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Books on Asia as Sources for Jesuit Missionary Vocation: GUEST POST by Elisa Frei

My name is Elisa Frei, and I am an Italian philologist and a cultural historian (https://bc.academia.edu/ElisaFrei). I work as a research fellow at the University of Macerata (https://www.unimc.it/) and as a project assistant for the Digital Indipetae Database at Boston College (https://indipetae.bc.edu).

I became involved with the European Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project thanks to a ReIReS Scholarship for Transnational Access (https://reires.eu). My project’s title was “The Literary Sources of the Jesuit Vocation for the East Asian Missions,” and I had the help in situ of Alexandra Nusser, whom I wish to heartily thank. She was the local host in Mainz and coordinator of this project, funded by the European Union, which assists scholars with scientific, financial and practical support for their research in multiple libraries and archives in Europe.

I was in Mainz twice, for three weeks in March 2020 and two weeks in June 2021. I had the chance to look for Jesuit books currently preserved in the libraries of this beautiful German city. Before starting, I contacted Prof. Comerford and proposed to share the coming results with her database. My main aim while in Mainz was to identify which books regarding the East Indies were available to the young Jesuits living in the local novitiate during the early modern period. These books are now mainly in the Martinus-Bibliothek (https://bistummainz.de/bildung/martinus-bibliothek/index.html) and the Wissenschaftliche Stadtbibliothek (https://www.mainz.de/microsite/bibliotheken/wissenschaftliche-stadtbibliothek.php), and date from the 16th to the 18th century.

Through the analysis of this material, my project shed some light on a historiographical question with global significance: which were the literary sources of the missionary vocation of so many Jesuits, who expressed it by sending thousands of Litterae Indipetae from all over Europe to Rome? I also focused on books describing martyrdom and sacrifices in Asia, which is the topic of my current project at the University of Macerata.

After talking with Prof. Comerford, I decided to actively participate in her database and took pictures of every book I found of interest for my research. All of these books were, sooner or later, in Jesuit hands: some of them seem avidly read, while others look completely new. All of them had ex libris, stamps or writings mentioning their provenance and history – which sometimes was long and tortuous. You can appreciate this from the frontispiece of the first book below: where the owners changed from a “M. Montfort” (donor of the book) to the “House of Probation of the Society of Jesus of the Upper Rhenisch Province” to…? It is impossible to read everything that has been erased on this page.

What I liked most were the censors drawn by chaste readers, who used to put pants on depictions of naked angels or – to them, even worse – women. You see above the frontispiece of one of the many atlases by Gerhard Mercator (Atlas sive Cosmographicae Meditationes de Fabrica Mundi et Fabricati Figura, Amsterdam 1613). All the continents are represented by naked women, but only the last one was covered, maybe by the same hand who specified its provenance: “Collegii Societatis Iesu Moguntiae” (Mainz).

I also enjoyed seeing that erudite readers had corrected Latin sentences, underlining them and then overwriting the right case or word in a sentence. You can see a biography of Francis Xavier, the first Jesuit missionary in Asia, written by Orazio Torsellino (De Vita Francisci Xaverii, qui Primus e Societate Iesu in Indiam & Iaponiam Evangelium Invexit, Rome 1596). The provenance is always the same (the college of the Society of Jesus in Mainz), and it probably was a meticulous student who corrected an “observetur” into an “observaretur.”

I feel lucky for the time I was able to spend in the libraries of Mainz, especially because of all the CoVid-related difficulties. I particularly appreciated the fact that the data I am collecting are useful not only for the article I plan to write on Jesuit libraries and books inspiring missionary zeal, but also for all the databases I work on, included the EJLPP. In a few weeks I collected many data points and took hundreds of pictures, and the scholarly community will benefit from this experience.


Here are the photos.