Historiographical Essay On Prohibition

Sheila J. Rabin1
Last modified: February 2017

Introduction: The Jesuits in the Historiography of Early Modern Science

The Society of Jesus was first recognized as an order of the Catholic Church in 1540, three years before the publication of De revolutionibus by Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543). As they were a very well-educated group involved with many of the intellectual trends of their day, one would expect that the Jesuits would have also been involved with new trends in science of the day, and such an assumption is correct. However, it took a long time for the mainstream historiography of early modern science to begin to recognize the Jesuit contributions.

The period in the history of science that concentrates on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has traditionally been called “the Scientific Revolution.”2 This narrative, which held sway for about two hundred years, maintained that it began with the proposal of a heliocentric universe by Copernicus, concentrating on those developments in astronomy and physics that confirmed his hypothesis, and ended with Isaac Newton (1642–1727) and his associates. This was a story of great men of science who, rightly according to its adherents, rejected the Aristotelian physics and Ptolemaic astronomy that was impeding human understanding of the natural world. As Herbert Butterfield, whose Origins of Modern Science is one of the most popular, readable versions of this narrative, wrote, it “overturned the authority in science not only of the middle ages but of the ancient world – since it ended not only in the eclipse of scholastic philosophy but in the destruction of Aristotelian physics – it outshines everything since the rise of Christianity.”3 Individuals and institutions that were seen as impeding the progress of science, especially through their adherence to Aristotelian principles, were dismissed as villains in this story. The Catholic Church was a blatantly evil institution because it not only opposed Copernican astronomy but persecuted Galileo for promoting it. Though there were Protestants who criticized Copernicus, most notably Martin Luther,4 “in the long run it was Protestantism which for semi-technical reasons had an elasticity that enabled it to make alliance with the scientific and rationalist movements.”5 The Jesuits rejected the Copernican system and continued to foster Aristotelian philosophy; they stood by the Catholic Church in the Galileo affair; consequently, in this narrative, they were counted among the evil Catholics.

During the last several decades in particular, this narrative of revolution has been questioned.6 It had begun when historians of medieval science insisted that the term “medieval science” was no oxymoron and proved it was worthy of study: there were many important innovations in medieval science and technology and much continuity between the Middle Ages and later periods.7 As most of the intellectuals of the Middle Ages were Catholic clergy or educated by them, this also showed that the Catholic Church was not inherently against progress in science. On the other hand, scholars who focused on early modern science began to notice not just the continuities with medieval science but also the often vast differences between their subject and modern science.8 They have pointed out how the use of the terms “science” and “scientist” was anachronistic, for early modern scholars studied natural philosophy in the universities, and there was no professional class of scientists. In this period subjects that are anathema to today’s scientific community—magic, astrology, alchemy—were studied and accepted as valid scientific pursuits. They included other subjects, like cartography and chronology, in their study of nature. Historians have begun to realize that the focus on Aristotelian philosophy could still be useful, and contributions to the study of science, even in astronomy and physics, could be made without adopting Copernican astronomy. They have begun to understand that progress in unraveling the secrets of the natural world resulted not just from the work of a few giants but also from lesser individuals and from groups. And they have begun to notice that Catholic intellectuals and members of religious orders were importantly engaged in this study: “There was one order, however, that stands out from all others as the scientific order without rival in seventeenth-century Catholicism, and that of course is the Society of Jesus.”9

Science and Mathematics among the Jesuits in Europe

One of the first scholars to call attention to the Jesuit role in the advancement of early modern science was J.L. Heilbron who, writing about electricity, declared, “Knowledge about electricity was kept alive during the seventeenth century by Jesuit polymaths. They also enriched the subject with valuable observations.”10 Heilbron noted that mathematics was a major part of the Jesuit curriculum because it was necessary for the study of astronomy, geography, chronology, military technology, navigation, and surveying, subjects that were important for the sons of aristocrats they were educating who often sought a career in government or the military.11 The Jesuit educators had to be well-trained in these mathematical sciences, and in order to teach them well they had to practice them. Heilbron gives prominence to the Jesuits as both teachers and practitioners in the fields of astronomy and physics in his book, The Sun in the Church. The need to determine the date of the spring equinox to fix the date of Easter had always been a boon to mathematics and observational astronomy in the Middle Ages. The method that Heilbron studied consisted of a hole in the wall of various churches that allowed the sun to shine onto a meridian line on the floor of the church; observers marked the path the sun made. One of the leading observers was Giovanni Domenico Cassini (1625–1712), after whom NASA’s spacecraft mission to Saturn was named. Cassini was not a Jesuit, but he studied with them, and Heilbron made the case that he pursued his career in astronomy because of them.12 Cassini’s observations using such meridian lines led to the first empirical confirmation of Kepler’s astronomical discoveries, and two Jesuit associates, Giambattista Riccioli (1598–1671) and Francesco Maria Grimaldi (1618–1663), verified his observations.13 Another historian of science and mathematics questioned the contention that Aristotelian philosophy was necessarily an impediment to scientific progress. According to Peter Dear, work by Jesuit scholars on astronomy and optics helped foster the idea of experiment in the seventeenth in part because of their Aristotelian roots: “The Aristotelian model of a science adopted by the Jesuits took scientific knowledge to be fundamentally public: scientific demonstration invoked necessary connections between terms formulated in principles that commanded universal assent.”14 Dear studied the work of the Jesuit scholars Giuseppe Biancani (1566–1624) and Christoph Scheiner (1573–1650) and noted that they “employed techniques designed to incorporate recondite, constructed experiences into properly accredited knowledge about the natural world,”15 thereby turning experience into experiment. Both Heilbron and Dear show Jesuits working within a non-Copernican context in astronomy and an Aristotelian tradition in philosophy and yet participating in early modern advances in science in important ways.

Several books have presented an overview of Jesuits and science. Mordechai Feingold edited such a volume, and in his introduction he described the Jesuits as “savants” who “were quite open and adventurous in their discussions despite the suspicions that such exchanges, especially with ‘heretics’ could elicit.”16 He pointed out that Jesuit educators discussed much contemporary work that was at odds with their official position, such as Copernican astronomy, adding that “not a few Jesuits incorporated” the very controversial subject of atomism “into their lectures.”17 Feingold’s collection had essays on a wide-ranging number of topics: several on better known Jesuit scholars (Ugo Baldini on Christoph Clavius, Alfredo Dinis on Giambattista Riccioli, Paula Findlen on Athanasius Kircher); several on scientific controversies (Edward Grant on cosmology, William A. Wallace on Jesuits and Galileo, Roger Ariew on Jesuits and Descartes); one on patronage (Martha Baldwin on Jesuit book production); two on Jesuits in less-studied parts of Europe (Victor Navarro on Spain, G.H.W. Vanpaemel on the Low Countries). Agustín Udías wrote a survey of Jesuit contributions to science both before and after the suppression.18 His chapters on pre-suppression work start with the establishment of mathematics in the Jesuit curriculum and end with the open acceptance of the Copernican system in the middle of the eighteenth century with attention to both Jesuits in Europe and the wider world. While his overview of the science by modern Jesuits breaks more new ground,19 in his book he paid more attention to early Jesuit work with meteorology and seismology than has generally been the case, and this formed a bridge between pre-suppression and post-suppression Jesuit science. Udías’s description of Jesuit astronomy complements his earlier work detailing Jesuit observatories around the world,20 and both volumes attest to the breadth of the Jesuit involvement in science.

A number of scholars have concentrated on more limited geographical areas within Europe. Marcus Hellyer focused on the German territories, where, like Dear, he found that Jesuit natural philosophy was transformed “from a largely scholastic body of knowledge and discourse into an experimental, mathematized science.”21 One of his examples was the Jesuit Kaspar Schott (1608–66), who wrote about the air pump. The inventor of this instrument was Otto von Guericke (1602–86), who claimed that it could create a vacuum. But according to Aristotelian physics, a vacuum was impossible. Schott used the pump to experiment with atmospheric air and ignored the issue of the vacuum.22 This is another instance of Jesuits contributing to the advancement of science within their Aristotelian context. Bernard Barthet and Antonella Romano turned to the Jesuits in France. Barthet noted that French Jesuits often used the occult, particularly alchemy, magic, and Kabbalah, to help explain certain phenomena, such as magnetism, motion, matter, and optics, which they studied in France during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Of course, this was in the context of the early modern period when the scientific community considered such occult subjects as providing a valid explanation within science. For Barthet, the use of the occult had another advantage to French Jesuit priests because it gave their scientific pursuits a pastoral side, enabling them “to seek a pedagogy capable of making the human soul sensitive in order to place it on the path of harmony and, consequently, revelation.”23 Romano looked at Jesuit institutions of education and how they implemented the mathematics curriculum from the Collegio Romano in various localities in France.24 She included useful appendices about the Jesuits in France before the suppression, including lists of teachers of mathematics, their places of employment, and other biographical details.

Christoph Clavius

That Udías devoted a chapter of his book and Romano devoted two to Christoph Clavius  (1538–1612)25 attests to the fact that no understanding of early modern Jesuit science is possible without knowledge of his place in its history, for he was professor of mathematics at the Collegio Romano and laid its foundation. As James Lattis, whose intellectual biography of Clavius is still the standard, noted, he was “a venerable and authoritative educator, who taught and wrote among the Roman Jesuits for nearly half a century” and “an internationally known astronomer and mathematician whose textbooks became standard.”26 Clavius published numerous modern editions of Euclid’s Elements, but this was not the only reason why seventeenth-century Jesuits called him their modern Euclid: it was “also because of the tutelage they had received from his many other textbooks on geometry, arithmetic, and, in particular, astronomy.”27 Clavius wrote several editions of commentaries on the Sphere of Sacrobosco, an important textbook on astronomy from the thirteenth century. Clavius never wavered in his support of Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology; nevertheless, he did not ignore challenges that arose among sixteenth-century astronomers. Lattis looked at the different editions of commentaries on the Sphere and how Clavius handled such developments: he may have rejected the heliocentric universe in Copernicus’s On the Revolutions (1543), but adopted its superior means of describing the precession of the equinoxes; he contended with the findings of the great astronomical observer Tycho Brahe (1546–1601), including the sighting of the supernova of 1572, which suggested that Aristotelian belief in the incorruptibility of the heavens was wrong, and his describing the orbit of the comet of 1577 as both sublunar and supralunar, which suggested that Aristotle’s separation of those two spheres was also fallacious. Lattis presented Clavius as an up-to-date scholar who engaged with the most pressing cosmological issues of his day.28

The fact that Clavius rejected the heliocentric cosmos of Copernicus should not be considered a flaw. Very few astronomers, Protestant or Catholic, in the sixteenth century accepted it. The work of Copernicus was incompatible with accepted physics, and there was no observational data to confirm a heliocentric system. The presumed geocentricity of the Bible was only an added reason for considering the Ptolemaic system most probable. But Clavius’s openness to the new is attested by his adoption of Copernicus’s precession calculations for his most lasting contribution to astronomy—the reform of the calendar. Against those scholars, like Butterfield, who thought that Protestantism in the sixteenth century was more amenable to the new astronomy than Catholicism, it should be noted that the Gregorian calendar, which we still use, was not adopted in Protestant England because of religious reasons until the mid-eighteenth century, just about the same time that Jesuits began to teach Copernican astronomy as fact, not hypothesis.

In general, while scholars have acknowledged that Clavius played a defining role as the promoter of Jesuit science, the literature does not really reflect this. Lattis is the only scholar at this point to have devoted a monograph to him, and it concentrates on Clavius’s astronomical contributions; less attention is paid to his mathematics and little to his role as educator. Romano attended to both these, especially his teaching. Papers by Saverio Corradino, Eberhard Knobloch, Giulio A. Lucchetta, and Antonio C. Garibaldi from a 1993 Chieto conference on Clavius and his Jesuit associates looked more closely at his mathematics.29 Ugo Baldini’s chapter in the Feingold volume has appendices that list Clavius’s course materials, his students, and his writings.30 He also noted that more work needed to be done on Clavius’s Algebra and on unpublished material available to Clavius and his collaborators,31 but no one has as of yet followed up on these suggestions.

The Galileo Affair

In 1610, Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) published The Starry Messenger in which he presented his astronomical observations with the telescope and claimed that they reinforced Copernicanism. Clavius and his students soon afterwards looked through the telescope. Clavius was unmoved by what he saw, but there had already been hints of Copernican sympathies among some of his students. Then in 1616 came the Catholic Church’s first condemnation of Copernican cosmology; those Jesuit sympathizers abandoned their flirtation with heliocentrism, and Jesuit astronomers would not accept or teach the Copernican system as fact for more than a century.32 But this did not mean a return to Ptolemaic astronomy, not even as modified by Clavius. Galileo’s sightings of sunspots, the phases of Venus, the irregularity of the moon’s surface, and the moons of Jupiter were incompatible with Ptolemaic astronomy, but they could fit the cosmological system developed by Tycho Brahe, who also could not abandon the earth’s centrality. The Tychonic system had five planets revolving around the sun while the sun and the moon revolved around the earth, and it became the preferred cosmology of seventeenth-century Jesuits.

The traditional historiography alleged that the Galileo affair proved that the Catholic Church, and the Jesuits along with them, were anti-science, but the case was far more complex. William A. Wallace spent much of his career working on the Galileo affair, and several of his works show that “in his long career Galileo had contacts with a number of Jesuits; moreover, some of these contacts, particularly those before 1612, proved remarkably fruitful for the development of the ‘new sciences’ in which Galileo was interested. The connections that developed were intellectual, not personal, and their overall influence on Galileo’s science was positive, not negative.”33 Wallace discovered notes in Galileo’s handwriting that suggested that he learned from the Jesuits how to construct a scientific argument and that his debates with them forced him to organize his thoughts more effectively. On the other side, Galileo influenced Jesuit thinkers, such as Giuseppe Biancani (1566–1624), who, despite his arguments against heliocentrism, still embraced Galileo’s ideas about floating bodies in one of his treatises, though it was censored.34 Importantly, as Francesco Paolo de Ceglia pointed out, “what united the Jesuit mathematician and the ‘father of modern science’ was their confidence in a quantitative study of nature.”35 Biancani, like Clavius and other Jesuits, had contacts with the scientific society, the Accademia dei Lincei, of which Galileo and the Jesuit Johann Schreck (Terrentius, 1576–1630) were members.36

The first trial of Galileo in 1616, in which the Jesuit theologian Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621) played a major role, resulted in the condemnation of heliocentrism and proscribed Galileo from holding or supporting that doctrine. Then in 1633 a second trial, occasioned by the publication of Galileo’s Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632), forced him to abjure Copernican cosmology. The church may have erred in establishing geocentrism as doctrine and in pursuing Galileo, but here, too, recent historiography has shown that this was not a simple case of an evil, science-hating church persecuting an innocent man for simply pursuing truth.37

From the religious angle Pietro Redondi tried to turn the issue of the relationship between Galileo and the Jesuits away from Copernicanism when he suggested that Galileo really was guilty of heresy because he promoted atomism in his book The Assayer (1623) so that the lesser charge of his support of heliocentrism saved his life. The Assayer particularly attacked the Jesuit Orazio Grassi (1583–1654). Redondi attributed an anonymous document that accused Galileo of the atomist heresy to Grassi, whom Redondi accused of bearing a grudge against Galileo.38 However, Grassi did not write that document.39 While Redondi still represented the affair as a straight conflict between science and the Catholic Church, Rivka Feldhay chose to explore it as a conflict within the church, between Dominicans and Jesuits. The church condemned  the Copernican thesis in 1616 only insofar as it claimed to be a description of the true motions of the planets, but it allowed the thesis to be studied as a hypothesis. Feldhay noted that Jesuits took advantage of this to study Copernicus’s work, but the Dominicans still shunned it. Feldhay maintained that this difference in approach exposed the Jesuits to suspicions of heresy by the Dominicans.40 While Feldhay showed the flexibility of the Jesuit approach to science that often allowed them to immerse themselves in its study and encouraged their contributions, critics have pointed out that Feldhay assumed a monolithic Society of Jesus that did not exist.41 As Irving A. Kelter reminded us, Jesuit theologians and biblical exegetes in this period had no use for Copernican cosmology.42 Feingold, on the other hand, stressed the negative impact that Galileo personally had on Jesuit scientists: “It was Galileo’s deliberate disparagement of the entire professorate of the Roman College that incensed many Jesuits, and in all likelihood strengthened the resolve of conservative philosophers and theologians to oppose the forays of some of their confreres into the new science.”43

From a more purely scientific standpoint, Galileo did not succeed in proving the Copernican thesis. Galileo and Christoph Scheiner wrote a series of vitriolic letters on their observations and interpretations of sunspots.44 Galileo maintained that they reinforced his support of the Copernican thesis. Galileo abandoned his observations of sunspots in 1613, two years after he announced them, but Scheiner, who had also announced his observations that year, continued daily observations for seventeen years; his Rosa ursina sive Sol, the most detailed work about sunspots at the time, was written between 1627 and 1630. Scheiner explained the existence of sunspots within the Tychonic system, “a rational alternative, which could not be disproved for two centuries,” according to astronomers Oddbjørn Engvold and Jack Zirker.45 Christopher M. Graney studied the New Almagest by Riccioli and showed that as late as 1651, when that work was published, almost two decades after the Galileo trial, the Tychonic system made yet more sense than the Copernican system. Riccioli’s work gave arguments on both sides regarding both systems, and he resurrected and updated two arguments first enunciated by Tycho that supported his system over the Copernican: a ball dropped from a tower on a moving earth would not fall straight down and the difference in star size as the earth moved closer could not be observed; in 1651 the Copernicans still no answer to these charges.46

Athanasius Kircher

Athanasius Kircher (1602–80), like Clavius, occupied the chair of mathematics in the Collegio Romano. But unlike Clavius, Kircher was a very colorful figure, so much so that he was the subject of a recent popular biography.47 In addition, there were museum exhibitions in Rome and in Stanford devoted to Kircher48 and art books depicting the fine illustrations from his many works.49 Kircher was a prolific writer and wrote on numerous subjects of interest to his contemporaries, not just science and mathematics; he was the hub of a vast network of Jesuit correspondents and, consequently, a filter of information; his museum at the Collegio Romano had a huge collection of antiquities and curiosities, but it was also a laboratory for studying and experimenting with the natural world; and he contended with such scientific issues as magnetism, electricity, volcanoes, fossils, cosmology, and disease.

Paula Findlen was a pioneer in incorporating the study of museums within the framework of the history of science; Kircher was one of the heroes of her book, Possessing Nature.50 She later edited a volume about him, Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything, which treated many different aspects of this polymath: his biography; a sampling of his work (Egyptology, Kabbalah, chronology, cosmology, paleontology, magnetism); the dissemination of his work; relations beyond Europe; and the historical context in which he worked.51 It is a good introduction to Kircher. Another valuable introduction is provided by the posthumously published book by the well-known Kircher scholar John Edward Fletcher. It consists principally of an edited and updated version of the author’s 1966 master’s thesis, an early date for recognizing the value in Kircher’s multifaceted work. Some of the author’s views of Kircher would have been questioned by more recent historiography, but Fletcher appreciated Kircher’s “active inquiry” in science and his being a “mine of information” for contemporaries, but he maintained that Kircher included “golden ears of wheat among the chaff.”52

Several books have focused on single facets of Kircher’s work. Harald Siebert explored cosmological issues in Kircher’s Ecstatic Journey (1656) and suggested that this work should be considered an early work of science fiction comparable to Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (1634).53 Unlike Kepler’s work, however, which described the Copernican system as seen from the moon, Kircher presented space travel within the Tychonic system. His use of the Tychonic system allowed Kircher “to argue for the possibility of the physical phenomenon of magnetism of the Copernicans” while he denied “the argument for the motion of the earth.”54 In its time, Ecstatic Journey was a significant work in cosmology. Moving into the “softer” sciences, Daniel Stolzenberg examined Kircher’s Egyptian Oedipus (1655). This study purported to solve hieroglyphics; Kircher’s grasp of the subject was poor, but, according to Stolzenberg, such “textual criticism was relatively less important than the preliminary tasks of discovering and disseminating new materials.”55 Though wrong in his assumptions, Kircher fostered the discipline of archaeology through this work. Indeed, this was typical of the meaning of much of Kircher’s work for his contemporaries: they discussed whatever he wrote and they tried to duplicate his experiments. If he was wrong, as he often was, he helped others achieve the correct answers. As Findlen noted, “Scholars read and responded to his encyclopedias because they represented an intriguing stage in the evolution of many different scholarly disciplines, often all in the same thick volume.”56 Kircher may not have always been forward-looking from a modern perspective, but he influenced the work of those who were; thus, he was necessary to the advance of science.

Other Work on Jesuits in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Europe

Some works have appeared on other noted Jesuit scholars. Franz Daxecker wrote on a small volume on Christoph Scheiner that included details about his life, correspondence, and scientific contributions, particularly in optics.57 Michael John Gorman discussed the work in mathematics of Christoph Grienberger (1561–1636), Clavius’s successor in the Collegio Romano, and Grienberger’s involvement in the Galileo affair and included editions of documents the author attributed to Grienberger.58 Alfred Dinis showed that Giambattista Riccioli made significant contributions in arithmetic, geometry, optics, gnomonics, geography, and chronology, in addition to his work in astronomy.59 Domenico Bertoloni Meli discussed how Riccioli’s experiments with pendulums and falling bodies expanded our knowledge of mechanics.60 And papers from the 1998 conference in Rome celebrating the quadricentennial of Riccioli’s birth examined, among other issues, his contributions to astronomy and mechanics.61 J.L. Heilbron introduced the work by Niccolò Cabeo (1586–1650) on magnetism.62

Eighteenth-Century Jesuit Science

In the last decade of the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth century, the contributions of Jesuits toward the advancement of science slowed as Aristotelian natural philosophy proved an increasingly greater impediment to participation in the scientific community. Juan Casanovas and Agustín Udías suggested that the big change resulted with the general congregation of 1730, which supported the acquisition of natural knowledge gained from mathematical principles and experiment, made Jesuit education once again conducive to scientific study.63 Just a few years before Roger Boscovich (1711–1787) had come to study at the Collegio Romano, and he would prove to be both a great scientist and impetus for a revival of scientific study that Steven Harris claimed was the “richest and most productive era” in early modern Jesuit science, outdoing the seventeenth century.64 Boscovich’s contributions to science have had some recognition even in the modern scientific community; for example, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg expressed appreciation of his attempt to come up with a unified force theory.65 But recent literature on him is relatively scant. The most complete biography appeared in the publication of a conference proceedings occasioned by the two-hundredth anniversary of the appearance of his most important scientific work Theory of Natural Philosophy (1758).66 The tome edited by Piers Bursill-Hall, also a conference proceedings, concentrated on his scientific contributions and has chapters on his ideas and experiments on mechanics, optics, matter theory, mathematics, probability, and earth sciences. He criticized Newton’s idea of absolute time and space, though it was based on matter theory so that he was not a precursor to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.67 On the other hand, his experiments with light and his correct observation that the terrestrial aberration was caused by the effect of the motion of the light source and the observer followed by more than a century of reaction to and expansion on his ideas led more directly to Einsteinian relativity.68 His method for correcting discordant observations was utilized in the highly influential celestial mechanics of Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749–1827).69 Boscovich also may have persuaded Pope Benedict XIV to lift the prohibition against books that defended the motion of the earth.70 But what about the explosion in Jesuit science occasioned by Boscovich? The leader has received virtually all the attention, though Harris provided tantalizing statistics about the books and articles written and provided a list of Jesuit commentaries on Boscovich’s Theory of Natural Philosophy.71

Jesuit Missions in Asia and the Americas

Less than a decade after the establishment of the Society of Jesus in 1540, Jesuit missionaries were already traveling to Asia and the Americas.72 These missionaries brought with them their education, and they corresponded with their confrères in Europe. They also brought along scientific instruments, including telescopes, and among their activities as they traveled, they made new measurements of both the earth and the sky, adding important corrections to maps of both.


The influence of the Jesuit mission to China was so important for the development of Chinese mathematics and astronomy that Joseph Needham, in his groundbreaking work, Science and Civilization in China, devoted a section to seventeenth-century Jesuit contributions.73 Needham broke with the prevalent view at the time that advanced science was primarily a European phenomenon, but he maintained the Copernican bias regarding its development. As a result, while Needham acknowledged that the Jesuits brought to the Chinese Euclidean geometry, the use of geometry in charting the movements of celestial bodies and in surveying, superior methods of predicting eclipses, new methods of computing, and new scientific instruments, including the telescope, Needham blamed the Jesuits for effectively forcing Ptolemaic astronomy on the Chinese and retarding their acceptance of Copernican astronomy.74 Needham apparently did not realize that in the seventeenth century, Jesuits taught Tychonic, not Ptolemaic, astronomy, and as the Jesuits began to accept and teach heliocentric astronomy in the eighteenth century, “Chinese literati thought the presentations [by Jesuit Michel Benoit (1715–74)] too incoherent to take seriously.”75 Early modern Chinese scholars could reject heliocentrism without the Jesuits compelling them.

Mathematics was central to the success of the Jesuit mission in China. As Florence Hsia cleverly put it, “had Chinese auditors been more interested in the niceties of French or Italian cuisine than in Aristotelian cosmology or Tychonic instrumentation, the present book might well be a history of Jesuit chefs in the Celestial Empire.”76 Hsia told the story of the early Jesuit mission to China and its success in not only establishing their presence and acceptance there but also in presenting their story to Europeans. Her parameters were two books about that mission, De christiana expeditione apud Sinas suscepta ab Societate Jesu (1615) by Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) and Voyage de Siam des pères jésuites (1688) by Guy Tachard (1651–1712). Hsia showed how the Jesuits used mathematics to make inroads into scholarly Chinese society; they presented their way as “a model for imitation”77 for other missionaries.

Qiong Zhang left the mathematics of the sky for the mathematics of the earth as she narrated the story of the effect of Western cartography introduced by the Jesuits on Chinese mapmaking. She described how Ricci introduced a more accurate, European map to replace the late Ming map that had China in the center of a square earth surrounded by four seas. It took the Chinese much longer to accept Ricci’s map than it took to accept his astronomy and mathematics, but its eventual adoption allowed China to participate more fully in early modern trade and geopolitics: “[T]he Chinese vision of the physical dimension of the world was much enlarged as a result of intellectual exchange with the Jesuits and the Chinese engagement with the larger early modern world, especially with the maritime Europeans.”78

Matteo Ricci

As can be gathered from both Hsia’s and Zhang’s books, Matteo Ricci was crucial to the success of the China mission. He had studied mathematics and astronomy with Clavius at the Collegio Romano and was himself a gifted mathematician. He was not the first Jesuit in China when he arrived in 1582, but he realized that success depended on acceptance of the Jesuits by the ruling class. To achieve that acceptance he mastered Chinese and Confucian writings; he dressed and behaved like a Mandarin; he used mathematics and science to interest the Chinese. He introduced them to European instruments such as a chiming clock, which enchanted them. The Chinese imperial calendar depended on the prediction of eclipses, and Ricci showed them that European astronomy was better for that goal. He also taught Euclidean geometry to the Chinese elite and translated Euclid’s Elements into Chinese.

Ricci was another colorful figure, and, like Kircher, he attracted a non-scholar to write a popular biography.79 More important is the biography by Ronnie Po-chia Hsia, which went into depth regarding all aspects of Ricci’s career in China: teacher, author, translator, scholar, diplomat, priest, and missionary. But Ricci’s success depended most on his abilities in science and mathematics: “With his expertise in mathematics and astronomy, his library of western books and western scientific instruments, Ricci, the Master of the Way, was worthy of the attention of Confucian literati.”80

Ricci’s Successors

The continuing success of the mission was ensured by the Jesuit astronomers and mathematicians who followed Ricci and became directors of the Beijing Imperial Observatory from 1644 to 1773. Agustín Udías provided general overviews of their contributions.81 There are monographs on the first two directors, Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1592–1666) and Ferdinand Verbiest (1623–1688).82 Schall and Verbiest also carried out the reform of the Chinese calendar.

The Americas

In studies of Jesuit contributions in the New World cartography and natural history have attracted the most attention. As noted with China, mapmaking was very important in the age of discovery, and Jesuit missionaries to the Americas were involved here as well. David Buisseret gave an overview of Jesuit involvement in cartography in Central and South America, including reproductions of thirty Jesuit maps.83 Ernest Burrus focused on cartography in Mexico and on the work of the Jesuit Eusebio Francisco Kino (1645–1711), in particular.84

What is historiography?

In a nutshell, historiography is the history of history. Rather than subjecting actual events - say, the Rape of Nanking - to historical analysis, the subject of historiography is the history of the history of the event: the way it has been written, the sometimes conflicting objectives pursued by those writing on it over time, and the way in which such factors shape our understanding of the actual event at stake, and of the nature of history itself.

A historiographic essay thus asks you to explore several sometimes contradictory sources on one event. An annotated bibliography might come in handy as you attempt to locate such sources; you should also consult the footnotes and bibliographies of any text you read on a certain event, as they will lead you to other texts on the same event; if your research is web-based, follow links - always bearing in mind the pitfalls of the Internet - and if you are researching in the library, check out the books on nearby shelves: you'll be surprised by how often this yields sources you may otherwise never have found.

For an example of an essay on multiple perspectives on the same event (for our purposes, the Rape of Nanking, an event also examined in the context of Book Reviews), click here.

The purpose of an historiographic essay is threefold: 1.) to allow you to view an historical event or issue from multiple perspectives by engaging multiple sources; 2.) to display your mastery over those sources and over the event or issue itself; and 3.) to develop your critical reading skills as you seek to answer why your sources disagree, and what their disagreement tells you about the event or issue and the very nature of history itself.

Specific skills honed by such an exercise include your ability to discern bias or prejudice and to evaluate contradictory data and claims. As you will have to quote from your sources in order to make your point, you will also have to display basic quoting skills. The very nature of an essay on multiple sources also requires a Works Cited page, of course, on which, see Bibliography.

Parts of a historiographic essay

You will begin a historiographic essay with a thesis that presents the issue or event at stake, then introduces your sources and articulates, in brief, their authors' perspectives and their main points of (dis)agreement. In the main body of your paper you will elaborate upon and develop this latter point, pulling out specific points of (dis)agreement, juxtaposing quotes (and/or paraphrasing arguments) and subjecting them to analysis as you go along. As you do so, ask (and answer) why you think the authors of your various sources disagree. Is their disagreement a product of personal or professional rivalry, ideological incompatibility, national affiliation? These questions go to the heart of historiography. In your conclusion, finally, you will briefly summarize your findings and, more importantly, assess the credibility of your various sources, and specify which one(s) you find to be most compelling, and why. In final conclusion you might articulate in brief the insights you have gained into the event or issue at stake, the sources you have used, and the nature of history itself.

A sample historiographic essay

Let us assume that the subject of your historiographic essay is the Rape of Nanking, an event discussed in some detail in the Book Reviews section. There, we examine the event as it is described and analyzed by Iris Chang in her bestselling book The Rape of Nanking. To this we now add several other sources, all of which are listed in the Works Cited section at the end of this page, and cited in the text immediately following, which exemplifies, in brief, some of the basic strategies of a historiographic essay.

  • THESIS: The so-called Rape of Nanking of 1937, a six-week massacre of Chinese civilians in the city of Nanking perpetrated by the invading Japanese army, was presented to a largely uninitiated American mass audience by Iris Chang in her best-selling book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (1997). Chang's vivid book spawned international interest and a number of responses from fellow historians worldwide. Western historians generally agreed with Chang's insistence that the event - long a mere footnote in the popular historiography of World War II - deserved larger notice, but some criticized her for displaying personal bias as well as historical inaccuracies and methodological weaknesses of various sorts. The response from a number of Japanese scholars was overwhelmingly negative. They denied her account of a post-war Japanese "cover up," yet at the same time also, to varying degrees, denied that the event had even occurred.
  • EXAMPLE (1): Tanaka Masaaki, for example, author of the website "What Really Happened at Nanking: The Refutation of a Common Myth," refers to Chang's work as one of "lies, hyperbole, propaganda." Chang's "mountains of dead bodies," according to Matsaaki, were mountains "that no one saw." Her "Reports of mass murders of prisoners of War [were] fabricated," he claims, offering as evidence that there was "no mention of the 'Nanking Massacre'" - a term he pointedly places in quotation marks - "in Chinese Communist Party Records"; and that "No protests against the 'Nanking Massacre' [was] submitted to the League of Nations [or] ... by the United States, Great Britian, or France." The event, he concludes - if there even was one - was "a massacre with no witnesses" (Masaaki).
  • ANALYSIS: Much of Masaaki's criticism smacks of precisely the kind of revisionism Chang critiques in her book, and is easily exposed as such. The fact that Chinese communist party records make no mention of the event, for example, is hardly surprising, as the Chinese communists were at this time in disarray, operating largely underground in the Nanking area. Not until 1949 did the communists begin their rule over China and begin keeping official records: why then should we expect there to exist records dating back to 1937? Nor should the silence of the League of Nations, the United States, Great Britain and France come as any surprise. In the same year that France and Britain stood by as Nazi Germany re-militarized the Rhineland in violation of the Treaty of Versailles; and that the United States and the League of Nation stood by as Franco and Mussolini continued in their campaigns against the rightful governments of Spain and Ethiopia, why would we expect the United States or the League of Nations to have registered any protest over events halfway around the world?
  • EXAMPLE (2): Other arguments by Masaaki are more compelling. For example, he notes of one of the many disturbing photographs in Chang's book - a famous one, apparently showing a Chinese prisoner of war about to be beheaded by a Japanese officer brandishing a sword - that its "fakery is easy to detect if you look at the shadow cast by the man at the center [the officer] and that cast by [a lower-ranking] soldier to his right. [The shadows] are facing in different directions" (Masaaki). The photograph does indeed seem to be a composite, and while stopping short of supporting Masaaki's claim that "not a single one of [Chang's photographs] bears witness to a 'Nanking Massacre'," even American historian Robert Entenmann concedes that several of the photos in Chang's book are indeed "fakes, forgeries and composites," including one (also singled out by Masaaki) "of a row of severed heads," which, according to Entenmann, in fact depicts "bandits executed by Chinese police in 1930 rather than victims of the Nanking Massacre" (Masaaki, Entenmann).
  • COUNTER-ARGUMENT: Faked though some of Chang's twelve pages of photos might be - perhaps even all of them, as Masaaki suggests - the fact that there exist literally hundreds of photographs of the Nanking Massacre, many of them "souvenir photos" taken by Japanese soldiers themselves, strains the credibility of his larger point and even more so the point made by his stridently anti-Chang colleagues Takemoto Tadao and Ohara Yasuo. In their The Alleged 'Nanking Massacre': Japan's Rebuttal to China's Forged Claims, these writers state that "none of these photos are dated, and the names of places and photographers are not stated. In other words, there exist [no] photos that are rigidly authentic, and definitely, these photos can not be used as evidence of [the] 'Nanking Massacre'" (Tadao and Yasuo 101). In fact, several hundred photographs have been published in one volume - The Rape of Nanking: An Undeniable History in Photographs, by Shi Young and James Yin, many of them showing female rape victims with legs spread and genitalia exposed - graphic photographs it is hard to conceive of as staged. Such pictures, while not settling the matter beyond dispute, offer powerful testimony that speaks for itself.
  • EXAMPLE (3): Notwithstanding the many graphic photographs that exist, it is precisely the accusation of widespread rape - most likely because of its abhorrent nature - that Chang's Japanese critics wish to deny. "The number of 'cases of rape' [the Chinese] claim is from 20,000 to 80,000 cases," Tadao and Yasuo note. "Suppose we took this number, there should have been from 500 to 2,000 cases of rapes...daily [during the six week period of the Massacre]. This number is absolutely not trustworthy," they conclude, citing instead the number of only 361 official complaints of rape actually registered during this period (130). Of course, they are parsing numbers here. The fact is, whether there were three hundred rapes, thirty thousand, more, or less, rape perpetrated by an occupying force against a civilian population (and that such was the case is amply documented in Chang and virtually all extant sources on Nanking, including the Japanese sources, although they, of course, acknowledge only 361) is a crime of war. But that it is an individual crime of war, rather than a collective, government-sponsored crime against humanity (such as the Holocaust) is precisely the point for the Japanese historians: "[Holocaust] killings were indeed ... 'crimes against humanity', [but] those crimes are fundamentally different from the 'war crimes' which the Japanese troops are said to have committed. ... Those acts of crimes [were] the responsibility of each individual soldier" (136, 130). Following this line of reasoning, the Japanese government is absolved of any blame for the rapes that did occur in Nanking, the exact number of which remains unknown. (On this issue, see Evaluating Contradictory Data and Claims).
  • EXAMPLE (4): More trenchant criticism of Chang than that offered by Japanese historians comes from the American academy. Robert Entenmann, for example, a China expert and senior faculty member in the History department at St. Olaf College, faults Chang on the very premise of her book. He denies that there is a conspiracy of silence surrounding Nanking in Japan; maintains (in contradiction to Chang's claims) that Japanese textbooks do address the event (it is rather quaintly referred to as an "incident" in Japanese historiography, if at all, rather than a massacre, far less a rape); states that those textbooks that do mention it offer fatality rates listed between 150,000 to 300,000 (the Western consensus is around 250,000; Chang claims 300,000); and that 80% of respondents to a 1994 opinion poll in Japan found "that their government had not adequately compensated victimized peoples in countries Japan had colonized or invaded" (Entenmann). On this last count, it is worth noting that the specific wording of the question does not appear to address Nanking explicitly, and that the opinion poll's finding thus bears little relevance to the question at hand. We might also be skeptical of Entenmann's generous appraisal of Japanese textbooks: on its role in World War II, Japan's high school textbooks in particular are subject to constant revision, much of it aimed at mitigating the government's role in wartime atrocities, as a 2007 New York Times article reminds us (Onishi 12).
  • EXAMPLE (5): Entenmann's more fundamental criticism of Chang's work and perspective, however, goes deeper. As the granddaughter of former Nanking residents who barely escaped the city, she is guilty, he writes, of having fallen victim to "her own ethnic prejudice. ... Her explanations are, to a large extent, based on unexamined [anti-Japanese] ethnic stereotypes." Furthermore, she engages in "implausible speculations," according to Entenmann, for example, her claim that Emperor Hirohito himself exulted in the news of the Rape of Nanking (see Chang 179). In fact, Entenmann points out, Hirohito's response is unknown, and Chang may be guilty here of "confus[ing] Japanese leaders' delight in the fall of the Chinese capital with exulting in the massacre that occurred afterward" (Entenmann).
  • ANALYSIS: Such sleights of hand (which Entenmann himself indulges in, as his opinion poll example above shows) are perhaps conscious on Chang's part, or perhaps a function of her not being a professional historian and therefore applying a less-than-rigorous methodology in her efforts to tell a good story. She is after all, a popular (rather than an academic) historian, whom another bestselling historian, Stephen Ambrose, whose scholarship has also been faulted on several counts, once called "the best young historian we've got because she understands that to communicate history, you've got to tell the story in an interesting way" (Ambrose qtd. in Sullivan B6).
  • CONCLUSION: It is this zeal to tell a good story and back it up with sensational evidence (even if - like some of her photographs - it is faked), as well as her occasionally emotional prose, sometimes bordering on hyperbole, that remains Chang's greatest liability. In an effort to place the Rape of Nanking into historical context, for example, she states that "[u]sing numbers killed alone" it "surpasses much of the worst barbarism of the ages." Its casualties exceeded those of the Carthaginians at the hands of the Romans, the victims of the Spanish Inquisition, and those of the Mongolian leader Timur Lenk, she writes in a series of specious comparisons that culminate with the observation that "the deaths at Nanking far exceeded the deaths from the American raids on Tokyo ... and even the combined death toll of the two atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki" (Chang 6). In The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography, an anthology generally sympathetic to Chang's project (if not to her methodology), George Washington University history and international affairs professor Daqing Yang, himself a native of Nanking, notes that "such a comparison [as Chang's] is methodologically sterile" and "morally misguided" (Yang 161). Indeed, it is precisely the sort of parsing of numbers for which Chang herself would most likely challenge the above-mentioned Japanese historians in their effort to deny the extent to which rape occurred at Nanking.
    Despite these failings, Chang's book ultimately emerges as a more persuasive argument of what did in fact happen at Nanking than those offered by her Japanese detractors. The enduring controversy surrounding the event, however, and the specific criticism against Chang from even those who support her premise, point both to the endlessly debatable nature of history, and to the need for a more rigorous, analytical approach in its telling. As Joshua Fogel notes in his introduction to The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography, "The Massacre and related events must be lifted beyond the popular level ... to be studied with greater nuance and with a wider range of sources" (Fogel 1). In such a project, the contradictory data and claims of Chang and her critics need not necessarily be mutually exclusive but, instead, might help establish a broader context within which the event can be understood more fully, from all sides.

Works cited

  • Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (New York: BasicBooks, 1997).
  • Entenmann, Robert. "Review of Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II." October 29, 1998. H-Net List for Asian History and Culture, 1998. Accessed July 1, 2007. http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/55/481.html.
  • Yang, Daqin. "The Challenges of the Nanjing Massacre: Refections on Historical Inquiry." The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography. Ed. Joshua Fogel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000, 133 - 180.
  • Masaaki, Tanaka. "What Really Happened in Nanking: The Refutation of a Common Myth." N.d. Accessed July 1, 2007. http://www.ne.jp/asahi/unko/tamezou/nankin/whatreally/index.html.
  • Onishi, Norimitsu. "Japan's Textbooks Reflect Revised History." The New York Times, April 1, 2007, A12.
  • Sullivan, Patricia. "'Rape of Nanking' Author Irish Chang Dies." November 12, 2004, B6. Washington Post, November 12, 2004, B6. Accessed July 1, 2007. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A44139-2004Nov11.html.
  • Takemoto, Tadao and Ohara Yasuo. The Alleged 'Nanking Massacre': Japan's Rebuttal to China's Forged Claims. Tokyo: Meisei-sha, Inc., 2000.
  • Young, Shi and James Ying. The Rape of Nanking: An Undeniable History in Photographs, expanded 2nd edition. Chicago, Innovative Publishing Group, Inc., 1997.

The interested reader will find another brief exercise in historiographical inquiry - this one on the disputed relationship between the Catholic Church and fascism during the 1930s - in the Research Paper section of this site, under "Conducting Research for 'The Austrian Catholic Church and the Anschluss': Catholicism and fascism."


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