Isidori Discusses the Indipetea and the Significance of Historical Letter Writing

Sonia Isidori, a research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies of Boston College, discussed the Indipetea in a lecture entitled “Longing for the Indies: The Jesuits and their missionary vocation” on Tuesday. The Indipetea were letters written by the Jesuits asking for missionary assignments in the 17th century that transformed society’s history, she said. 

“[The Indipetae] are the principal source of information for my research because they are qualitative and quantitative sources,” Isidorio said. “Qualitative because they are ‘Ego-documents,’ that is they are written by a person about himself, and quantitative not only because of their number, but also because in many cases they have a standardized narrative structure.”

In addition to the letters providing a complex source favored by academics, the letters also are reflective of the time period in which they were written. This is especially significant for important decades of Jesuit history, Isidori said.

Talking about the quantitative aspects of the letters—where a spike in letters can imply an important or chaotic time in history—Isidori pointed to a 30-year span in the 17th century.

“During the generalate of [Superior General of the Society of Jesus], Mutio Vitelleschi Jesuit missions went through some radical changes, such as the closure of the mission in Japan … the Jubilee of the Society of Jesus, and the death of more than 200 missionaries,” Isidori said.

Isidori researched the number of Indipetae written during this 30-year span. She said 5,200 letters were written during this time, a staggering 33 percent of the total letters in the “Old Society” of the Jesuits, which include the years 1580 to 1773.

Another reason for the many letters is that parents would write to the Jesuits and beg them to not let their sons go on missions that, as Isidori said, were increasingly synonymous with martyrdom.

“A single grace I ask of you, that you do not want to take into account what my relatives wrote … Father Rector [told] me Your Paternity would have taken more account of one of my letters than of a hundred letters from my relatives,” one letter to Vitelleschi read.

Isidori said that these letters can also provide insight into Europe at this time from the perspective of common people. 

Isidori also said that the Indipitae serve as primary sources, recounting how people suffering through the Sicilian Plague of 1624 to 1626 were living and thinking.

“With the common and universal sadness of this city … we find ourselves for the second time infected with that contagious disease, from which at this very time last year we were more afflicted than at any other time,” a letter to Vitellschi read. 

Isidori said that the Indipetae database, an open-access resource organized by The Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies, in collaboration with the Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu, provides invaluable resources for all those interested, from academics to high school students. 

High school students in Italy utilized the database, Isidori said, highlighting one high school in Rome in particular.

“The Indipetae project has fulfilled an extraordinarily important task—to offer passion to young people,” Isidori said. “ … One would have legitimately expected that the interest of the project would reside in its ability to shed new light on the history of the Jesuits and their missions—something that certainly happened, and in a very rich way. But the most impressive result, especially in my vocational school, was the fact that through the Indipetae we felt life in history, and for this we are enormously grateful.”

Featured Image by Aditya Rao / Heights Staff

November 14, 2021

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