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The Jesuits: A history by Markus Friedrich, translated by John Noel Dillon

02 September 2022

This scholarly history of the Society of Jesus is a triumph, says Lavinia Byrne

THIS is a magisterial book, massive in its compass, its erudition, and its attention to detail. The history of the Jesuit order has usual been written by one of the members of the Society of Jesus, and yet here is a book of amazing scholarship, written by an outsider and, arguably, all the better for that; for the author brings a freshness of outlook to his task. He is responsible to no one but the wider academic community to which he belongs.

Marcus Friedrich is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Hamburg and lives in Germany, but he has lectured extensively all over Europe and the United States. Hence his prestigious publisher.

One of the elusive characteristics of the Jesuits is their training and the way in which its pattern is set out in the Constitutions of the Society. These form the equivalent of the Rule of, say, St Benedict, and describe the lengthy formation of the individual Jesuit. The final chapter of the Constitutions describes the General Superior of the order and his duties. He is, if you like, the fully formed Jesuit: the man who is prepared to go out and bring salvation to the whole world.

Friedrich’s book — knowingly or not — follows the same pattern. He begins by sketching the story of Ignatius and his first followers and the pattern of training which they developed. The story then gains in scope as more and more men are admitted to the Society and take up posts all over the known world.

Friedrich notes that “Ignatius founded his order in an age of profound change for Europe.” He acknowledges that a history of the Jesuits has to be “essentially a world history in a nutshell”. So, he claims, “this is a historian’s book.” The age of hagiography is over, and much serious scholarship is presently being directed to the history of religious orders.

Everything is here: the quirky bits, such as Matteo Ricci’s labours in China, or the mission territories of what became Latin America, but equally an examination of the extraordinary influence that the Jesuits — and the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius — had through their ministry to kings and statesmen, and to the ruling classes of Europe. Their schools and universities, too, became powerhouses.

Friedrich visits the shadow side of this history, too, exposing the scandals that bedevilled the lives of both individuals and groups. No wonder relationships with Rome were often controversial, and that the Society was suppressed, and later reinstated. The author goes in search of what it is that “holds the Society together”, when “variety and openness” make for conflict with the Society’s own “search for unity and an integrated, common identity”.

Today, we have a Jesuit Pope, which indicated a degree of reconciliation. The wealth of material uncovered and examined in this book is phenomenal as the author pursues his interest in “historical processes” rather than “religious truths”, and as testified by the 150 pages of references and bibliography which it contains.

Credit must go to the extraordinary work of the translator who has given us such an engrossing text. He went back to the same original sources in Latin, Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese as the author, so as to give us authoritative texts as close to the original as possible. In his translator’s note, John Noel Dillon modestly claims, “I learnt so much along the way.”

So will the reader of this amazing testimony to the lives and service of so many extraordinary men and to the spiritual impulse that drove them. It is hard to believe that it all began when a young Spanish nobleman called Inigo fell wounded in a skirmish on a hillside during a totally unimportant conflict at Pamplona.

Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.


The Jesuits: A history
Markus Friedrich
John Noel Dillon, translator
Princeton £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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