Saturday, January 28, 2006

Missionary Positions



Googl-ing references from Buttimer’s book, I came upon this interesting article from the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Geography and the Church.” I have used the encyclopedia a few times because of the importance of Catholic politics to my dissertation. It seems to express a desire to prove the openness of the Church to modernity and its contribution to the progress of human knowledge.

This article struck me because it almost admits the connection between missionary activities, the production of knowledge, and imperialism. It argues that the clergy contributed significantly to the evolution of geography, both practice and knowledge. Moreover, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the imperialism of the 19th century, the vision of the world went hand in hand with the expansion of Christianity, outwardly and inwardly.
The motives that led to geographical progress at that time were greed and lust of conquest, as well as a far nobler motive than these -- the spread of Christianity. To this mission the most intelligent, the most upright, and the most persevering of all explorers devoted themselves. Consequently, it was they who achieved the greatest success in the field of discovery during the Middle Ages and far into later days, right up to the time when modern scientific research became its successor. The second purpose, geographical theory, commonly called universal geography, could only be profitably attempted after adequate progress had been made in the auxiliary sciences of astronomy, mathematics, and physics. But herein, too, medieval clerical scholars were the first to show their clearsightedness. For them there was no more attractive pursuit than to trace the vestiges of the Creator in all the marvellous harmony of the universe.

Click here to read more


World of Missionaries

As missionaries ventured out into the world, first to Northern Europe and the British Isles, then to Asia, they recorded observations in their travel diaries that would become a wellspring of geographic information about the frontiers of Christianity. They described political conditions, genres de vie, culture, etc/, of foreign lands more than give a sense of spatial distribution. However, they did establish the boundaries of ecclesiastical territories.
The subsequent centuries were spent in exploring the North. To this end a centre of operations was established which, for the purpose of the scientific discoverer could not have been more wisely selected in the conditions then prevalent. Then followed the foundation of monasteries in the British Isles which sent out in all directions their monks, well equipped with learning and well fitted to become the pioneers of culture. To these missionaries we owe the earliest geographical accounts of the northern countries and of the customs, religions, and languages of their inhabitants. They had to define the boundaries of the newly established dioceses of the Church. Their notes, therefore, contained the most valuable information, though the form was somewhat crude, and Ritter very justly traces the source and beginning of modern geography in these regions back to the "Acta Sanctorum".
Their diaries and reports introduced knowledge of the non-Christian world that, during the Middle Ages, enticed merchants to set up commercial operations. The wealth generated supported further geographical exploration by clergy. The article claims explorers to the mid-sixteenth century as primarily emissaries of the Church, recognizing their commercial and imperial ambitions as secondary, albeit still important. This Christian dimension of geographical curiosity was more important in Medieval Europe’s relationship with the Orient (especially China) than in later relationships with Africa and the Americas.

World of the Creator

Understanding the physical world was another area in which the Church contributed to geograpy. Theologians explored both physical world and the Biblical description thereof, testing the contradictions between the two but regarding both as works of the creator (after Augustine.) The orthodoxy of the Church by no means limited them. Most important contributions came from clergy as scholars, who posed questions about the nature of the universe and who preserved and rediscovered classical works and engaging Islamic scholarship; Albertus Magnus was particularly important.
Blessed Albertus Magnus (1193-1280), a master with whom in the universality of his knowledge only Alexander von Humboldt is comparable, opened up to his contemporaries the entire field of physiography, by means of his admirable exposition of Aristotle <01713a>, laid the foundations of climatology, botanical geography, and, in a certain sense, even of comparative geography. ... For all of these Albertus Magnus had opened the door to the rich treasure-house of Greek and Arabian learning. Still more far-reaching in their results were the labours of the scholars who applied themselves principally to mathematical geography.

World of Empire

The academic contributions continued after 1650, but they played a secondary role in the development of the discipline. Clergy, especially Jesuits, belonged to and supported scientific societies. However, their specific contributions become blurred and circumstantial–it’s not clear how they contributed beyond their involvement.
About the middle of the seventeenth century it was left almost exclusively for missionaries, going about their unselfish, silent, and consequently much under-estimated labours, to continue geographical research until, towards the end of the eighteenth century, great expeditions were sent out, supported by states and corporations and equipped with every possible scientific and technical aid and appliance. The missionaries achieved results from their work that entitle them to the credit of having been the pioneers of scientific geography and its strenuous co-operators. Bold expeditions exploring the interior of continents became more frequent.

Since the beginning of the nineteenth century the progress of geographical science, as was to be expected, is due chiefly to laymen, who, without religious aims, have continued the work on the foundations already provided.
The encyclopedia entry does much to establish the role of the Church in the evolution of geography, admits it contributed to capitalist and colonization, but then dissociates itself from the discipline at the point when it geography becomes a tool of imperialism: an apology for an unwitting collaboration with European states.

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home