Cogut Institute for the Humanities
Center for the Study of the Early Modern World

Professor Eugenio Menegon, a historian of Chinese and global history at Boston University, offered a presentation entitled “The Matriarch, the Duchess, the Queen, and the Countess. Aristocratic Patronesses of the Chinese Catholic Mission and their Role in Early Modern Chinese-European Relations,” as part of the Center for the Early Modern World talk series.

Under the eyes of several Renaissance women portrayed in stately paintings in the Annmary Brown Memorial, Menegon discussed how a Chinese élite lady in Shanghai, a Portuguese duchess in Madrid, an Austrian queen in Lisbon, and a Bavarian countess in Munich became revered patronesses of the China Jesuit missions in the early modern period.

Candida Xu (1607-80), granddaughter of a prominent Chinese Catholic convert and Ming imperial Grand Secretary; the rich and well-connected Portuguese-Spanish Duchess of Aveiro (1630-1715); the Queen Consort and Regent of Portugal Maria Anna Habsburg (1683-1754); and Wittelsbach court lady Maria Theresia von Fugger-Wellenburg (1690-1762), all interacted with and offered patronage to missionaries in China. Through their correspondence and their political and financial influence, these women sustained a far-flung network of male ecclesiastical admirers and expressed feminine forms of spirituality and influence across the continents.

Here are examples of their activities and networking skills. When the missionaries were in an especially constrained financial situation in the 1660s, Candida Xu supported each of the twenty-five Jesuits living in China at the time, providing for their subsistence for a whole year. Candida, along with other Catholic gentry women, also sponsored the building of churches in several provinces, traveling to do so more than 1,800 kilometers between 1660 and 1662 in the retinue of her son, an imperial official. Written information was crucial to connect these noblewomen with the mission, as we read about Queen Maria Anna in a 1755 source: “There was nothing more delightful to her than the letters from the Indies and Brazil, which dealt with the progress of the Gospel, the apostolic expeditions, or new conquests and conversions to the Faith of Christ. She read them not one, but many times, and communicated them to her entourage, and kept them in her scriptorium like a rich treasure.” These women’s charitable and spiritual yearnings can, in fact, be found in their correspondence, as in the case of Countess Fugger, a mother who had lost two infants and decided to send funds to Beijing for the baptism and care of abandoned orphan girls: “You see the concerns of a woman, which extend even to the end of the world” — she wrote to her China Jesuit correspondent in 1740.

Through their letters and gifts, these women created feminine networks bridging China and Europe and engaged in a sort of ‘travel of the mind’, supporting evangelization while gaining global knowledge and producing gendered perspectives on the world.