History Books in the Eighteenth Century Eurasian Republic of Letters

Guest Lecture by David Mervart at the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context,” Heidelberg University Centre for Transcultural Studies.

By inertia, we continue studying and referring to European and East Asian historiographical “traditions” as if they were separate worlds sealed off from one another. Yet, even prior to 1800s, there had long existed a dense network of textual connections that crisscrossed the urban centers of the old world and new and drew them together in a sort of Eurasian Republic of Letters. On three short case studies I want to document how this traffic in texts affected historiographical production and horizons of historical awareness on both ends of Eurasia in complex ways that are not helpfully described in the language of “impact” or “influence”.

These cases, far from unique or isolated, include: a Madrid-based Augustinian friar whose footnotes lead to a Persian history of China; a khan of Khiva whose genealogical history of the “Tartars” becomes a favourite reference of Edward Gibbon or Adam Ferguson; or a young samurai retainer in Tokugawa Japan whose philological expertise in both Dutch and classical Chinese led him to the discovery of how queen Dido taught the Occidentals the trick of establishing colonies.