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Jesuit Anthropology: Studying “Living Books”

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter analyzes the Jesuit missionary tradition of studying local customs and languages, which is known as “Jesuit anthropology.” By looking into some of the foundational Jesuit texts, the goal is to show how knowledge of non-Christian peoples had been constructed around the metaphor of “living books”: a “stranger” was a book, which the missionaries needed to decipher. From the information, observation, and expertise developed informally in all missionary fields, some Jesuits produced texts—some published but mostly remaining in manuscript—that were and still are considered important pieces in the European library of knowledge. The need and desire to know others was, of course, linked to religious goals: translating Christian message, administering sacraments, fulfilling divine will. From Francis Xavier to Michel de Certeau, the chapter addresses a set of Jesuit perspectives on alterity. They document the richness of interactions between the Jesuits and the local actors, but they always have to be read in light of the Jesuit project of religious conversion.

Keywords: Jesuits, anthropology, ethnography, curiosity, survey, knowledge, local informants, languages, customs, sacrament

The notion of “missionary anthropology” in the early modern period needs to be approached with a great deal of caution. The term “anthropology” existed in the sixteenth century but it referred to a human science linked to medicine of the soul and body, rooted in Lutheran German circles. The term was not widely used, and it was not related to descriptions of exotic peoples.1 When “anthropology” emerged as a knowledge discipline at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was classified as a natural science of man in the context of museums of natural history, with absolutely no relation to the missionary tradition of describing other cultures.2 However, a long-standing tradition, which historians of the discipline do not necessarily embrace, does consider missionaries as “anthropologists” avant la lettre because the missionaries, confronted with the difficult question of conversion, reflected on cultural differences and wrote text about it.3

Considering the fact that professional anthropologists do not recognize missionaries as the forefathers of their discipline, in this chapter, the emphasis is not on proving that there is Jesuit “anthropology,” but to lay out the conceptual grid and categories that the missionaries used in order to qualify knowledge they produced about other cultures. The goal of this chapter is to examine some Jesuit missionary observations and views on the languages and customs of the indigenous people they were seeking to convert, and to show how they cognitively organized the extreme variety of human groups encountered across their different missionary fields.4 The Society of Jesus was founded in the period of acceleration and enlargement of the circulation, as well as of new awareness of human diversity. José de Acosta (1540–1600) spoke of “the ocean of barbarians” and their infinite customs.5 The forms of the encounter and the balance of power also varied: in some places missionaries were accompanied by soldiers and represented the colonial power; in others, they were isolated and simply tolerated by local authorities. Consequently, encounters with other human societies took various forms. For the Jesuits, this human variation was meaningful in a strictly unitary religious framework, which boils down to three propositions: creation is divine, there is only one human race, and all humans are called to become Christian. Drawing on important Jesuit figures from the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries who wrote about indigenous languages and customs, this chapter addresses the entanglement of scholarly and religious dimensions in the center of the missionary knowledge.

(p. 812) Jesuits were not the only missionaries who produced this type of expertise; a long-standing Franciscan, Dominican, and Augustinian tradition, which remained very important in the early modern period, was sometimes in open rivalry with Jesuit texts. However, Jesuits can be distinguished from other missionaries by their investment in scholarly knowledge. As members of the Society of Jesus, their identity also involved “the duty of intelligence.”6 They were members of educational institutions such as colleges, and their writings about non-Western societies can be understood both from the perspective of the missionary field or the church’s internal debates and from the angle of European scholarly networks and cabinets in which they circulated.7 The knowledge about other societies and peoples produced by the Jesuits must be located in its proper context to understand where it fits in the ancien régime of sciences and knowledge.8

If the Catholic missionary conversion and colonization project formulated in the sixteenth century involved investment in learning the languages and customs of other peoples, there was a plurality and complexity of imperial specialists’ knowledge. The missionary texts coexisted with those of the travelers, merchants, and administrators who wrote for other reasons. It is useful to borrow from anthropologist Antonio Carlos de Souza Lima the concept of “tradition of knowledge” in an imperial context.9 Missionary texts are but one of these knowledge traditions. The curiosity about other peoples was not just the preserve of the Europeans, contrary to what was long thought. Arab, Chinese, and Russian traditions of interest for other societies existed, and missionaries sometimes drew on them.10

The missionary tradition of knowledge of non-Western societies has often elicited wariness, especially from professional anthropologists, because the attempt to Christianize, which was the missionary raison d’être, appeared as an obstacle to the understanding of others. As a powerful instrument of transformation of indigenous peoples and their society, the missionary was seen as a destroyer of culture and an enemy of rituals and traditional cults. The certainty in holding truth prevented missionaries from embracing the idea of the relativity of customs that Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) formulated at the end of the sixteenth century and that became a compass for interest in others. In Tristes Tropiques, Claude Lévi-Strauss identified the Calvinist Jean de Léry’s book Histoire d’un voyage en la Terre du Brésil as the ethnologist’s breviary, dismissing contemporary Jesuit texts, which he did not place in the archeology of the discipline.11

The question that still remains: how did the missionary prospect of converting all of Earth’s people shape knowledge, and to what extent did it also limit curiosity about native civilizations and cultures?

Jesuit Identity and Curiosity about Differences

The seminal Spiritual Exercises that the Jesuits constantly read and practice addresses the diversity of the world’s inhabitants and oneness of salvation.12 The practitioner of the exercises is invited to imagine “various kinds of persons: first, those on the face of the earth, in all their diversity of dress and appearance, some white and some black, some in peace and (p. 813) others at war.”13 For sixteenth-century Jesuits who saw themselves as “laborers in the Lord’s vineyard,” this mental image of the diversity of men was the devil’s work and reflected the theme of their perdition, but also paradoxically opened the way to redemption, by way of the incarnation of Christ, who came to save all men. The source of the missionary calling was the ideal of saving other men. Religious specialists, particularly Jesuits, therefore, saw a strong spiritual component in the theme of human differences.

Beginning in the decade of 1540, the rules of Jesuit writing, codified at the time by Juan de Polanco (1517–1576), Ignatius of Loyola’s (1491–1556) secretary, instructed members of the order spread across four continents to provide detailed descriptions of natives’ customs.14 The idea was to keep informed the Jesuit headquarters since the order was a dispersed body whose head, the superior general, had been located in Rome, and had to make informed decisions and adapt the common rule to particular situations. From the outset, the Jesuit superiors signaled that this type of information from afar might satisfy the curiosity of other readers who were not part of the order but were important because they were potential benefactors; the Society of Jesus lived off of donations. The public curiosity therefore needed to be taken into account by those describing the customs, without burying the information under “useless” details. To be meaningful, curiosity needed to be subordinated to useful ends such as moral and spiritual edification.15

Perhaps nobody formulated the links between knowledge and salvation of others in missionary work as well as Francis Xavier (1506–1552), the first Jesuit missionary. After arriving in Goa in 1542, Francis Xavier left the small Portuguese community and immersed himself in local cultures, speaking different languages, none of which he learned well. In a 1549 letter to the missionary Gaspar Barzée (1515–1553), a humanist Jesuit who had studied at the University of Louvain and was residing in Hormuz, a port city at the entrance of the Persian Gulf, Francis Xavier explained the new type of knowledge needed for the missionary’s work:

Nothing will be more beneficial for the salvation of the souls of this city’s inhabitants than knowing the details of their lives. This is the main study you must pursue, because it most helps in improving souls. You need to know how to read books teaching things that cannot be found in the dead books that have been written, and nothing will help you bear more fruit in souls than learning to know these things well. And if you want to produce a lot of fruit both in yourselves and in others, and live in consolation, converse with sinners so that they will confide in you. They are the living books that you must study both to preach and be consoled. I am not saying that you cannot sometimes read written books, but only to find quotes from Authorities and remedies for the vices and sins that you read in living books.16

The image is striking: the natives are called “living books,” and missionaries are invited to study them and to learn to read them, which assumes knowledge of their language to be able to converse and understand them.17 The peoples are described as objects of science. Thus, Francis Xavier was referring to knowledge acquired from living informants—a form of knowledge stemming from dialogue between the missionary and infidels to be converted. Intellectual work and the missionary enterprise of saving souls are somehow identified; there is an intuition of a knowledge field coproduced with indigenous informants. Missionary knowledge was also seen as in need of a dialogue with the authorities and written books preserved in libraries.

(p. 814) Conversation and Conversion: Missionary Linguistics and Ethnography

Francis Xavier’s first injunction was to converse. The learning of indigenous languages was a feature of the mission beginning in the sixteenth century, when it was clearly considered that evangelization needed to proceed in the native language of each people. The challenge was to have interlocutors understand the real content of faith, not just repeat doctrine without understanding it; the image of the parrot appeared in the texts as a foil. The Jesuits were not alone to invest in learning indigenous languages. In the case of Spanish America, where they arrived late, knowledge of Nahuatl and other Mexican languages, and of Quechua and Aymara in the Andes, was first acquired by the mendicant orders.18 However, the Jesuits were linguistic pioneers in the Portuguese missionary world: in Asia (Tamil, Konkani, and Japanese), in Africa (Kikongo), and in Brazil (Tupi), they were the first to write down grammars.19

The “grammaticalization” involved reducing these languages to Latin grammatical paradigms. This was not just a matter of artificially inventing ill-adapted rules; on the contrary, the structure of Latin was a quite efficient model that allowed for a description of linguistic differences.20 The descriptive work assumed very good knowledge of Latin and an aptitude for abstraction, as well as ongoing learning from conversations and exchanges with indigenous peoples.21 The learning process implied extended stays with indigenous communities. Thus, Henrique Henriques (1520–1600), who lived in the Kanyakumari region in South India for forty years, wrote the first Tamil grammar (1550), and José de Anchieta (1534–1597), author of the first Tupi grammar (published in 1595 but written before), lived among the Brazilian Indians (in Iperoig and Piratininga).

Informants, however, were often erased in Jesuit sources. It is striking to note that missionaries, conversant in local languages and with a deep understanding of the local native cultures, did not seek to transmit this knowledge, for lack of time or because they considered it unimportant knowledge. In this sense, Antonio de Montoya (1585–1652), a Jesuit from Paraguay, is exceptional: he wrote a Treasure of the Guarani Language published in Madrid in 1639 at the same time as a Grammar, Catechism and Vocabulary.22 In the Treasure, for each word entry in Guaraní, he provided not only a translation in Spanish but also an explanation of the different meanings. Thus, his book was a presentation of the Guaraní culture of Christian missions and to this day remains an exceptional source for Guaraní anthropologists and for native speakers.23 The process of describing a culture through language resulted in an interpretive framework that questioned European categories in favor of native categories. The publication of such a book at the time undoubtedly primarily reflected a political and nonscholarly project. The goal was for the Spanish monarchy to defend Guaraní Indians from Portuguese attacks and mark its presence in the region of Rio de la Plata. Antonio de Montoya was exceptional both because he had an in-depth command of the Guaraní language and because he wanted to convey the richness of this language in writing, as a testimony to the Guaraní Christians’ way of thinking. It included an isolated but remarkable reflection on the culture of others.

Many examples of these books born of observation and conversation exist. Luís Fróis’s (1532–1597) treatise—Treatise on the Contradictions and Differences of Mores of the Peoples (p. 815) of Europe and Japon (1580)is an interesting case because it is atypical.24 Luís Fróis, who arrived in Japan in 1563, learned excellent Japanese and served as an interpreter to the Visitor Alessandro Valignano (1539–1606), who was in favor of Jesuit accommodation to Asian cultures.25 Written as a draft and not intended for publication, this text was a compendium of raw data, probably for the Visitor’s information, presenting Western customs and Japanese customs as complete opposites. This juxtaposition without value judgment had the effect of relativizing and deconstructing European culture, as Lévi-Strauss highlighted in his preface to the French edition of the text.26 Neither a scholarly nor a religious text, Luís Fróis’s treatise sheds light on a form of missionary thinking engendered by contact with otherness and based on authentic knowledge—prudent and relatively respectful—of the other. This knowledge, probably widespread, left few traces.

Studies around the Administration of Sacraments

Besides transmitting Christian doctrine, one of the missionaries’ objectives was to administer the sacraments as a means for salvation, since the sacraments were considered instruments for conveying the divine grace.27 Baptisms, marriages, confessions, confirmation, the Eucharist, and extreme unction had to be correctly administered to maintain their religious effectiveness. The administration of sacraments in non-Christian regions raised many difficulties, forcing missionaries to closely monitor the people they wanted to convert.

Marriage is interesting from this perspective because in order to marry converts according to Christian rites, missionaries first had to examine spousal unions before conversion. If they were considered legitimate marriages, then missionaries could only bless them, thereby transforming them into Christian unions. In the case of polygamy, the first union was considered the true marriage. This issue arose across all missionary areas and led to thorough investigations on matrimonial customs, which were judged from the perspective of the Christian concept of marriage.

In Brazil, Jesuits made concerted efforts to evaluate matrimonial customs.28 A file preserved at the Jesuit university in Évora in Portugal, which specialized in missionary education, includes very precise descriptions of the matrimonial customs of the Brazilian Indians.29 José de Anchieta and Francisco Pinto (1552–1608), two missionaries who lived among the Indians for a long time, described unions between men and women according to life-cycle stages. They analyzed the terms used to designate spouses and concubines, insisting on the lack of jealousy; the nonexistence of dowries for young women, and contrariwise; the service the son-in-law owed the father-in-law; and prohibitions on marrying relatives.30 These descriptions of customs were then examined and evaluated by the Jesuit theologians in Bahia and in the universities of Coimbra and Évora. In the case of Brazil, the theologians were perplexed: Anchieta claimed that because Brazilian Indians did not have spirit of obligation, nothing in their complex matrimonial customs came close to looking like a marriage. Despite the will of transforming the customs, the missionaries were sensitive to forms of radical otherness. They understood that the matrimonial customs of Indians (p. 816) in Brazil operated as an obstacle for conversion and pursued real inquiry to understand the deeper meaning of the local customs.

This unpublished Évora file is an internal document that Jesuits wrote to request a pontifical bull on the remarriages of converts in Brazil, which they obtained in 1585. The fact that they did not write a book on the subject demonstrates that this knowledge was considered to be strictly utilitarian and for internal use. However, twentieth-century anthropologists reused these sources to analyze the kinship systems, but they ignored the missionary dimension of these descriptions and missed the real significance of these sources.31

The same occurred in Japan. Despite the Jesuits’ extreme admiration of the Japanese for their refinement, politeness, and written culture, they were baffled by their inability to identify a form of marriage according to natural law in Japanese matrimonial unions. Like the Indians from Brazil, the Japanese were bounded without a spirit of obligation and easily untied their unions. To summarize Japanese matrimonial unions, the Jesuits wrote that the Japanese get married with a precept: “I marry you so long as another will not please me more.”32 The problem of the absence of obligation in Japanese marriage profoundly divided the Jesuit community in Japan, and some Jesuits challenged the idea that a highly civilized people could ignore the very nature of a fundamental custom like marriage. A controversy ensued. Gil de Mata (1547–1599), a Spanish Jesuit who came to inspect the behavior and methods of the Portuguese Jesuits in Japan, wrote a book positing that Japanese matrimonial unions were real marriages.33 He based his argument on a survey conducted among the Japanese after questioning dozens of couples about their practices. The text on Japanese marriages, written in Latin in 1590, was an expert’s book intended for theologians and missionaries; the text was inspired by a desire to correctly administer the sacraments and to defend the idea that natural marriage was a universal norm.34 Based on an inquiry with local informers, it combined professional curiosity for exotic customs and erudite knowledge in canonical law and marriage theology. But these handwritten texts and books in Latin did not circulate in the sixteenth century as scholarly texts, and failed to be integrated into the anthropological legacy. It is only historians’ current reinterpretation that could reframe them into an instance of “Jesuit anthropology.”

José de Acosta: From Quest of Salvation to the Natural and Moral History of Indians in America

While missionaries were confronted with the diversity of human customs everywhere, in America particular questions were raised because this hitherto ignored fourth part of the world was brought into the framework of monogenism and biblical history. Clerics wondered how America had been populated and why its inhabitants had never heard of God, the creator of all things. This fundamental question was asked throughout the sixteenth century. The Jesuits inherited these debates and offered a response by proposing the theory of America’s population via migrations from the Old World and the idea of a historical transformation of civilizations.35

(p. 817) By comparing Acosta’s opinion to the phases of his Jesuit career, it becomes apparent how his ordering of various human societies was pursued in dialogue with missionary practice. José de Acosta declared his missionary vocation in 1561, when he was only twenty-one years old.36 Eight years later, in a letter written from his college in Castile, he asked to go to America when the Jesuits were allowed by King Philipp II to travel to the Spanish Indies. He mentioned the Indias de Castila as a transitional place where people were neither too brutish like the Brazilians nor too similar to Europeans, as in Goa.37 Thus, even before his departure to America, Acosta envisioned converting humanity in all its diversity. The Spiritual Exercises and the reading of Jesuit missionary annual letters contributed to the creation of this missionary imaginary. In fact, the famous trifold hierarchy dividing the barbarian worlds—Asians, Americans from the high plains (Peruvians and Mexicans), and savages (Brazilians, Florida’s Indians)—already appeared in this letter, before his overseas experiences.

Acosta’s missionary method was presented in Latin in De Procuranda Indorum Salute (On Achieving the Salvation of Indians), written in 1576, four years after his arrival in Peru (1572), and was both a negative assessment of the conquest and an evangelization program.38 It postulated that all men were modeled in the image of God. Even men with the most savage appearance knew natural law, but the devil had led them astray, and it was up to the missionaries to lead them to salvation, for which there was still hope. Acosta developed the idea of specific skills for missionaries: besides knowledge of Christian doctrine, they needed to know indigenous languages and customs. The missionary had to strip off the ancient customs inspired by the Demon, but could tolerate those compatible with salvation. The book was also known for its classification of barbarians. Distinguishing degrees of civilization and variable power relations, Acosta offered to adapt the method of evangelization. The ordered vision of pagan humanity was foundational for a certain perspective on non-Western populations; it is an attempt to classify men according to their customs, and to embrace a comparative approach.

The two projected introductory chapters of De Procuranda Indorum Salute were taken separately and resulted in a book written in Castilian that was published in Seville in 1590 and entitled Historia natural y moral de las Indias [Natural and Moral History of the Indies].39 The year before, in 1589, the missiology manual was finally published after censors took a long time examining it. Besides a description of the geography, fauna, and flora of America, Natural and Moral History offered a reflection on the population and religions inspired by the Devil, and a presentation of the Inca and Mexican empires, mentioning forms of writing, urbanization, and political organization of this incomplete American civilization. The histories of migrations and of degeneration were claims geared to explain the American reality and its difference with Europe.

This original book was the fruit of Acosta’s reflection on the specificity of the American world and was conceived during his long stay in the Spanish Indies (1572–1588): a brief stop in the West Indies, and then fifteen years in the Andean world—a region he crossed several times—and finally, a year in New Spain on his way back to Europe. The book was immediately translated into several European languages and became a reference book on America. Acosta’s curiosity was not exclusively limited to religious and political questions. On the contrary, he sought to build on Pliny’s model, a complete inventory of American nature, and to propose a reflection on man in his environment. This book became part of European knowledge, as a first general description and explanation of America after a (p. 818) century of European presence. This dimension of European knowledge is also attributable to Jesuits’ participation in a global network of knowledge exchange between the societies of Europe and of the rest of the world. The centralized aspect of the Society of Jesus made the Jesuits particularly suitable to write a synthesis. Missionaries rarely tried to synthesize, and this task was left to Jesuit professional authors such as Giovanni Pietro Maffei, who wrote the official Jesuit history of the Portuguese missions in India from documents sent by the missionaries. José de Acosta was therefore an exception: having both fieldwork experience in America and being a recognized author.


Acosta’s ideas on salvation were pursued by the Jesuit Alonso de Sandoval (1576–1652) a few years later from Cartagena of the Indies in New Grenada (Colombia). Born in Seville and raised in Peru, he resided in the main slave port of Spanish America in 1605. In 1627, he published in Seville Naturaleza, policia sagrada i profana, costumbres i ritos, disciplina i catechismo evangelico de todos etíopes [Nature, Sacred and Profane Order, Customs, Rites, Discipline and Evangelical Catechism of All the Ethiopians], which was republished in 1647 under its original title De Instauranda Aethiopum Salute [On Achieving the Salvation of Ethiopians], in an explicit reference to Acosta’s book.40 Once again, the dual objective of ethnographic curiosity and missionary ambition was apparent. The originality lay in his interest in those men not only as de-territorialized and deported slaves but also as Africans. Sandoval’s First Book presented a description of the different regions of Africa from which the slaves came. The Jesuit specified that he only knew these regions from what the slaves told him in the interviews, although he also drew on authorities.

The Second Book evoked the ills that afflicted the slaves. Historian Berta Ares has shown that the major source of Sandoval’s book was a long survey conducted from the 1590s in the diocese of Lima concerning the conditions for baptizing slaves brought from Africa.41 Indeed, some religious figures denounced collective baptism of slaves before the crossing of the Atlantic as being invalid because they were not based on clearly expressed consent or specific knowledge of Christian doctrine. A major study was then conducted on slave baptism. Jesuits from Peru and then New Grenada asked the Portuguese Jesuits from Cape Verde and Angola to send them letters to explain the procedures of baptism in African regions before the departure of the slaves. Sandoval published a letter by Luís Brandão, a Jesuit from Angola, stating that there was no reason for such scruples. He had no time to go into details explaining African enslavement customs, but he assured his colleague that the slave trade in Angola was completely legitimate. Not only does this letter reveal significant disagreements within the Jesuit order, but also it proves that missionaries possessed knowledge of customs about which they kept quiet. At Cartagena in the Indies, Sandoval, notebook in hand and accompanied by interpreters, conducted the survey with slaves upon the arrival of ships. The Third Book was devoted to evangelization methods of the slaves, including a catechism drafted specifically for them. Thus, Sandoval’s work was a mix of curiosity and desire to Christianize. Slavery, which he did not condemn, was seen as potentially (p. 819) stimulating Christianization. The originality of Sandoval was his confidence that African slaves and their ancient customs were worthy of interest and knowledge for the purpose of efficient conversion. In addition to participating willingly in the slave system, since they were major slave owners in Africa and Brazil, Jesuits developed specific forms of knowledge about the slaves.

The composition of a Kimbundu grammar, the Bantu language of Angola, was also linked to the slavery context. Published in Lisbon in 1697 under the patronage of Our Lady of the Rosary, the patron saint of slaves, it was written in Brazil by a Portuguese Jesuit, Pedro Dias (1621/1622–1700), who had never been to Africa and who learned the language from the slaves from Angola in Brazil and from the Angolan-born Jesuits in Brazil. With this grammar, the Portuguese Jesuits also tried to ensure that missionary literature about Africa was not left to the Capuchins employed by the Congregation for the Propagation of Faith, and to prove that Atlantic deportation and slavery in America were compatible with evangelization.

Jesuit Authority, Rites Quarrel, and Comparative Religious History

Organized as an educational and scholarly network, the Society of Jesus had its authors, its own censorship system, and categories of appreciation. These rules contributed to limiting the ethnographic perspective. Curiosity could not be idle and treatises had to support and appreciate the transformation of converts. The writing style was supposed to be sober and dignified. The results of the censorship and self-censorship are important to consider. It is noteworthy that the Jesuits systematically failed to mention their indigenous informants. They cited them much less than the Capuchins, for example, who often placed their informants in context, gave their names, and related conversations with them.42 Recent research on Paraguay missions shows that the Indians who mastered writing were closely monitored and were not allowed to write without authorization.43 In China, the Jesuits knew of the Chinese tradition of gathering information on faraway peoples. For example, in 1739, Antoine Gaubil (1689–1759) drew on the book by the Chinese chronicler Tulisen, a Manchu official in the Qing Empire, to help describe and map Mongol tribes, but did not mention the Chinese perspective.44

The Jesuit missionaries embedded in their mission fields and living in daily contact with the natives were not always considered authors and their writings were marginalized and reused in more general syntheses, where specific observations were rarely mentioned. The deep integration of the Jesuits in the European knowledge networks and their strict writing rules compounded their Euro-centrism and impoverished their texts with regard to ethnographic information. The best missionary ethnography can be found in letters from the fieldwork, preserved in the archives, but unpublished at the time. These sources are currently used by anthropologists and ethno historians.45

Across all the missionary fields, particularly those where the customs appeared to them as rational and comparable, missionaries made a point of borrowing some local customs. It is especially in Asia that Europeans perceived a form of equality despite the differences. At (p. 820) the end of the sixteenth century the Visitor Valignano, who went from Goa to Japan through Macao, presented the method of accommodation. This involved examining the customs of non-Westerners and asking what could be kept and made compatible with Christianization.

Religious aspects were deemed incompatible with Christianization, while the rest could be maintained. Already quite famous are the experiences of Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), who fashioned himself into a Chinese literati and mandarin, and Roberto Nobili (1577–1656), who was impressed and admiring of the Brahmans and their learning.46 Other Jesuits changed clothes, like Bento de Gois (1562–1607), who crossed central Asia barefoot in a Sufi merchant’s outfit.47 Elements were even borrowed from cultures considered to be inferior: a Jesuit who was well versed in Brazilian language, Francisco Pinto, imitated Indian shamans for the sake of missionary effectiveness.48

The Jesuit missionary method could thus lead to particular forms of cultural boundary crossing. Even if these experiences remained isolated and were ultimately condemned, they prove that their repetition across various mission fields points to the Jesuit way of approaching otherness, involving intimate knowledge of the customs and languages of others.

New forms of knowledge gradually accompanied the accumulation of information from the missions. Thus, comparative religious history emerged as an academic discipline at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The free-thinking philosophes were fascinated by these missionary texts and read them from a new perspective—that of cultural relativism especially conceding the Christian truth.49

It is in this context that in 1724 Joseph-François Lafitau (1681–1746) published Mœurs des sauvages amériquains comparées aux mœurs des premiers temps, a two-volume book, after a long stay in New France and upon return to France as a procurator of missions.50 His treatise marked a turning point by engaging missionary knowledge with the intellectual debates of the time. Indeed, Lafitau acquired and digested a rich Jesuit knowledge accumulated on the Iroquois and on the Hurons.51 He reshaped this material into a reasoned and comparative approach to customs, rather than into a history like Acosta’s. The salvation dimension did not feature in the book’s title. The mission offered the material but was no longer the objective of the treatise, which was clearly placed in an intellectual context, including debates about the crisis of European conscience, the quarrel between ancients and moderns, and universal history. Religion remained the central and longest chapter, but it was a reflection on the history of religions. For Lafitau, the “heathenism” of Indians was close to that of the ancients and reflected the migration of men who populated America via the Bering Strait. With regard to ideas, the framework of Christian monogenism and of Acosta’s history of America’s populations was apparent.

Michel de Certeau (1925–1986) presented Lafitau as a turning point because he introduced new knowledge developed by distinguishing the fieldwork and the armchair theorizing on the basis of a comparison between two worlds, that of the ancients and of the savages.52 Lafitau wrote: “The customs of the savages provided light for me to better understand and explain several things in Ancient authors.”53 It was no longer knowledge addressed to a missionary audience seeking advice on the salvation of Indians, nor to an audience interested in America, but rather to a broad learned audience interested in universal history.

(p. 821) Armchair Scholarship, Missionary Tradition, and Ethnological Knowledge

The expulsion of the Jesuits from the Iberian empires and their retreat to Rome accelerated the transformation of missionary documents into scholarly material, especially with regard to languages. Thus, Lorenzo Hervás y Panduro (1735–1809), a Spanish Jesuit exiled in Italy, met expelled Jesuits from around the world, from whom he gathered linguistic information. Drawing on this corpus of documents, he wrote a catalog of the world languages, Catálogo de las lenguas de las naciones conocidas y enumeración, división y clases de estas según la diversidad de sus idiomas y dialectos, in six volumes, which included three hundred languages and dialects.54 He can therefore be considered the inventor of comparative linguistics. He was particularly interested in the language of the profoundly deaf, and he composed a manual for them, as well as a catechism, thereby bringing together the scholarly and missionary dimensions. His linguistic approach was also a way to approach various cultures. He studied languages to establish ethnic families since he wrote that languages were not just codes but also methods to talk and think.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a new type of knowledge gradually appeared in England and France. This new science saw its vocation as a natural history of men oriented toward a reflection on human races. The theory of monogenism and the Christian universalist and proselytizing project at the heart of Jesuit knowledge about other cultures were foreign to this new branch of knowledge based on the theory of races. However, some ethnological and spiritualist currents developed ideas closer to those of the missionaries: while the bodies of humans were different, their spirit was the same. The Society of Jesus, re-established in the nineteenth century, no longer had the same intellectual aura in public scholarship. Missionaries who belonged mainly to new religious orders and also to the restored Society of Jesus continued to work on indigenous languages in their missionary fields, gathering ethnographical information and pursuing cultural bricolage.

In the aftermath of World War I, a new anthropological discipline emerged—social anthropology—which emphasized the fieldwork, participant observation, and knowledge of indigenous languages. Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942) was a prominent figure in this movement gathered around the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures founded in 1926 in London and renamed the International African Institute in 1945.55 Many Protestant and Catholic missionaries who worked on education in Africa were involved in its foundation. These included the French Jesuit Emile Dubois (1869–1954), who long served as a missionary in Madagascar and supported education in vernacular languages. At the same time, the missionary policy of Pope Pius XI (in office: 1922–1939) and the desire to create indigenous clergy marked a new interest in native cultures in the Catholic world. In 1925, a missionary exhibition took place in the Vatican and the Missionary Ethnological Museum was founded in Rome. In 1931 a diffusionist-based course in ethnology was created in pontifical universities and seminaries. Jesuits participated in this movement without being its principal actors. Missionary ethnography acquired a certain recognition by the church and thus cleared the way, among other things, to ideas on inculturation that became an official doxa during the Second Vatican Council.56

(p. 822) Michel de Certeau: Missionary Inculturation and Heterology

Michel de Certeau’s scholarship is helpful to conclude the reflection on this particular feature of Jesuit “anthropology” as a simultaneous scholarly and missionary tool and endeavor. Michel de Certeau was fascinated by anthropology. He practiced it in his own way, emphasizing in his work the figure of the stranger or the “other”—the subject of different discourses.57 As a cultural anthropologist he also tried to decrypt the contemporary world.58

Michel de Certeau’s work is positioned at the intersection of missionary and scholarly practice. He became a recognized intellectual figure in France and in the United States, but he was also a Jesuit who entered the Society of Jesus in 1950 with a desire to become a missionary. In the 1960s, he participated in debates about missionary issues in preparation for the Second Vatican Council. The decree Ad Gentes represented a turning point toward inculturation of the Christian message, which needed to be delinked from the Western blueprint tied to colonization and be expressed in local cultures.59

Thus, in 1963 and 1964, Michel de Certeau published two articles in the Jesuit missionary journal Christus entitled “The Conversion of the Missionary” and “Cultural Situations, Spiritual Calling.”60 These two texts were reworked and republished in 1969 in L’étranger ou l’union dans la différence [The stranger or union despite difference], where the text no longer had an “ecclesiastical” status limited to a small audience.61 Here again, we can observe the dichotomy between technical texts for the ecclesiastical institution and academic texts intended for a scholarly audience, as already detectable in José de Acosta’s work. Michel de Certeau’s reflection focused on cultural experience, drawing on the reports from his missionary colleagues in Africa and Asia.62 He described the mission abroad as an experience of strangeness among men whom the missionary made his fellows. Missionaries, he said, sought to understand men who seem far from God by assuming that God was already present in them. To decipher these apparent strangers (one may note the metaphor of a person as a living book already present in Francis Xavier’s work), Michel de Certeau underscored that missionaries were “helped by the ethnographic learning process,” which allowed them to become aware of profound differences.63 What Michel de Certeau called the conversion of the missionary was the moment when the missionary encountered God in this human strangeness instead of being puzzled. A spiritual dimension thus extended the experience of human strangeness and ended in an encounter with the divine. This religious text on cultural encounters involved in the missionary process was written by a Jesuit intellectual from the 1960s, but it also shed light on the long-standing Jesuit tradition. For the missionaries, a foreigner was a potential locus for meeting either Devil or God. This religious dimension was constitutive of the Jesuit experience in their encounters and confrontations with other cultures. From the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, the experience of the stranger thus had both a spiritual and an intellectual dimension in Jesuit cultural tradition.

In the early 1970s, Michel de Certeau’s analysis became more academic in his famous articles, such as the one about Jean de Léry (1536–1613) and the one about Lafitau.64 His death in 1984 prevented him from completing his project of an archeology of the anthropological discourse. Academic interest in the genesis of anthropological knowledge was rooted in his (p. 823) spiritual reflection, born in the context of the Second Vatican Council and of debates about inculturation.


Jesuit texts describing the customs, religions, and languages of other peoples must therefore be placed in the missionary context that gave them meaning. It was for conversion purposes that the Jesuits were interested in indigenous languages, using natives as informants. It was in order to properly administer the sacraments that they launched inquiries wherein their main interlocutors were indigenous people. The belief in universal salvation and of the unity of divine creation underlay the Jesuit interpretation of the diversity of human cultures. Because all men were considered to be potential Christians, they needed to be studied. Customs were nonetheless long considered as being obstacles that, depending on the situations and power relations, needed to be stripped off, circumvented, or tamed. This spiritual objective should not be considered as an enriching or impoverishing factor, but rather simply as the key enabling a correct interpretation of the Jesuit tradition of knowledge on others’ cultures.


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                                                                                                                          (1.) Rafael Mandressi, “Médecine et discours sur l’homme dans la première modernité,” Revue de synthèse (Paris) 134, 6th series, no. 4 (2013):1–26. On the Jesuit science of the soul see the chapter in this volume by Fernanda Alfieri.

                                                                                                                          (2.) For many historians of the discipline who are also anthropologists, referring to missionaries as precursors of the discipline is strange. See, for example, Claude Blanckaert, historian of French anthropology: “An old tradition portrays the discipline of anthropology emerging when the ‘sight’ of another guided by the ‘curiosity’ of the travelers. This explains the reference—strange to our ears—to Marco Polo and Father Acosta in the long list of pioneers in anthropology,” in Claude Blanckaert, “Fondements disciplinaires de l’anthropologie française au XIXe siècle. Perspectives historiographiques,” Politix. Revue des sciences sociales du politique (Paris) 29 (1995): 31–54, and for a broader take on the theme from the same author: Claude Blanckaert, Naissance de l’ethnologie? Anthropologie et missions en Amérique XVI–XVIIe siècle (Paris: Le Cerf), 1985.

                                                                                                                          (3.) I am grateful to Carolyn Avery for her contribution to the translation, to Antonella Romano for inviting me to present part of this work, to Ines G. Županov for inviting me to write this essay, and to Benoît de L’Estoile for his stimulating insights.

                                                                                                                          (4.) For a successful attempt, see Joan-Pau Rubiés, “Ethnography and Cultural Translation in the Early Modern Missions,” Studies in Church History (Cambridge) 53 (2017): 272–310.

                                                                                                                          (5.) José de Acosta, De Procuranda Indorum Salute, introduction by Luciano Pereña (Madrid: CSIC, 1984).

                                                                                                                          (6.) Luce Giard, Les Jésuites à la Renaissance. Système éducatif et production de savoir (Paris: PUF, 1995).

                                                                                                                          (7.) On Jesuit educational institutions and texts see the chapter in this volume by Cristiano Casalini.

                                                                                                                          (8.) Stéphane Van Damme, ed., De la Renaissance aux Lumières, vol. 1 in Histoire des Sciences et des Savoirs, ed. Dominique Pestre (Paris: Le Seuil, 2015). On the Jesuit scholarship on natural sciences see the chapters in this volume by Romano Gatto, Luís Miguel Carolino and Miguel de Asúa.

                                                                                                                          (9.) Antonio Carlos de Souza Lima, Traditions of Knowledge in Colonial Management of Inequality: Reflections on an Indigenist Administration Perspective in Brazil 2002, accessed July 12, 2018,

                                                                                                                          (10.) Huiyi Wu, “ ‘The Observations We Made in the Indies and in China’: The Shaping of the Jesuits’ Knowledge of China by Other Parts of the Non-Western World,” East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine 46 (2018): 47–88.

                                                                                                                          (11.) Jean de Léry, Histoire d’un voyage en terre de Brésil, 1578 2 édition 1580, ed. Frank Lestringant (Paris: Le livre de Poche, 1994). Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (Paris: Plon, 1955).

                                                                                                                          (12.) On Spiritual Exercises see the chapter in this volume by Silvia Mostaccio.

                                                                                                                          (13.) Ignace de Loyola, Ecrits, ed. Maurice Giulani (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer), 108–111.

                                                                                                                          (14.) On Jesuit correspondence see the chapter in this volume by Paul Nelles. On similar topics see also chapters in this volume by Pierre Antoine Fabre and Markus Friedrich.

                                                                                                                          (15.) Charlotte de Castelnau-L’Estoile, “Entre curiosité et édification: le savoir des missionnaires jésuites du Brésil,” in Sciences et Religion de Copernic à Galilée (1540–1610) (Paris: Collection de l’Ecole française de Rome 260, 1999), 131–157.

                                                                                                                          (16.) Quoted in Charlotte de Castelnau, Marie-Lucie Copete, Aliocha Maldavsky, and Ines G. Županov, “Introduction,” in Missions d’évangélisation et Circulation des Savoirs XVIe–XVIIIe siècles, ed. Charlotte de Castelnau, Marie-Lucie Copete, Aliocha Maldavsky, and Ines G. Županov (Madrid: Casa de Velazquez, 2011), 1.

                                                                                                                          (17.) On Jesuit philology see the chapter in this volume by Stuart M. McManus.

                                                                                                                          (18.) César Itier and Juan Carlos Estenssoro, “Langues indiennes et empire dans l’Amérique du Sud colonial,” Mélanges de la Casa de Velázquez, 45, no. 1 (2015): 9–14.

                                                                                                                          (19.) Otto Zwartjes, Portuguese Missionary Grammars in Asia, Africa and Brazil 1550–1800 (Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing, 2011).

                                                                                                                          (20.) Sylvain Auroux, Histoire des idées linguistiques, t. 2, Paris: Mardaga, 1992, Introduction “Le processus de grammatisation et ses enjeux,” 11–64.

                                                                                                                          (21.) John Manuel Monteiro, “Traduzindo Tradições: Gramáticas, Vocabulários e Catecismos em Línguas Nativas na América Portuguesa,” in Os indios, nos, ed. Joaquim Pais de Brito (Lisbon: Museu Nacional de Etnologia, 2000), 36–43.

                                                                                                                          (22.) Antonio Ruiz de Montoya, Tesoro de la lengua guaraní 1639, ed. Bartomeu Meliá (Centro de Estudios Paraguayos: Asunción de Paraguay, 2011).

                                                                                                                          (23.) Graciela Chamorro, Decir el Cuerpo. Historia y etnografía del cuerpo en los pueblos Guaraní (Asunción: Tiempo de Historia, 2009). On Latin American missions see the chapter in this volume by Rafael Gaune Corradi.

                                                                                                                          (24.) Hélène Vu Thanh, Devenir japonais. La mission jésuite au Japon (1549–1614) (Paris: PUPS, 2016).

                                                                                                                          (25.) On Asian missions see the chapter in this volume by Hélène Vu Thanh and on accommodation the chapter by Stefania Tutino.

                                                                                                                          (26.) See Claude Lévi Strauss’s preface to Européens & Japonais; Traité sur les contradictions & différences de mœurs écrit par Luís Fróis (Paris: Chandeigne, 2009).

                                                                                                                          (27.) Charlotte de Castelnau L’Estoile with Paolo Broggio and Giovanni Pizzorusso, “Le temps des doutes: Rome et l’administration des sacrements XVI–XXe,” in “Administrer les sacrements en Europe et au Nouveau Monde. La Curie romaine et les dubia circa sacramenta,” special number of Mélanges de l’Ecole Française de Rome Italie-Méditerranée 1 (2009): 5–22.

                                                                                                                          (28.) Charlotte de Castelnau L’Estoile, “Le mariage des infidèles au XVIe siècle: doutes missionnaires et autorité pontificale,” in “Administrer les sacrements en Europe et au Nouveau Monde. La Curie romaine et les dubia circa sacramenta,” ed. Paolo Broggio, Charlotte de Castelnau L’Estoile, and Giovanni Pizzorusso, special number of Mélanges de l’Ecole Française de Rome Italie-Méditerranée 1 (2009): 5–121.

                                                                                                                          (29.) Biblioteca Pública de Évora, BPE, CXVI/1-33, folios 100–167, BPE, CXVI/1-33 Cousas do Brasil.

                                                                                                                          (30.) José de Anchieta, Cartas, infomações e fragmentos historicos (Itatiaia/São Paulo: Edusp, 1988), 456–464. Francisco Pinto’s text is edited in Serafim Leite, Historia da Companhia de Jesus no Brasil, vol. 2 (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1938): 625–626.

                                                                                                                          (31.) Florestan Fernandes, A organização social dos Tupinamba (São Paulo: UnB, 1989 [1948]).

                                                                                                                          (32.) Gay, El Matrimonio de los Japoneses. The formula is used for the first time in a letter from a missionary Melchior Nunes Barreto writing from Cochin (Kochi) to the Superior General Borgia in 1568 and it is frequently reused. Documenta Indica, ed. Joseph Wicki, vol. 7 (Rome: MHSI, 1962), 474.

                                                                                                                          (35.) Anthony Pagden, The Fall of Natural Man. The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986 [1982]).

                                                                                                                          (36.) Léon Lopetegui, El Padre José de Acosta S.I. y las Missiones (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Instituto Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, 1942), 613–615.

                                                                                                                          (37.) On interior Indias see the chapter in this volume by Federico Palomo. Pagden, The Fall of Natural Man, 615–618. Acosta’s Indipeta is conserved in Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu, Hisp 110 ff 251–252v.

                                                                                                                          (38.) José de Acosta, De Procuranda Indorum Salute, introduction by Luciano Pereña (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1984).

                                                                                                                          (39.) José de Acosta, Historia natural y moral de las Indias, ed. Fermí́n del Pino-Dí́az (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 2008).

                                                                                                                          (40.) Alonso de Sandoval, Naturaleza, Policia sagrada i profana, Costumbres i Ritos, Disciplina i Catechismo evangelico de todos Etiopes (Sevilla: F. de Lira, 1627).

                                                                                                                          (41.) Berta Ares, “La cuestión del bautismo de los negros en el siglo XVII: la proyección de un debate americano,” (Fundación Buenas Letras, 2012), accessed July 17, 2018,

                                                                                                                          (42.) For Brazil for instance, see Charlotte de Castelnau L’Estoile, “De l’observation à la conversation: le savoir sur les Indiens du Brésil dans l’œuvre d’Yves d’Évreux,” in Missions d’évangélisation et Circulation des Savoirs XVIe–XVIIIe siècles, ed. Charlotte de Castelnau L’Estoile, Marie-Lucie Copete, Aliocha Maldavsky, and Ines G. Županov, Collection de la Casa de Velázquez, vol. 114 (Madrid: Casa de Velazquez, 2011), 269–294, and Cristina Pompa, Religião como tradução. Missionarios, Tupi e Tapuia no Brasil Colonial (São Paulo: Edusc, 2003).

                                                                                                                          (43.) Eduardo Neumann, Letras de Indios.Culura escrita, comunicação e memoria indígena nas reduções do Paraguay (São Bernardo do Campo: Nhanduti, 2015).

                                                                                                                          (44.) Wu, “ ‘The Observations We Made in the Indies and in China’: The Shaping of the Jesuits’ Knowledge of China by Other Parts of the Non-Western World.”

                                                                                                                          (45.) See for instance Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Le marbre et le myrte De l’inconstance de l’âme sauvage,” in Mémoires de la tradition, ed. A. Molinié and M. Becquelin A (Nanterre: Société d’Ethnologie, 1993), and Carlos Fausto, “Fragmentos de historia e cultura tupinamba, Da etnologia como instrumento critico de conhecimento etno-historico,” in Historia dos Indios no Brasil, ed. Manuela Carneiro da Cunha (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1992), 381–396. From Carlos Fausto also, “If God Were a Jaguar: Cannibalism and Christianity among the Guarani (16th–20th Centuries),” in Time and Memory in Indigenous Amazonia: Anthropological Perspectives, ed. Carlos Fausto and Michael J. Heckenberger (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007), 74–105.

                                                                                                                          (46.) See Ronnie Po-chia Hsia, A Jesuit in the Forbidden City; Matteo Ricci 1552–1610 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). Ines G. Županov, Disputed Mission: Jesuit Experiments and Brahmanical Knowledge in Seventeenth-Century India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999).

                                                                                                                          (47.) Hugues Didier, Fantômes d’Islam et de Chine, Le voyage de Bento de Góis s.j. (1603–1607) (Paris: Chandeigne, 2003).

                                                                                                                          (48.) Charlotte de Castelnau, “The Uses of Shamanism: Evangelizing Strategies and Missionary Models in Seventeenth-Century Brazil,” in Jesuits II; Cultures Sciences, and the Arts, ed. John W. O’Malley, Gauvin Alexander Bailey, Steven J. Harris, and T. Frank Kennedy (Toronto/Buffalo/London: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 616–637.

                                                                                                                          (49.) Jacques Revel, “Comparer les religions au début du xviiie siècle,” in Au miroir de l’anthropologie historique. Mélanges offerts à Nathan Wachtel, ed. Juan Carlos Garavaglia, Jacques Poloni-Simard, and Gilles Rivière (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes [coll. « Des Amériques »], 2013), 95–106.

                                                                                                                          (50.) Joseph-François Lafitau, Mœurs des Sauvages américains comparées aux mœurs des premiers temps (Paris: Saugrain et Hochereau, 1724).

                                                                                                                          (51.) W. Fenton and E. Moore, “Lafitau et la pensée ethnologique de son temps,” Études littéraires 10, no. 1–2 (1977): 19–47.

                                                                                                                          (52.) Michel de Certeau, “Histoire et anthropologie chez Lafitau” [1980], in Naissance de l’ethnologie? Anthropologie et missions en Amérique (xvie–xviiie siècles), ed. Claude Blanckaert (Paris: Cerf, 1985), 62–89, republished in Michel de Certeau, Le lieu de l’autre. Histoire religieuse et mystique (Paris: Le Seuil, 2005).

                                                                                                                          (54.) Catálogo de las lenguas de las naciones conocidas y enumeración, división y clases de estas según la diversidad de sus idiomas y dialectos, 6 vols. (Madrid: En la imprenta de la Administracion del Real Arbitrio de Beneficencia, 1800–1805).

                                                                                                                          (55.) Benoit de L’Estoile, “Rispettare il genio del propio popolo: i missionari e lo studio delle lingue africane del primo Novecento,” in Le Culture dei missionari, ed. Nicola Gasbarro (Roma: Bulzoni, 2009), 309–334.

                                                                                                                          (56.) On the Second Vatican Council see the chapter in this volume by Frédéric Gugelot.

                                                                                                                          (58.) Michel de Certeau, L’Invention du quotidien, 1: Arts de faire et 2: Habiter, cuisiner, éd. Luce Giard (Paris: Gallimard, 1990 [1st ed. 1980]).

                                                                                                                          (59.) On Vatican II see John W. O’Malley, What Happened at Vatican II (Brussels: Lessius, 2011) on the mission, from 370 onward.

                                                                                                                          (60.) Michel de Certeau, “La conversion du missionnaire,” Christus 10, no. 40 (1963): 514–533 and Michel de Certeau, “Situations culturelles, vocation spirituelle,” Christus 11, no. 43 (1964): 294–313.

                                                                                                                          (61.) Michel de Certeau, L’Étranger ou l’union dans la difference (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1969). New edition by Luce Giard appeared in 1991 and 2005 in Paris in the collection Points Seuil.

                                                                                                                          (62.) Charlotte de Castelnau L’Estoile, “La conversion du missionnaire ou le rire partagé,” in Michel de Certeau Le voyage de l’œuvre, ed. Luce Giard (Paris: Editions Facultés jésuites de Paris, 2017), 181–193.

                                                                                                                          (64.) Michel de Certeau, “Ethno-graphie. L’oralité, ou l’espace de l’autre: Léry,” in Ecriture de l’Histoire (Paris: Gallimard, 1975), 215–248.