From day one, I’ve been puzzled by the difficulties of early modern communications. How could St. Ignatius and his successors be so adamant about the frequency of letter-and report-writing, and realistically expect that people in Ireland, let alone Goa, Salvador, Nagasaki, Lhasa, etc, could usefully inform headquarters and benefit by instructions that were many months old ? And how were messages delivered even just across troubled Europe? Generally speaking, communications seem to have been working fine: one of the earliest postal maps of c.1632 illustrates the “postal hub” that France was for European correspondence, including much correspondence that went between Ireland and Rome.
And historians can be comforted by the fact that “the Jesuits produced more documents than most other orders and stored them with exceptional rigor.” (Markus Friedrich, p.288). But how did men under threat, as the Irish Jesuits often were, go about sending letters, and what were the obstacles? From what I have seen, in the absence of any official postal system, correspondence was sent using trustworthy clergy and merchants in particular. James Archer explained to the General in Rome in August 1598 that his letters to Spain brought no replies, maybe because “our merchants are afraid to carry letters to me or from me: and this is so because the government here pursues me with deep hatred…” (see Thomas J.Morrissey p.269). Messengers who did not travel all the way would leave items with middlemen such as the young scholastic Henry Cusack in Bordeaux: he was strategically placed there in 1608 with the purpose of forwarding letters to and from Ireland. Archer’s situation in 1598 was particularly charged, but I imagine that what he said speaks for the many periods between 1540 and 1773 when Irish Jesuits were under a cloud of official suspicion, if not incarcerated, on a wanted-list, etc. Even in the letters I’ve seen so far (1605-1613) there has been talk of code-writing, of the disappearance of many letters, and of a case of interception by an unknown agency.
In November 1608, the General in Rome, the Italian Claudio Acquaviva, told the Irish Superior Christopher Holywood that writing in code is to be kept to a manageable minimum. He understood that there were times when it was necessary, but Holywood ought to somehow let him know when he would write “obscurely”, and also said that there were certain things that needed to be said explicitly, as for instance queries about religious dispensations. On another occasion, Acquaviva – seemingly exasperated – told Holywood to repeat a certain question “more distinctly and more clearly…, without ciphers, rather than sending us information by obscure markings”. (11 April 1609)
Unfortunately, for these years we do not have the original letters from Ireland, so that it is impossible to say what form Holywood’s “obscure markings” might have taken then.
Besides the many items that simply don’t survive to our times, there was a fair number of letters that never arrived at their destinations. To go back in time, in 1604 Holywood reported to the general in Rome that his colleague Richard Field had not received a letter from the general for five years (24 April 1604, Irish Jesuit Archives, MSS A19). One such letter to Field which Field never laid eyes on, is from 1601 and a copy of it survives in Rome – but it is in the ARSI Flanders collection! Was the letter sent to a Flanders middleman, and lost along the way? There are many such stray items for the 17th and 18th centuries, suggesting routes, and implying “black holes” along the way.
And in addition to the need for secrecy and the loss of letters, I came across mention of a broken seal that caused General Acquaviva a good deal of worry: he wrote to Thomas White SJ at Salamanca on 26 January 1613 of his bewilderment to find that one of Holywood’s letters, coming through Spain, had been opened and furnished with a different seal, likely by another Jesuit: he wishes to hear from White if he knows anything about who dared to do this, and trusts he will take precautions against such things occurring. One wonders whether this action fed into one of the many spy networks in Europe (such as the one operated by Sir Robert Cecil a little before this), or whether it happened out of personal curiosity. All of this must have made the business of letter-writing a rather hit-and-miss affair.
In some cases, of course, decision-making ran to its own slow pace, and if answers were delayed that was nothing to do with long and unsafe roads, unwilling merchants or spies: When Ireland’s Superior Christopher Holywood asked General Acquaviva in October of 1604 whether the mission could set up sodalities to the Blessed Virgin, the general’s reply was that the matter needed to be examined, but little did Holywood expect he would have to wait until August 1609 for a definite answer: yes, wherever there were stable residences, they could be set up. (17 December 1605/ 1 August 1609)
It seems that most practical decisions would have to be taken spontaneously, with the order’s guidelines in mind. And for anything that depended on the say-so of superiors in Rome, patience and pragmatism must have ruled. Communications are a hot topic today, such as the information overload and the instantaneous sharing of one’s life with the world. The early modern world is the more fascinating for that.