Going Native or Remaining Foreign? Catholic Missionaries as Local Agents in Asia (17th to 18th Centuries)

30.05.-01.06.2017, Workshop, DHI Rom

Venue: DHI Rom

Catholic missionaries who worked in Asia during the 17th and 18th centuries defy our understanding of agents of the Roman Church in important ways. Rather than being uncompromising promoters of post-Tridentine doctrine and devotion, they often showed a striking openness to local ways of life. Many of them forged lasting bonds of friendship with non-Catholics even if there was little hope for the latter's conversion. As a consequence, although those who actually did go native by even forsaking their missionary vocation were few, missionaries' integration into social, political, economic, and scientific networks usually made them highly localized protagonists.

This conference attempts to compare missionaries' roles as local agents in different social environments across the Asian continent. We aim at testing the hypothesis that, no matter whether in the Middle East or South Asia, missionaries' options for action in localities under non-Christian authorities were strongly defined by the respective communicative setting: The local alliances forged by missionaries living in bustling urban hubs differed from those created by missionaries placed in less densely populated rural areas; missionaries living in a court setting in close proximity to a non-Christian prince often assumed different roles than their confreres staying in non-governing cities or in a rural setting. Also, the (non-princely) household formed a distinct arena of missionary activities which can be examined as a communicative setting on its own. We contend that, while communicative settings could greatly vary even within comparably small geographical distances, similarities between household, rural, urban, and court settings might be found across the Asian continent so that missionaries found structurally similar situations in as different parts of the world as Safavid Persia and Qing China.

The panels of the conference will be organized according to different communicative settings—household, rural, urban, court—rather than geographical regions. They will explore the distinctive options for action these settings provided to the missionaries. Furthermore, they aim at clarifying whether structurally similar settings in different regions of the Asian continent prompted missionaries to assume similar social roles.