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In a conversation with Emanuele Colombo, John O’Malley explained his historical method in eight points. In describing them, he noticed how “sources are mute” and how “to make them speak I must ask them questions”,[1] “the continuities are stronger and deeper than the discontinuities,”[2] and “if I really understand what is going on, I can explain it to an intelligent ten-year-old.”[3]This article aims at presenting the strategies and outcomes of a Public History project that involves on the one hand Jesuit sources of the early modern period, and on the other, non-professional historians who never studied the history of Society of Jesus.[4]

The Digital Indipetae Database (DID) is being developed by the Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies (IAJS) at Boston College, in collaboration with the Archivum Historicum Societatis Iesu (ARSI) in Rome.[5] In the last few years, the DID involved dozens of students of universities in Europe and the Americas, whose activities are used here as case-studies. The students are assigned Litterae indipetae, which are petitions written by Jesuits who wanted to be sent to the overseas missions.[6] Transcribing these letters, students have the chance to develop paleographic, philological, and historical skills. Moreover, this project tries to realize what O’Malley recognizes as something that no book can easily teach: “to empathize with and understand a culture not one’s own, whether those were cultures of the sixteenth or of the twentieth century.”[7]

As O’Malley noticed “history is the story of human experiences” and “emphasizing the relationship between the past and the present” is fundamental.[8] This essay also reflects on the most common mistakes and misunderstandings that such projects inevitably involve—such as applying our interpretative methodology to documents written in a very different context, especially from a spiritual point of view.

[1] Emanuele Colombo, “So What?: A Conversation with John W. O’Malley,” Journal of Jesuit Studies 7 (2020): 117–33, here 125.

[2] Colombo, “So What?” 124.

[3] Colombo, “So What?” 126.

[4] For an introduction on Public History and further bibliography, see Thomas Cauvin, Public History. A Textbook of Practice (Milton Park: Routledge, 2022).

[5] The website is open access under https://indipetae.bc.edu . On the genesis of the database, see Emanuele Colombo, “From Paper to Screen. The Digital Indipetae Database, a New Resource for Jesuit Studies,” Archivum Historicum Societatis Iesu 89/117 (2020): 213–30. The DID is always looking for new collaborators: those interested can send a message to freie@bc.edu and will receive all the information they need.

[6] The bibliography on Litterae indipetae is constantly and abundantly increasing: for an updated review, see Emanuele Colombo and Aliocha Maldavsky, “Studi e ricerche sulle Litterae indipetae,” in Cinque secoli di Litterae indipetae. Il desiderio delle missioni nella Compagnia di Gesù (Rome: Institutum Historicum Societatis Iesu, 2022), 43–81, in particular their complete bibliography on Indipetae, 62-81. See also the whole collective volume to have a deep insight on this extraordinary source.

[7] As O’Malley explains when remembering one if his most difficult experiences, the year spent in Austria: “I realized in a depth no book could ever teach me how difficult it is to empathize with and understand a culture not one’s own, whether those were cultures of the sixteenth or of the twentieth century” (John W. O’Malley, S.J., “My Life of Learning,” The Catholic Historical Review 93/3 (July 2007): 576–88, here 579).

[8] Colombo, “So What?” 127.



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