This past week, students in the Ramonat Seminar read portions of the Jesuit Relations, one of the most important primary sources about Catholic missions in New France in the seventeenth century. The Jesuit Relations were annual reports sent from Jesuit missionaries in New France to their superiors in Europe, and were assembled, edited and published in Paris. It could take as long as a year for an account to reach its published form, but these early ethnographic studies of Native Americans were fascinating to many European readers.
The Relations detailed the interactions of French Jesuits with many Native American groups, including the Montagnis, Huron, Iroquois, Potawatomi, and others. Jesuits like Isaac Jogues and Paul Le Jeune found themselves entirely immersed in cultures that were utterly foreign to them, trying to understand and learn the language in order to make converts. The class read several of Fr. Le Jeune’s accounts of his time among the Montagnis, including an account of a winter hunt, descriptions of religious practices and gender roles, and the differences in the ways Europeans and Native Americans disciplined their children.
Our class discussion was engaging and far-ranging, based on Allan Greer’s introduction to his edition of the Jesuit Relations . Students discussed what made the Jesuit missionaries different from other Catholic orders–their (relative) newness as compared to the Dominicans or the Benedictines, and their willingness to immerse themselves in diverse situations to advance their mission. We discussed previous Jesuit missions, including Francis Xavier’s and Matteo Ricci’s missions to Asia, as well as Spanish Jesuit’s efforts to convert Native Americans in what is now Paraguay. Jesuit heterodoxy, their willingness to adapt Catholic doctrine to fit a local situation, was part of their missionary toolbox, and also led to the eventual suppression of the order in the eighteenth century.
The rest of the discussion focused on the Relations, their audience, purpose and perceived effect. The class concluded that as historians, we should keep in mind that the Relations were often used to help raise funds, as they were aimed at relatively well-off European audiences. Students pointed out that this implicit bias in the Relations meant that the Jesuit authors (or perhaps the editors) had to be cautious in how they portrayed both Native American culture and European culture. They could not paint the missions as a hopeless cause for fear of scaring away donors, and they could not be too overtly critical of European society, even if they found more virtues in Native American society than their own. Despite these biases, the Relations are a critical piece of historical evidence illustrating the shape and way of life for Native Americans in the middle of the seventeenth century, and could be the start of some fascinating research papers.
For more information, or to read some of the Relations yourself, check out:
Allan Greer, ed. The Jesuit Relations: Natives and Missionaries in Seventeenth-Century North America (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000).