Tag Archives: Paris

From China to Paris: a 1693 account of one woman’s journey

We recently completed cataloging the Saint-Sulpice Collection at the Newberry Library, which contains about 2,500 pamphlets and manuscripts chiefly in French that are nearly all biographical. These items, dating from the 16th to early 19th centuries, were collected and eventually bound into volumes by the Sulpician priests of Paris and used as educational models to teach their seminarians rhetorical writing skills.

While it is unsurprising that the Sulpicians would collect biographical pamphlets on kings and saints, the Saint-Sulpice Collection also contains pamphlets on both the notorious, such as infamous poisoners, and obscure. One such example of the latter is an anonymous manuscript letter regarding the past travails of a Chinese woman in Paris identified only as Ina (Case folio BX4060.A1 S25 ser. 1 v. 40 pt. 1 no. 8).

Lettre de Mademoiselle *** a Made. *** contenant l'histoire de la Chinoise (Case folio BX4060.A1 S25 ser. 1 v. 40 pt. 1 no. 8)

According to the letter, Ina was born in Beijing to a noble family and married a man at a young age of similar noble birth. During a journey down the coast to Nanjing with her husband and young son, she and her party were attacked by Dutch pirates. While her husband was killed during the skirmish, Ina, her son, and a number of servants were captured and taken on board. Although most of her possessions were taken from her, she was treated well for a time.

However, subsequent captains and crew mistreated her during many years of life at sea. Eventually, her son and all of her servants died of a fever. During a port stop in Paris, Ina was paraded around the city, where both the ship’s crew and the citizens of Paris stared at and jostled her now tattered traditional Chinese clothing. The crew abandoned her in Paris without money or possessions.

While Ina and her Chinese culture are exoticized throughout the text, some moments of human compassion are apparent, such as the moment when a nun finds Ina alone and destitute on a Parisian street and offers her shelter. The anonymous correspondent offers these reflections:

Compren[n]ez, s’il vous plait, dans quel désespoir vne femme qui est née auec du bien, qui a esté touiours heur[eu]se, et qui a de la naissance, se trouue réduite, au milieu de la rüe, pendans la nuit, au coeur de l[']hiuer, dans une des plus grandes villes du monde, sans argent, sans connoissances, sans pouuoir dire un seul mot de la langue, du païs à six milles lieuës du sien, et sans pouuoir demander du secours au vray Dieu qu’elle n’auoit pas encore le bonheur de connoistre.

[Understand, if you will, the despair of a high-born, wealthy woman, who was always happy, and now finds herself reduced to nothing, out in the street at night in the middle of winter in one of the largest cities in the world, without money and friends, without knowing a single word of the language in a country six thousand leagues from her own, and without the ability to ask help from the true God whom she has not yet had the good fortune of knowing.] (p. [16])

The letter appears to have been sent to or originated from the convent of the Augustines de la Miséricorde de Jésus in the Saint-Marcel quarter of Paris in 1693. Presumably, the nun who discovered Ina in the streets of Paris or one of her fellow sisters is the author of the letter.

Lettre de Mademoiselle *** a Made. *** contenant l'histoire de la Chinoise (Case folio BX4060.A1 S25 ser. 1 v. 40 pt. 1 no. 8)

Ina became an object of fascination to many prominent members of Parisian society, as they tried to discern where she was from based on her appearance and language, which they could not identify for some time. Eventually, Ina joined the other sisters in the convent as a nun. I have been unsuccessful in finding any other documents to corroborate Ina’s story or to attest to her existence at all. But this manuscript is a fascinating document that reveals Western attitudes toward the East in late 17th-century France.

Museums: Bringing out the French Naturalist in us all since 1793.

Muséum national d'histoire naturelle (MNHN)

This week while perusing the pamphlets in the current portfolio that I am working on, I was struck by one that stood out amongst the piles of “opinions” on constitutional law, representative government, and the tax on salt. Entitled Rapport fait au nom du Comité d’instruction publique et des finances, sur le Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, this pamphlet (Case FRC 25663) written by Antoine-Claire Thibaudeau in 1794, while not being the most visually enticing in the collection, delivers a very detailed and unexpectedly interesting report on the history (past and present—and by “present,” I mean Thibaudeau’s present) of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.

Muséum national d'histoire naturelle (MNHN)

Its origins rooted in the early study and cultivation of medicinal plants and other vegetation (circa 1626), the museum served as a jardin des plantes and center for the study of the art of healing during its humble beginnings. With the help and contributions of leading naturalists, and the décret du 10 juin 1793, the jardin des plantes transformed into the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle and has remained so up to this day. What makes this pamphlet particularly striking to me is its readability, despite it being an official report being given by Thibaudeau on behalf of the Committee of Public Instruction and Finances. Thibaudeau presents a very detailed history of not only how the museum itself came to be, but also of its extensive collections of flora and fauna and the impact that these collections had on everything from science and medicine to commerce, agriculture, and art.

One particularly interesting passage (especially for any of you history enthusiasts out there!) focuses on the museum’s procurement of thousands of specimens of rare and exotic plant-life that they cultivated, nurtured, and studied—no small feat for this period in time. Thibaudeau mentions that held amongst those specimens, was a particular type of coffee that was cultivated with great care and then transported to the French colony of Martinique where it multiplied and flourished, giving birth to this particular branch of colonial commerce. Just think of the implications of this action! It’s truly mind-boggling. Another distinguishing aspect of this pamphlet that’s totally neat (for lack of a better phrase to adequately describe how cool and potentially helpful I think this information is), is the detailed account that Thibaudeau gives of all of the different plants, trees, animals, grains, etc. that came from each particular region of the world. With his descriptions and extensive footnotes, the reader is able to learn where everything came from, who it came from, what it is good for, how it can be used medicinally, commercially, etc. It is a wealth of information that I’m sure will make some lucky researcher very happy in the future when they stumble upon it here at the Newberry. Nothing like extremely detailed information about a very particular subject!

Muséum national d'histoire naturelle (MNHN)

The pamphlet concludes with Thibaudeau’s discussion of projects of expansion for the museum, potential costs and matters of budget, and all of the reasons why he feels that this particular institution should be taken very seriously by the government. While reading through all of this material, it was very easy to forget that I was reading a document that was written in the late eighteenth century. I felt like I could have been reading a document written yesterday about this same museum, and I love that. I bet that there are still committee meetings to this day that take place discussing many of the same matters that Thibaudeau presents here in his report. Let that all soak in as you examine the beautiful photos that I’ve included of the present-day museum.