Margherita Trento “From Orthodoxy to Orthography. Writing Christianity in the Tamil Country (XVI-XVII centuries)”
From Orthodoxy to Orthography: Writing Christianity in the Tamil Country (XVI-XVII centuries)
In my research project, I explore the history of the literary and social techniques employed by Roman Catholics to localize Christianity in early modern Tamil Nadu. Molding together European and Tamil conventions, missionaries and their converts wrote catechisms, doctrinal treatises, devotional poems and prayer books. I focus on the contents of these texts together with the history of their production, circulation, and reading practices, in order to understand the social, ritual and religious communities they mirrored as well as constituted.
I will reflect upon certain aspects of this project, especially the relationship between standard orthography and theological accuracy as it developed in Catholic texts in Tamil from the late sixteenth century to the beginning of the eighteenth century. My contention is that missionaries first attempted to modify and police Tamil language and script, so that it could express Catholic orthodoxy. Over time, however, the use literary Tamil orthography and grammar gained importance as a sign of Catholic spiritual superiority. This second concern informs, for instance, the anti-Lutheran satire Luttēriṉattiyalpu written by Costanzo Giuseppe Beschi (1680-1747) around 1727. In the paper, I analyze the modes and implications of this shift, together with its relationship with the processes of production, reception and circulation of Catholic books in early modern South India and beyond. The concern for orthography and the proper use of Tamil coincided, I argue, with the adoption of traditional writing techniques and influenced the different trajectories Tamil Catholic texts followed once they were removed from their context of production, and entered colonial and oriental archives in India and Europe.
Margherita Trento is a doctoral student in the department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. Previously, she studied in Italy, France and India. Her interests include philology, the Catholic manuscript tradition in South India, Tamil bhakti, microhistory, the history of
orientalism and the history of Christianity in India.