Going Digital, Part 1

Last week, we talked about the digital humanities. For those who might be unfamiliar with the term, the digital humanities is a broad term that encompasses projects in many fields, from linguistics to history. In a nutshell, digital humanities, or DH, projects either seek to address humanities questions using digital tools, or, they use humanities questions and frameworks to consider how we interact with digital media.

An Italian Jesuit, Fr. Roberto Busa, is often recognized as the first person to “do” the digital humanities. Beginning in 1949, he teamed up with IBM to use computers to compile a concordance (an index of all the words in a work) of the works of Thomas Aquinas. Busa worked on this project for most of his life, and his data moved from analog form, to punch cards, to magnetic tape, to CDs and then onto the Internet. As computer technology developed, humanities scholars became increasingly interested in the possibilities of using computers in their work.

In the 1990s, “digital history” emerged as a distinct subset of the digital humanities. It was championed by Roy Rosenzweig, founder of the Center for History and New Media (now the Roy Rosenzweig Center for New Media) at George Mason University. In discussing digital projects, the class looked at four digital history projects that represented a range of subjects, purposes, and budgets. They were:

The Amboyna Conspiracy Trial: A site exploring the Amboyna Conspiracy Trials. In 1623, on a remote island in Indonesia, Dutch colonial authorities accused a group of Japanese mercenaries and English traders of plotting to seize the castle. The site asks its visitors to weigh the evidence themselves and make a judgement in the case.

Explore Common Sense: A project by three graduate students at Loyola University Chicago which creates an interactive, digital critical edition of the first British edition of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense.

Histories of the National Mall: This site explores the National Mall in Washington, D.C. with pictures, facts and thought-provoking questions superimposed over a map of the Mall.

French and Spanish Missions in North America: This site maps the expansion of French and Spanish Catholic missions in North America over time.

Discussion in class focused on how all four of these digital history projects tried to make history more accessible and interesting for the intended audiences. The general consensus was that participatory features, like the ones on the Amboyna site, were really important in making a site engaging and interesting, and to its ultimate success.

Stay tuned as the Ramonat Scholars embark on their own digital project: mapping with Google Fusion Tables!


Discussion: The Jesuit Relations

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.


Cover page of the 1662 Jesuit Relations. Courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

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).

Welcome New Scholars!

As the semester gets going, we’re happy to introduce you to the 2017-18 Ramonat Scholars! They’re all excited to get going with our study of Catholic missionaries and Native Americans. To learn more about individual scholars, visit the Meet the Scholars page! Keep checking the blog for updates about class, the speaker series, and other events!