BLACK ROBE (1991)

Historical Context:  Print -- Video -- Online

 Saving Souls So That Others Might Trade Furs: The Jesuits in New France

    [1] The story of the Jesuits' encounter with the indigenous peoples of what was once called New France (and is now mostly Canada) may well have begun as early as 1534.  In this significant year, Jacques Cartier explored the Gulf of St. Lawrence, sailing eventually to the Iroquois settlement of Hochelaga (now Montreal).  He erected a cross and indicated to the Iroquoians that they should "look to it for their redemption" (Grant 3).  Across the Atlantic, Ignatius of Loyola founded the Society of Jesus, a religious order more commonly known as the Jesuits.  In many ways a response to the Protestant Reformation, the Jesuits were an order of Catholic priests loyally devoted to the Pope and firm in their mission to teach and convert those who had no knowledge of Christianity.  The newly discovered Americas, full of "savages," offered opportunities for such a mission that appealed to Jesuits's sense of duty and self-sacrifice.

    [2] With Catholic France's increasingly stronger foothold on Canadian territory, the Jesuits would find support from the crown for their missionary work.  As the newly appointed chief agent of the French fur trade overseas in 1602, Samuel de Champlain envisioned a land not merely exploited for its resources but a new society that was "French in culture and Christian in religion" (Grant 6).  Missionary priests would serve Champlain's ends and their own, converting the natives to Christianity and, at the same time, making them more amenable to French settlers.  The Recollects, a group with ties to the Franciscans, attempted this mission in 1615 but failed, largely because of their severely limited resources (they were a mendicant order, not allowed to own anything as a group or as individuals).  The Jesuits, however, did not have such financial limits; by 1626, they appeared in North America.

    [3] After a period of a few years, during which the English seized and maintained control over Quebec City, the French were, by 1632, once again the dominant European force in that province and its environs.  That year, with the renewed support of a stronger France, the Jesuits were able to establish missions among various tribes and nations.  The Hurons were particularly suited to conversion because, unlike some other indigenous peoples, they relied on agriculture, and were consequently more sedentary (and therefore available for long-term instruction) than the Algonquins, who would frequently migrate to find food.  The Jesuits did not have to rely as much on the natives' good will to endure constant travel.  The difficulty they did have to face, though, was the remoteness of the Huron Mission from their headquarters in Quebec.  Fifteen-hundred miles separated the two locations and Jesuits traveling between them relied on indigenous guides to get them there.  Fr. Jean de Brebeuf made such a journey to the Huron Mission in 1634 with two companions, Daniel and Davost (two men whose names formed the full name of Fr. Laforgue's assistant in Black Robe).  However, the novel Black Robe suggests that the primary source of material for Brian Moore's novel (and subsequent screenplay) comes from the accounts of Fr. Paul Le Jeune in the Jesuit Relations.

    [4] The Jesuit Relations were a series of documents, dating from 1610-1791, written by the missionaries to instruct their European colleagues on indigenous language and culture and describe their own experiences among various tribes.  The writings were informative but also exhilarating for Europeans, who saw little and understood even less of native American culture.  Le Jeune's Relation of the winter of 1634 (among the most frequently anthologized) describes his experiences with the Montagnais (a branch of the Algonquins and, consequently, a migratory tribe).  Unlike the film Black Robe, where the protagonist Fr. Laforgue wintered with the Algonquins on the way to the Huron Mission, Le Jeune spends the winter with the Montagnais on an invitation from his "host," whose brother was the sorcerer, named Mestigoit (the name for the Montagnais sorcerer in the film).  He accepted the Montagnais proposal, thinking that suffering in the cold wilderness to convert savages would be for the greater glory of God.  All through the trip, he clashed with the Montagnais sorcerer; the two competed over their connections with the supernatural, and Le Jeune claims to have endured "a thousand taunts and a thousand insults" (An Autobiography 56).  Much like Fr. Laforgue, he could not stand the smoke-filled tents in which they slept at night, the constant presence of dogs stealing their food, and the Montagnais' gluttonous eating habits.  At the end of his winter 1634 account, Le Jeune insists that despite the difficulties he faced, readers should not be afraid to join in the Jesuits' mission work.  However, he does suggest that if the French can learn "their language and reduce it to rules," something for which Le Jeune had little capacity, "there would be no need of living with these barbarians" (56).

    [5] While the fictional character Paul Laforgue shares his historical ancestor's aversion to the Algonquin lifestyle, Laforgue's ultimate connection with history is through Noel Chabanel, one of the Catholic martyrs of North America.  Chabanel arrived in Huron territory in 1643 and had similar complaints to Le Jeune's regarding the smoky tents and dogs.  Although tempted to return to France and a more comfortable ministry, he vows (as Laforgue does) to remain with the Hurons until his death.  That vow is fulfilled in 1649, when the Huron Mission is overrun by the Iroquois and Chabanel is killed, either by an Iroquois or an apostate Huron.  The Iroquois were in competition with the Hurons for trading rights with the French, and the Christianized Hurons were especially a threat to Iroquois commerce.  After that attack, the Huron Mission is permanently abandoned.  The French Jesuit missionary presence remained in Canada well into the nineteenth century but never reached the prominence it held in the 1640s.

Print Resources

(see 2nd generation additions 12/06/02)

An Autobiography of Martyrdom: Spiritual Writings of the Jesuits in New France.  Trans. Sister M. Renelle, S.S.N.D.  Sel. Francois Roustang, S.J.  St. Louis: B. Herder, 1964.

The text includes selections from The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents and other sources.  It's a handy reference source for readers who want information about and by specific Jesuit missionaries.  Among the Jesuits featured are Paul Le Jeune, St. Jean de Brebeuf, St. Isaac Jogues, and St. Noel Chabanel.  The section written about Noel Chabanel's life and death includes his famous vow to remain at the Huron mission until death.  Also included are writings by Paul Le Jeune, the other priest (along with Chabanel) on whom the Fr. Paul Laforgue character is based.  Le Jeune describes the 1634 trip with the Algonquins to Huron territory, chronicled in the book and film versions of Black Robe.

Goddard, Peter A.  "Converting the Savage: Jesuit and Montagnais in Seventeenth-Century New France."  The Catholic Historical Review  84.2 (1998): 219-39.

This article explains the methods various methods Jesuits used to convert an Algonquin tribe known as the Montagnais, the difficulties involved in such a task, and the motives for their efforts.  This order of priests attempted disputation, trying to reason (in the Montagnais' language) with the tribe how Christianity was simply more sensible than their beliefs.  Fear was also adopted as a technique, whether it was fear of an eternity of hell fire for non-believers or that their sicknesses (smallpox, among others) would destroy them before they could be "saved."  Regardless of the difficulties in translating concepts such as the Fall and sin, the Jesuits believed in the importance of converting the "savages," as they called them, because their simple lifestyle offered the possibility of a "simple Christianity," a return to the roots of Christian faith free of the potential decadence of European life.

Grant, John Webster.  Moon of Wintertime: Missionaries and the Indians of Canada in Encounter since 1534.  Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1984.

Like the texts that excerpt passages from the Jesuit Relations, Grant's book is an accessible work that chronicles the Jesuits' (but also other missionaries') encounters with the native tribes of what would become Canada.  However, it does not share completely the sympathies of Christian missionary efforts, noting that Christianity is often looked upon as oppressive in 20th century Iroquois and Algonquin circles.  However, his conclusion suggests that he speaks from a Christian perspective, since he discusses how Christian sects may now make their message more palatable to native tribes during a time when churches have no military power behind them to enforce their teachings.
 

Greer, Allan, ed.  The Jesuit Relations: Natives and Missionaries in Seventeenth Century North America.  Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000.

Allan Greer excerpts significant passages from the Thwaites edition of The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents focusing especially on the Jesuits' experiences with the Montagnais, the Hurons, and the Mohawks from 1634 to 1674.  This small volume is particularly useful since the 73-volume Relations is hard to come by and difficult to wade through.  Especially of interest to readers looking for source material on Black Robe are the passages written by Paul Le Jeune on his travels with the Montagnais during the winter of 1634, since Le Jeune is one of the figures on whom Fr. Paul Laforgue is based.  These parts, as well as information on Huron customs, are ideal for research on the origins of Brian Moore's Jesuit character.

Mealing, S.R., ed.  The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: A Selection.  Ottawa: Carleton UP, 1985.

Here is yet another collection of significant pieces from the Jesuit Relations.  It contains Le Jeune's account of his experiences with the Montagnais as well as the deaths of Noel Chabanel and his companions.  The selections do extend from 1626 to 1788, but a significant portion of the text deals with the Jesuits' experiences among the Hurons and Iroquois in the 1630s and 1640s.

Parkman, Francis.  The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century.  Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1997 [1867].

Parkman's lengthy account of the Jesuits' experiences in North America follows the 1858 Canadian compilation of the Jesuit Relations and predates the well-noted Thwaites' edition of the 1890s into the 20th Century.  Coming from a Protestant historian, Parkman's book is at times critical of the Jesuits' mission to the Hurons and other tribes, focusing more on the priests' desire to save them from sinfulness and less on their respect for natives as human beings.  However, his account is a useful alternative to works that only focus on the "heroic" struggles of the priests and ignore the dignity of the natives.  From the Jesuit Relations he takes not only a narrative of the failed mission to the Hurons but also accounts of the Huron, Algonquin, and Iroquois lifestyles.

Principe, Charles.  "A Moral Portrait of the Indian of the St. Lawrence in One Relation of New France, Written by Paul Le Jeune, S.J."  Canadian Catholic Historical Association, Historical Studies  57 (1990): 29-50.

Principe responds to what he sees as revisionist history that unfairly criticizes the Jesuit Paul Le Jeune for his depictions of the Montagnais in the Jesuit Relations.  He argues that in spite of scholars' contentions that Le Jeune was overly harsh in his criticism of the tribe, the priest actually admired them very much and saw potential in them to become noble Christians.  Summarizing Le Jeune's praises and criticisms for the Montagnais, Principe explains the historical and philosophical contexts for the priest's word choices, showing that the priest did not consider the natives morally inferior but simply unaware of the "right intention" for their apparently moral actions. (For instance, the Montagnais would not be excessively concerned over their possessions, but only because it would be otherwise more painful if they lost them, not because greed is sinful.)

Taylor, Monique.  "'This is our dwelling': The Landscape Experience of the Jesuit Missionaries to the Huron, 1626-1650." Journal of Canadian Studies  33.2 (1998): 85-96.

Taylor's essay examines the Jesuits' description of the New World landscape as described in the Jesuit Relations and discusses how the missionaries made meaning of the land in relation to their work.  Starting out without a French word for "wilderness," the missionaries were at something of a loss when gazing upon the vast, mostly uncultivated landscape.  To comprehend their experience and make a place for themselves, they would have to describe what they saw in European terms.  As part of their attempts to convert the natives, the Jesuits would use the bountiful landscape as a device that suggested the beneficence of God.

Thwaites, Reuben Gold, ed.  The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France, 1610-1791.   Vol. I-LXXIII.  Cleveland: Burrows Bros., 1896-1901.

This 73-volume collection documents nearly two centuries of Jesuit missionary work in New France.  Virtually every scholarly work on the Jesuits from this place and era is dependent upon these writings.  The priests write about their hardships adapting to harsh conditions, the languages and customs of the various native tribes (e.g. the Algonquins, the Hurons, the Iroquois, etc.), their conversion efforts, and martyrdom at the hands of apostate "savages."  The Relations served as propaganda back in France, encouraging young men to join in the noble quest of saving souls.

Trudel, Marcel. Introduction to New France.  Toronto: Hart, Rinehart and Winston, 1968.

This text provides an account of French exploration, settlement, and dominance (1524-1764) in the area that would later become part of Canada.  Unlike the American history texts criticized by James Loewen in Lies My Teacher Told Me, Trudel's history aims to "stimulate the reader into further study of France," not to declare definitively all that "really" happened in those settlements.  Trudel displays an understanding of cultural differences between tribes like the Algonquins and the Hurons, as well as a sense of the economic and cultural exchanges among the various Amerinds (his word for the natives) and the French traders and settlers.  In a brief section called "Achievements of the Church," (56-57) the author discusses the Jesuits' work in attempting to convert the Hurons, mentioning the killing of "great missionaries" (but not explaining who killed them), and the "dispersal of the Hurons."

Walsh, Michael, ed.  Butler's Lives of the Saints.  San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991.

When Roman Catholics wanted authoritative information on the saints, they have for years gone to Butler's Lives of the Saints.  The book lists various saints in order of their feast days (the date--usually the date of their death--on which the Church observes their holiness and good work) Of particular interest in this edition is the entry for October 19th, honoring "The Martyrs of North America."  The passage provides information on Noel Chabanel as well as Jean de Brebeuf and Isaac Jogues.  While this account is less "objective" than others claim to be (it is strictly interested in the priest's actions and motives, not the natives'), it is of interest for those looking for an "official" account from the Church.

See also:

Altherr, Thomas L.  "'Flesh is the Paradise of a Man of Flesh': Cultural Conflict over Indian Hunting Beliefs and Rituals in New France as Recorded in the Jesuit Relations."  Canadian Historical Review 64 (1983): 267-76.

Blackburn, Carol.  The Jesuit Missions and Colonialism in North America, 1632-1650.  Montreal: McGill-Queens UP, 2000.

Harrod, Howard L.  "Missionary Life-World and Native Response: Jesuits in New France."  Studies in Religion (Sciences Religieuses) 13.2 (1984): 179-93.

Leacock, Eleanor, and Jacqueline Goodman. "Montagnais Marriage and the Jesuits in the Seventeenth Century: Incidents from the Relations of Paul Le Jeune."  Western Canadian Journal of Anthropology 6.3 (1976): 77-91.

Morrison, Kenneth M.  “Discourse and Accommodation of Values: Toward a Revision of Mission History.”  Journal of the American Academy of Religion 53.3 (1985): 365-82.

Ronda, James P.  "The European Indian: Jesuit Civilization Planning in New France."  Church History 31 (1972): 385-95.

---.  "The Sillery Experiment: A Jesuit-Indian Village in New France, 1637-1663."  American Indian Cultures and Research Journal 3.1 (1979): 1-18.

---.  "'We are well as we are': An Indian Critique of Seventeenth-Century Christian Missions."  William and Mary Quarterly 34.1 (1977): 66-82.
 


Video Resource

The Company: Inigo and his Jesuits.  Dir. Joseph D. Fenton.  Narr. Cyril Cusack.  First Run Features Home Video, 1991.

The video provides background on the founding of the Jesuits (in 1551) and a biography of the order's founder, Ignatius of Loyola.  Jesuits from different countries offer their perspectives on Ignatius and the order as it functions today.  Though the film can be helpful for those interested in kind of philosophy Laforgue lived by, it does not go into great depth (it runs about 52 min.) on the Jesuits' North American missions, and does not even mention Fr. Noel Chabanel, the actual Jesuit on whom Laforgue is based.

Online Resources

First Peoples.  http://www.nativetrail.com/en/first_peoples/index.html

This website was constructed by representatives of the First Nations, a collective of Aboriginal nations in what is now known as Canada.  First Nations has been recognized by Quebec as its own governmental entity with rights to preserve the culture of its member nations, such as the Algonquins, the Huron-Wendats, and the Mohawks.  Though this site does not deal in great depth with the Jesuits' interactions with the Amerindians, it does offer an interesting look at valuable information about the nations that have survived in spite of European incursions.

Jesuits Online.  http://www.jesuit.org.

Similar to the video listed above, this resource may not provide much detail about the circumstances surrounding the Jesuits' work in North America, but it does grant the reader an understanding of the order's spirituality.

Jesuit Relations. http://puffin.creighton.edu/jesuit/relations/

Le Moyne College (in Central New York) is in the process of placing the Jesuit Relations online.  So far they have posted Vol. 1-15, 23, and 31-45.  Check this site out for primary material from the 17th century Jesuits themselves without having to seek out a printed anthology.

Wyandot Nation of Kansas Website. http://www.wyandot.org

This website offers a wide range of information on the Wyandot Nation (commonly known as the Hurons--a derogatory name given by the French that referred to their headdress).  One can learn about Wyandot languages and cultures, their history as a people, among and apart from white settlers and missionaries.  Of particular interest to those studying Black Robe is a collection of information about the Jesuit missionaries to New France, including short biographical sketches on figures such Noel Chabanel and Jean de Brebeuf.
 
 

Copyright (c) 2000 by Robert F. Kilker, Graduate Student at Lehigh University.

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