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Medieval Understandings of Paganism and Foreign Cultures as Conditions for the Early Modern Missionary Efforts in America

The discovery of the "New World" was a huge turning point in all areas of European history - not only in economic and political terms, but also on a conceptual level; even more, it seemed to shake the old image of the world before a new image was available.With a close look, this statement remains true in simple terms but the matter is far more complex. One could also argue with good reason that the Old World - Europe - was already well prepared for the discovery of the "New World". Until the 13th century, the “Old Europe” was as a narcissistic hermitage since the Crusades only brought about a renewed recognition of preconceived images from the Bible. It was the opening to the Far East - to the Mongols, China and Indochina - in the middle of the 13th century that confronted Europeans with an entirely new reality in all areas, be they political, economic, religious or cultural.

The decisive factor was that Europe learned quickly to integrate this new reality into the old and to develop explanations of why there were so many, and in some cases, completely superior cultures, which were not mentioned in the Bible. These medieval explanations included great and fabulous stories of Christian kingdoms in Asia, of God’s salvific action in these nations, and of an Islam that should have been a branch of Christianity, etc. The people of that time believed these stories. They were fictions, which showed that Christianity and European culture was operative and dominant everywhere in the world. In this manner they could claim a conceptual hegemony over the world. The cultures of the Far East then did not appear to be new and strange, but as part of the European self – and thus without rights to independence.

With this conceptual hegemony Europeans could claim, without significant difficulties, a real hegemony in the "New World" that was discovered, and seek to assert this prerogative over the realms and people there on the political, economic and religious levels.

Gert Melville, University of Dresden