of Virginia, Richard Hakluyt (1553–1616). The latter had composed his Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation beginning in 1589, one of the most comprehensive travelogues printed in English. In Purchas’s Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas his Pilgrimes, printed in 1625–26, an expanded version of an earlier work he published in 1613, he begins by paying due diligence in his lengthy preface to criticising the Jesuits’ ‘Popish superstition’ as well as their ‘Politicke Mysteries and Mythicall Policies’. But he then quotes extensively from Jesuit letters on Japan throughout his writings and tacitly accepts them as a reliable and even authoritative source.

Yet another particularly important case is that of Amsterdam, where the official Calvinism of the state was not usually allowed to interfere with profitable commercial ventures – the basis of Dutch success. The German Jesuit, Athanasius Kircher, published most of his works, including a deluxe edition of his China Illustrata in 1667, with Johann Jansson van Waesberghe, one of the most important Dutch printers of 17th-century Europe.

Another area of great interest to Europeans, Catholic and Protestant alike, was, as mentioned earlier, cartography – a field of study to which many Jesuits made major contributions. Manuscript maps sent from the Americas and from Asia were later used as the source for important printed editions. One such hand-coloured map of China produced in 1606 by Jodocus Hondius (1563–1612) also shows Korea and Japan plus a cartouche that includes a scene of the execution of Japanese Christians by order of the Regent, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, in 1597. This visual ‘hyper-link’ was based on Jesuit reports of the event that had arrived in Europe as early as 1599. Among other publications in Protestant lands, we find a Danish map of ‘Tartary’, Kort over det Ostlige Tartari til den Almindelige Reisebeskrivelse af Jesuiternes Kort, that explicitly quotes Jesuit letters as its source. This map, printed in Copenhagen between 1748 and 1760, was based on the work of renowned French geographer and cartographer, Jacques-Nicolas Bellin (1703–72).

A revised map by Bellin printed in German in Leipzig in 1749 is entitled China nebst Corea und den benachatbaren Laendern der Tartarey. The latter map cites in its title the cartographic survey the French Jesuits undertook for the Kangxi Emperor in China between 1708 and 1715 that was subsequently published by the Imperial Court as the official atlas of Qing China. Several decades earlier, the Italian Jesuit in China, Martino Martini (1614–61) produced his beautifully illustrated atlas of all the provinces of China. Martini returned to Europe from his mission in China and arranged for its publication in 1655 in Amsterdam, where he worked closely with the Dutch mapmaker and printer, Joan Blaeu (1596–1673). What resulted was the most important European atlas of China in the 17th century.

Besides cartography and ethnography, missionaries also produced manuscript drawings of fauna and flora based on detailed observation, including that of a hippopotamus or ‘sea horse’ (cavallo marino) by the Polish missionary to China, Michał Boym (c1612–59). He later compiled all his drawings and descriptions into his famous collection printed in Vienna in 1656 entitled Flora Sinensis. This first ‘natural history’ of China, which was re-published in numerous translations and editions, included copious notes on the richly coloured illustrations of plants for the benefit of the curious European reader, including drawings of ‘exotic’ fruit such as the pineapple, lychee and mango. A century later, the Dutch engraver, Johan van Schley reproduced them as individual sheets.

The Jesuits’ publishing activities were not limited, however, to European printing houses. They also exported printing presses to publish books and pamphlets in India, Japan, Peru, and Mexico. China stands as an interesting exception, as the Chinese already had an extensive network of printshops that produced books from woodblock, primarily for those who were preparing to take the provincial and imperial examinations that were the prerequisite for government service. Thus, in China, once they had mastered the language, the Jesuits made use of these local printshops and relied on the patronage of mandarins and scholars whom they had befriended, to print works they had composed in classical Chinese. In Goa and Nagasaki, on the other hand, they imported a Gutenberg press; and in Japan they were the first to experiment with the casting of metal Japanese type. Curiously, metal type first arrived in Japan from Korea, where it was used by Joseon dynasty printers from as early as the 13th century. These types were brought back by the Japanese who had invaded Korea in 1592. It was around the same time that Jesuits independently produced their own Japanese metal type. They also published at their college in Nagasaki between 1604 and 1608 the first Western grammar of Japanese and the first European dictionaries of the language. These works remain an indispensable source for the study of pre-modern Japanese.

But the networks of knowledge did not flow only in one direction. In the case of East Asia, they brought Western scientific knowledge, particularly of mathematics and astronomy. It was also collaborative. Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) worked with his first convert, the scholar and mandarin Xu Guangqi (1562–1633). Together they produced the first translation of Euclid’s Elements into Chinese in 1607. The word they coined together for ‘geometry’ – jihe – is still used today in China, Korea, and Japan, according to the pronunciation of the two Chinese characters in each language. The preface in Chinese to this work mentions that Ricci ‘dictated’ (kouyi) what Xu ‘recorded with this brush’ (bishou). Ricci used in part as his point of reference the Commentarii Collegii conimbricensis, a series of textbooks on Aristotle and other classical works which the Jesuits had compiled at their university college in Coimbra, Portugal in the 1590s. Ricci also took advantage of the knowledge that he had gained while a student of Christopher Clavius at the Roman College before his departure for Asia. Even more impressive was Ricci’s six-panel map of the world, based on Abraham Ortelius’s Typus Orbis Terrarum, first published in 1570. Ricci translated his world map into Chinese with the help of another close collaborator, Li Zhizao (1565–1630) and the mandarin, Zhong Wentao. But unlike Ortelius, in his Kunyu wanguo quantu or ‘Map of the Myriad Countries of the World’ (1602), instead of placing Europe and the Atlantic Ocean at the centre, Ricci placed China and the Pacific at the centre – literally creating a new Weltanschauung that was no longer eurocentric but rather in keeping with Chinese sensibilities. In fact, both the expression ‘Middle East’ and ‘Far East’ presuppose Europe as the principle reference point, from which distances are calculated – and Ricci’s map reversed that. Europe had become the ‘Far West’ and the Americas the ‘Far East’. A great number of place names he translated into Chinese on this map are still used in China.

These maps were greatly sought after by both Japanese and Korean scholars for decades. Ricci’s map reached Joseon Korea in 1603 and Edo Japan in 1604 and were hand copied or reprinted on woodblocks in the 17th and 18th centuries. Another example of early scientific transfer of knowledge took place at the Chinese court, where the Jesuit scientists, Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1591–1666) and Ferdinand Verbiest (1623– 88), were in charge of the Imperial Astronomical Bureau. They reformed the Chinese calendar and, in the process, transmitted the work of Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe (1546–1601) to East Asian scholars. The observatory that was built under the supervision of Verbiest, including many new instruments he personally designed, can still be seen in Beijing.

In 1644 Verbiest met in Beijing with Korean Crown Prince Sohyeon (1612–45), who had been a hostage in China following the Manchu defeat of the Ming empire. Verbiest gave him many objects related to his scientific work as well as works on the Christian faith, including Ricci’s True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven. These contacts were not, however, welcome when the prince returned to Hanyang (Seoul) the following year. King Injo (1595–1649) was suspicious and hostile to ‘foreign learning’ and is suspected of having had his own son murdered for ‘treasonous’ alliances with his Qing captors and their foreign ‘barbarian’ advisers, ie the Jesuits. This tragic setback notwithstanding, these objects and maps became an important source for a new movement of ‘practical learning’ (Silhak) that would dominate political and intellectual discourse in Korea a century later. The Joseon dynasty’s greatest scholar and philosopher of the 18th century, Jeong Yakyong (1762–1836), known by his scholarly pen name, ‘Tasan’, was deeply influenced by the Chinese books that the Jesuits had written – although he too initially paid a high price and suffered 18 years of exile in the remote countryside for his ‘Catholic’ and foreign sympathies, while both his brother and nephew were executed for their Christian faith in 1801 and 1839 respectively.

In Japan, all the books that the Jesuits had composed in Chinese, including scientific works, were banned after the prohibition of Christianity in 1614. Nevertheless, the Japanese were eager to reform their own calendar and were curious about the scientific knowledge the Jesuits had successfully introduced at the Chinese court. They preserved copies of Ricci’s map; and Edo period Confucian scholar and geographer, Nagakubo Sekisui (1717–1801) reprinted it in the late 18th century. This was made possible by Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684–1751), the eighth shogun, who relaxed the ban on the import of Jesuit scientific books in 1720 at the urging of the renowned Edo astronomer, Nakane Genkei (1662–1733).

These are just a few examples of how Jesuits in the early modern world acted as brokers of knowledge and information – creating new networks that connected Asia and the Americas to Europe, and Europe to distant worlds beyond the Atlantic and the Pacific. Their letters, reports and books often traversed not only stormy seas but those even more treacherous confessional and civilisational divides that marked the world they inhabited.

This essay originally appeared in ‘Knowledge and Information – Perspectives from Engelsberg Seminar, 2018’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation.

M.Antoni J. Ucerler, S.J.

M. Antoni J. Ucerler, S.J. is Director of the Ricci Institute of Chinese-Western Cultural History and Associate Professor of East Asian Studies, University of San Francisco.

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