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History of Religion Becomes Ethnology: Some Evidence from Peiresc's Africa
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Journal of the History of Ideas 67.4 (2006) 675-696


History of Religion Becomes Ethnology:
Some Evidence from Peiresc's Africa
Peter N. Miller
Bard Graduate Center
Abstract

The relationship between history of religion and ethnology on the one hand, and antiquarianism and them both, on the other, lie at the core of this essay. These lines of inquiry come together in the work of Nicolas Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637), the intellectually adventurous Provençal late humanist. Peiresc's correspondence with a renegade in Tunis, an adventurer in Ethiopia, and a missionary once based in Guinea provided him with remarkably direct information about the customs and practices—the moeurs—of contemporary sub-Saharan Africans. The content of these letters has not found its place in histories of anthropology or histories of antiquarianism.

I.

Bound up amidst Peiresc's copies of his letters to the Paduan antiquary Lorenzo Pignoria from the winter of 1615–16 is a text of four sides entitled, in large letters, "Delli Popoli della China" and continuing, in smaller ones, "written by P. Ioannes Pietro Maffei History of the Indies, Fr. Antonio di Saint Roman, in the History of the East Indies, Fr. Juan Gonzalez de Mendoza Augustino, in the books on China, and others." 1 The reading notes [End Page 675] that follow are interesting for one reason: though labelled "Delli Popoli della China" they are almost entirely about religion in China. At this stage of Peiresc's thinking at least, history of religion seems interchangeable with ethnography.

In his letter to Pignoria of 4 January 1616, Peiresc acknowledges having time to page through ("di transcorrere un poco") Maffei, Gonzales, and Saint Roman where he found some information about figures they had discussed, and also about artificial grottoes used for domestic refrigeration, "which I did not note when I read it the first time." He asked if Pignoria wouldn't mind inquiring as to whether there was a more precise impression of a particular Chinese plaque or medallion—Pignoria had sent him one but Peiresc pronounced it "not as exact as I would like." 2

Peiresc begins with the gods that were worshipped (these included deceased parents and friends, as well as the occasional living person) and auguries. This then leads to mention of the clothing and hair styles of those priests making offerings to the gods. Some of this information was derived from that octagonal medallion. Peiresc also noted down the presence of a vase, as if for libation, and other instruments for offerings.

These authors, he continued, observed that the Chinese revered the God of Heaven above all the others. Peiresc recorded that Gonzalez mentioned that he was indicated by use of the first letter of the alphabet, that this character looked a bit like "AF," that it was called "Guant," that he was honored with a solemn festival every near year, at the new moon in March, with vocal and instrumental music during which his priests applied themselves for an entire day to a board groaning with meat, poultry, fish, and fruits (no wonder the earlier reference to the gluttony of the priests). For the greater veneration of the King he was called the "Son of Heaven."

Mention of the King led to discussion of the monthly festivals in the provinces when priests bore a portrait of the King, on gold, through the streets with great reverence. But then, citing from Maffei, Peiresc proceeded to jot down observations made about Chinese seaside towns and the domestic interior. This, in turn, led to some observations about dining—and, therefore, feasting—practices.

Finally, Peiresc returned to the aforementioned medallion, whose details now seemed to him to represent just such an honorific feast. But he was especially interested in the practice of indicating the name of God with a single Chinese character, or cipher. This reminded him, he wrote, that the [End Page 676] Basilidian gnostics, as recorded in Epiphanius, represented the god of heaven with the seven Greek vowels AEHIOUY. He...