We are unable to display your institutional affiliation without JavaScript turned on.
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Find using OpenURL

Rent from DeepDyve Rent from DeepDyve

History of Religion Becomes Ethnology: Some Evidence from Peiresc's Africa

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 67, Number 4, October 2006
pp. 675-696 | 10.1353/jhi.2006.0035

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:


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." The reading notes 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."

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 Basilidian gnostics, as recorded in Epiphanius, represented the god of heaven with the seven Greek vowels AEHIOUY. He went on to observe that this "religion or sect" spread widely in the eastern lands (probably meaning the eastern Mediterranean and Levant) and "embraced a large part of the Egyptian mysteries and superstitions." Through this religion, Peiresc wrote in the draft version of the essay, many Egyptian customs could have passed to the Far East.

In the finished version, Peiresc added one crucial element to an Egypto-genetic argument otherwise like that of Pignoria, who made it as early as 1615 in his additions to Cartari's Imagini degli dei de gli antichi. Peiresc wrote that the Basilidians embraced many Egyptian superstitions "which easily could have been introduced and insinuated, over time, with some patina of Christianity, even to China, Japan, and Mexico, many centuries after the dissipation of this most ancient and grand Egyptian Empire." It would not be until Athanasius Kircher's Prodromus Coptus of 1636 that anyone would suggest that the presence of anything Egyptian in China could be a function of Christianity, rather than some pre-historic cultural encounter.


You must be logged in through an institution that subscribes to this journal or book to access the full text.


Shibboleth authentication is only available to registered institutions.

Project MUSE

For subscribing associations only.