Project Description: Peiresc’s Orient
This project was undertaken to reconstruct, philologically, Peiresc’s contribution to the history of oriental studies. In doing so, I followed the contours of Peiresc’s inquiries into particular languages and literatures. He began with the Samaritans, starting in 1628, after learning from Girolamo Aleandro in Rome of the Polyglot project then getting underway in Paris. Peiresc’s work on the Samaritans connected him closely with Rome, and especially after Aleandro’s death with Pietro della Valle, and in Paris with Jean Morin. Peiresc studied Hebrew with the Rabbi of Carpentras. His contact with Arabic was focused around Islamic coins, which he studied through a series of native informants and trans-national figures in Marseille. Peiresc’s Coptic studies involved him with Della Valle and Athansius Kircher. Peiresc's aim seems to have been to draw together the Greco-Roman and Near Eastern poles of ancient Mediterranean history into a single narrative. We see this best, perhaps, in his study of late antique Gnosticism and paganism. From his interest in Egypt, and his contacts in Egypt, Peiresc developed an interest in Ethiopic that continued to his very last days. To this linguistically-contoured definition of Peiresc’s oriental studies, I would add also his interest in Africa more generally. North Africa was part of the Roman world and connected physically to Egypt. Peiresc’s questions to his contact in Tunis focused, in fact, on lines of inquiry that connected North Africa to themes in Classical history. To his Capuchin correspondent who had been in West Africa, we see the way in which questions of comparative religion that derived their shape from looking at the religions of the ancient Roman Empire, could be easily extended to apply to the contemporary religions of West Africa.
In addition to the reconstruction of a narrative that had been lost to the history of scholarship, a major goal of this project was to argue by demonstration that the kind of questions Peiresc asked made his oriental studies a form of historical Kulturwissenschaft. Momigliano had suggested, presciently, but still only at the level of suggestion, that antiquaries were genetically related to the later cultural historians. With these essays I hope to show that the very nature of his—and I would argue that to an extent this can be generalized to many early modern antiquaries—inquiry functioned as a way of studying culture historically.
These essays will be published in the Ashgate/ Variorum series under the title Peiresc's Orient: Antiquarianism as Cultural History in the Seventeenth Century in April 2012.
(Note: I actually prefer “historical Kulturwissenschaft” following from Warburg’s defintiion of his practice as a “kunstgeschichtlich Kulturwissenschaft” because as a neo-logism in English it frees me from having to explain what I mean by “culture” and “history” before I even begin, and prevents readers from focusing on these framing terms rather than on the content being framed. On the other hand, in a sub-title, it might distract from the main project, hence my use of "Cultural History" in the printed collection of essays)