C. Windler: Missionare in Persien

Missionare in Persien. Kulturelle Diversität und Normenkonkurrenz im globalen Katholizismus (17.–18. Jahrhundert)

Windler, Christian
Externa 12
Köln 2018: Böhlau Verlag
Anzahl Seiten
764 S.
€ 95,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Ali B. Langroudi, Institute of Iranian Studies, University of Göttingen

For a variety of reasons, it is not surprising to come across topics of the history of Iran (or Persia in a broader sense) that have never been sufficiently explored. The situation is different in those fields of Persian history where an abundance of sources is available, especially if the sources are written in European languages. The existence of several valuable historiographical works on Safavid Iran (1501–1736) bears witness to this. The thriving economic and political relationships between the Safavid kings and European sovereigns motivated many European diplomats, travellers, and missionaries to visit Iran. They recorded their observations and assessments in voluminous notebooks. Thanks to their efforts, our knowledge on Safavid Iran is significantly advanced. For the first time, the European sources show such richness on the history of Islamic Iran.

Remarkably, and despite the plethora of sources – many of them being composed by missionaries –, there has been no comprehensive investigation of the missionary activities in Safavid Iran. This lack becomes even more striking when it is seen in the context of missiological studies: a relatively active field, in which not only historians but also theologians are interested. The field is so dynamic that some academic institutions wisely dedicated separated departments to missiology.

Considering the above-mentioned points, it is welcome that finally someone has interrupted the continuous negligence of the topic. Christian Windler, professor of Early Modern History at the University of Bern, has published a voluminous work on missionaries in Persia during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The scholarly value of the work is obvious. Missionare in Persien delivers a detailed and careful study of the activities and experiences of European missionaries. Apart from its uniqueness in the field, the book is also enriched with numerous primary sources and secondary literature in a wide variety of languages. The author, having consulted several archives, succeeds in shedding light on never read pages that carry the history of this mission. Doing so, the book provides not only new information for its readers but also new materials for future research.

Windler’s main question is: How did missionaries steer their way in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Persia? The author begins with a couple of sub-questions regarding the structure of both sides of the play, the Catholic Church and the Safavid court. He also addresses some other issues of this encounter, for example the role of religious leaders, the presence of Armenian Christians, and the function of certain lay individuals. The methodology is simple but effective: After explaining from where the missionaries hailed and with which situation they were confronted in Persia, Windler examines the key aspects of two centuries of missionary activities in this land.

Each chapter covers a different theme in the mission’s history, so that they can also be read as independent articles. The first chapter provides an overview of the propagation offices of the Catholic Church in a global context. This is followed by a portrait of the Safavid kingdom. The author analyses especially the kingdom’s capacities to tackle new global dilemmas. The third chapter explores how Persians perceived the monks and priests involved in the mission, and which intellectual challenges missionaries as well as local clergymen met. Afterwards, Windler focuses on the role of Armenians. On the one hand, as local Christians in the Iranian world, Armenians served as suitable contact persons between the Safavid court and Christian Europeans. On the other hand, their distinctiveness from the Iranian and the Catholic worlds made them objects of suspicion from both sides. The fifth chapter depicts the practicalities of the daily life of Europeans based in Persia, addressing a variety of personal and social issues, with which the European residents were faced. The next chapter is devoted to the struggles of missionaries in the field. Mainly, it sheds light on the situation of the Discalced Carmelites. The seventh chapter picks up the subtitle of the book, concerning cultural diversity and competition of norms. In the history of the Catholic mission, each denominational order found its own way to deal with local people, and the approaches varied from place to place, due to the diversity of local norms and customs. In many cases, missionaries acted in a precarious grey area, since they were to some extent forced to accommodate local norms, which were at odds with the principles of Rome.

Unfortunately, the study does not draw on documents and secondary sources written in Persian, although there exist many important texts of this kind about Christian missionaries. Most of them have neither been translated into a European language nor related to in Western scholarship. A significant example is Manuchihr Sotude’s Remained Documents of Carmelite Padres Since Shah Abbas Era.1 The book includes about 170 valuable documents and correspondences between king Abbas (d. 1629) and certain Carmelite fathers. Some further Persian documents are available online thanks to digitalisation by a number of archives: for instance, the digital collection of the University of Bamberg in Germany.2 There is even no reference to such sources and their importance for the topic in the introduction of Missionare in Persien.

Another consideration regarding the content of the book is the arrangement of the data. A remarkable portion of the book, especially in its introduction and then in the first chapter, is dedicated to the universal aspects of the early modern Catholic missions. Such explanations, of course, provide a panoramic overview of how the entire gigantic institution with its astonishing internal diversity, represented by several sub-institutions and sub-orders, was working. But it is not always clear in the book how such a volume of detailed information about the entire Catholic missionary system is beneficial to grasping what happened specifically in Persia. Examples are the tables 1, 2, and 3 on pages 42–49. The columns and rows contain many abstract data about the income and expenses of the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide in terms of payments for a variety of things in certain times and places. These numerous cells of data could have been replaced by a concrete and conclusive statement deduced from the tables. Furthermore, it might be asked whether the inclusion of such highly detailed information is necessary to understand how the Catholic evangelisation institute was working in general, let alone the Persian mission.

In conclusion, the book Missionare in Persien is highly recommendable. Scholars who are interested in the early modern history of missionaries in Persia, in the relationship between European states and the Safavid Empire, and, more broadly, in the missionary activities of the Roman Church of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries will find the book informative, illuminating, and insightful. The abundance of sources gathered in a wide number of archives and libraries, and the variety of secondary literature might discourage many a scholar from such a task. Usually, a team of experienced academics would be needed. Christian Windler managed it alone.

1 The English title is taken from the back cover of the book and has been slightly modified.
2 Digital Persian Archive, <asnad.org> (07.09.2021).

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