A Missing Link in the Transmission of Western Cosmology to 16th Century Japan Rediscovered

The Wolfenbüttel Manuscript of the Jesuit Compendia of Philosophy, Theology and Cosmology in Japanese Translation

The introduction of a press from Europe in 1590 finally enabled the Jesuits in Japan to print everything necessary for their missionary endeavors. Each of the about 30 different titles from the following years known to be extant today qualifies as a bibliographical rarity: Few of them are preserved in more than three copies, and about half of them are known in only a single copy. By scouring collections around the globe hitherto unknown titles are still brought to light at times, such as the Compendium manualis Navarri (1597) in 1985. Others whose exact whereabouts had become unknown during the course of the last century have resurfaced as well, such as the Fidesno quiǒ (1611) in 2009 and, more recently yet, the Exercitia spiritualia Ignatij de Loyola (1596). Further copies of already known titles are also found from time to time. For example, an additional copy of the Vocabulario da lingoa de Iapam (1603) was discovered at the Biblioteca Nacional do Rio de Janeiro in 2018 – and a third copy of the Contemptus mundi (1596) was identified at the HAB Wolfenbüttel in 2017.

The book as such was already introduced in Ernest Satow’s pioneering study on The Jesuit Mission Press in Japan (1888) based on the copy kept at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and a second copy at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, also became known later on. Its discovery was notable, however, as it was not only the first Jesuit print from Japan to be found at the HAB, but also more generally one of an exceedingly small number of such works nowadays kept in German collections. Owing to a letter preserved in the book we can even tell that it came to Wolfenbüttel as early as 1662.

Diagram of the celestial spheres and the signs of the zodiac,
which are also the object of the Latin mnemonic hexameters
in Greek script above.

The Compendia: philosophy, theology and cosmology

The perusal of a list of manuscripts in Wolfenbüttel appended to an 1831 catalogue of Oriental manuscripts of the then Royal Library in Dresden led to the identification of a related manuscript at the HAB in 2019: The Japanese translation of the so-called Compendia (1593) attributed to Spanish Jesuit Pedro Gómez (1533/35–1600) – i.e. the texts which for more than two decades formed the basis of education in the Jesuit colleges in Japan and later Macau. Its three parts cover the fields of philosophy (chiefly treating Aristotle’s De Anima), theology and Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology.

The original Latin version has been preserved in a single manuscript in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (Reg.lat.426) and it was first introduced to the scientific community in 1939. At least this Latin version appears to have been printed at the mission press, but no copy has yet come to light. Its translation into Japanese of ca. 1595 was discovered only in 1995, however in an incomplete copy: Crucially for this key text in the intellectual history of 16th to 17th century Japan as well as our understanding of the global circulation of knowledge, Ms. 228 at Magdalen College Oxford lacks the entire cosmological part. De Sphaera, as it is commonly referred to in its Latin version, introduces the geocentric model and the four elements theory in the tradition of Aristotle and Ptolemy.

The missing link: De Sphaera

The newly discovered Wolfenbüttel manuscript (Cod. Guelf. 7.5 Aug. 4°) is unique in that it comprises all three parts. It thus fills the gaps in the Oxford manuscript and at the same time opens up new opportunities for a critical edition of the Japanese Compendia based on both textual witnesses.

The beginning of the third part, Sufera-no nukigaki,
including its title and the name of Pedro Morejón as its compiler.

More importantly yet, research up to now had to rely on the later Nigi ryakusetsu (A Brief Discussion on the Celestial and Terrestrial Worlds) and related writings in order to gain insights into the Japanese adaptation of De Sphaera, albeit in a significantly revised and, so to speak, de-Christianised form. Now, it is possible for the first time to study and compare the original Latin version, Nigi ryakusetsu and the Japanese translation Sufera-no nukigaki (Selections on the Sphere) as the hitherto missing link in between the other two. Doing so will shed light on the process of how De Sphaera, whose cosmology is inextricably interwoven with Christian thought, was first translated in a Jesuit context, and eventually de-Christianized in its later transmission via Nigi ryakusetsu.

Finally, a word on the authorship of De Sphaera, or at least its Japanese translation. For decades, the cosmological part of the Compendia has almost universally been treated as the work of Gómez despite a lack of solid evidence to that effect, which in fact is only available for the philosophical and the theological part. The newly discovered Wolfenbüttel manuscript now calls for a revision of that view, as the Japanese translation actually explicitly names its compiler right after the title as such: It is Spanish Jesuit Pedro Morejón (1562–1639?), who incidentally has long been known to have taught using the Compendia at the Jesuit college in Amakusa.

Work on an edition and study of the manuscript has commenced in January 2020, starting with Sufera-no nukigaki as the manuscript’s most significant part.





About the author

Sven Osterkamp is professor of Japanese Language and Literature at Ruhr University Bochum, Germany. His research interests include the history of the Japanese language(s) and writing system(s) as well as Western knowledge of East Asian languages and writing systems since the early modern period.