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17TH C.





goose or the stupidity of humanity

Birds of A Feather Flock Together

— Miriam Claude Meijer, Ph.D. —


Like all historical inquiries, the question of seventeenth-century French interpretations of the non-Europeans is formulated with hindsight. Looking back we know that as the world map became progressively more accurately delineated in early modern Europe, no similarly reliable sketch of aboriginal cultures was to be realized for a very long time. The reason is simple. Unlike geography, anthropology is a field in which human beings are studied by human beings. Its subject matter is consequently very complex and the articulation of the discipline’s research questions required time to rise from a multiple of origins and a variety of influences. Historians who are in the process of documenting the unique shift in western culture from folk to scientific anthropology routinely ignore seventeenth-century France. This essay examines why this neglect occurs, why this historiographical attitude is incorrect, and how French interpretations of the Americans, Asians, and Africans should be understood in the context of their time and in the history of anthropology.

Every society throughout time provided authoritative explanations for some anthropological concerns but traditional knowledge was generally limited by the personal experience of the chief or priest.[1] Anthropological answers rest on a more reliable foundation when the total range in the physical types of mankind or the actual antiquity of humanity, for example, are known. Since it was Europeans who explored the entire globe, the history of anthropology has convenient landmarks. Direct and consistent contact with Africa, Asia, and America began in the late fifteenth century. The world’s first anthropological society was established in 1799: “La Société des observateurs de l’homme.”[2] Despite the fact that this professionalization of the discipline occurred in France, the reign of Louis XIV is passed over as a murky prehistory out of which the Enlightenment raw data mysteriously arose. This is a consequence of the current consensus that contacts with the new worlds and peoples resulted only in a “blunted impact.”[3]

The “blunted impact” thesis was a historical correction of the “intellectual crisis” school. Chinard, Pinot, Atkinson, and Paul Hazard were students of Gustave Lanson. The only ones to have taken early modern France seriously in the content of travel literature influence, they were trained to make the contact experience responsible for the development of rationalism and tended to seek Enlightenment precursors. The “blunted impact” proponents see the intellectual aspect of European expansion from the opposite vantage point, the chronologically true one, and thereby conclude that the bewildering variety of peoples did not excite general concern or reshape thought.

While information, such as the letters of Columbus and Vespucci, were initially received with enthusiasm, interest slacked off thereafter. Twice as many books were published on the Turks than on the Amerindians in the sixteenth century. The taste for the exotic was satisfied by the medieval anthologies with their sensational wild man folklore imagery.

When Spain became so rich, proud, and powerful by her American conquests that she permitted the daring criticisms of native policies by Las Casas, translations began to circulate in France. Editors and readers were motivated, however, by religious (Protestant versus Catholic interpretations) or political motives (the “Black Legend” which exploited Iberian actions in America as grounds for anti-imperialism in Europe).

The Indian himself remained a creature of curiosity. Characteristic of the early contact period was the abduction of Indians. It paralleled the age’s passion for collecting curios and spectacular festivals. One of the most extravagant was the 1550 recreation of a Brazilian village in Rouen, in which 50 of the 300 “savages” were real Indians.[4] Both Rabelais and Montaigne got to meet Amerindians face to face in France.

The uses which Rabelais, Montaigne, and André Thévet made of the contact in their writings illustrate how Europeans were generally unmoved by foreign cultures. Rabelais, who had interviewed Jacques Cartier and had his literary hero Pantagruel visit Canada, purposely embellished Cartier’s boring realism by transferring tropical circumstances to the north.[5]

Public disdain for dry accuracies is similarly evident in the success story of the Franciscan Thévet (1512-1592). Before becoming royal historiographer and guardian of the royal cabinet of curiosities, Thévet had traveled to Italy, Spain, North Africa, Egypt and had participated on Durand de Villegagon’s ill-fated French expedition to Brazil. The original use he made of Aztec manuscripts revised his status in the history of anthropology, but this was not at all the cause for his fame in his day.[6] The court rewarded him for the fabulous stories that he related in his Singularitez de la France antarctique (1558) and Cosmographie universelle (1575). He was among the first to use the new technique of engraving to publish illustrations with his text. For more than two centuries European editors borrowed from his and the Protestant De Brys’ pictorial repertories to illustrate new travel reports.

Michel Montaigne (1533-1592) has long been designated as an early cultural relativist and propagator of the “Noble Savage” theme. Historiographical revision of his moral skepticism in the essay “Des cannibals,” his Lascasian defense of the Indians in “Des coches,” and his mention of the Chinese in ”De l’experience” concludes, however, that Montaigne also had no interest in aliens for their own sake. Most of his material was borrowed.[7] He metamorphized the classical Golden Age into the bon sauvage in order to document that modern Frenchmen were moral pygmies compared to the Ancients.[8] Although his criticism of the Spanish conquest is unique for its secularism, it cannot be assumed that the skeptical tradition rose from the geographical discoveries. Humanist skepticism was more likely linked to revulsion from the Religious Wars as it was to the increased availability of classical texts from the printing press.[9]

The richness of Europe’s dual Judeo-Christian and classical traditions made it so resilient that novelties of all types could be absorbed without internal damage. “Whether a blessing or a curse, variety was at least intelligible in a traditional Christian or Platonist context.”[10] Bacon, Galileo, Newton, and Leibniz saw themselves more as servants of some deep tradition whose lost wisdom they were recovering than as pioneers. New worlds and the new science intensified the inherited intellectual scheme because it was assumed that everything belonged to a universal order of things.

Blunted as the impact may have been, it does not follow that seventeenth-century France should be discarded from consideration in the history of anthropology. If historians agree that the new worlds were not comprehensible in their own terms to the early modern Europeans, they are using a negative epistemological premise. They are focusing on these Europeans’ “impediments” to anthropological reality.[11] A more historical approach and a more positive methodological direction is to study the conceptual strategies through which the contemporaries assimilated new information into their “universe of discourse.”[12]

This goal necessitates examination of seventeenth-century French interpretations of non-Europeans. Even if France were not prominent in American colonies or commercial relations with China, she held political hegemony and was the leading intellectual intermediary. The new sources for anthropological data furthermore came from her subjects. The Jesuits in New France and Peking inundated seventeenth-century Europe with their articulate and zealous Relations.

The popularity of their yearly reports does not indicate a birth of genuine interest in native peoples. If this had been the case, it would not have been so necessary for the Jesuits to propagandize. Public attention generated in the context of religious and political controversies. In the process European knowledge of the non-Europeans did increase, even if a comparative comprehension did not follow at equal pace.

The French and Amerindian cultures were after all directly opposed in their conceptual frameworks. The Indian was intimately dependent on nature, lived in harmony with his environment and saw himself as having a contractual relationship with the forces of nature. In sharp contrast, the Frenchman saw himself as superior to nature; intervened in nature to bend its forces to his own objectives. French contractual relations were to various authorities: God, King, the seigneur, the religious superior, the monopolist. Much mutual incomprehensibility occurred between the two peoples.

French insistence on commands, class, hierarchies and estates puzzled the Amerindians. The Jesuits interpreted what appeared to be a native lack of leadership as anarchy or as license. Amerindians, who assumed stoicism to be a universal human value, thought that Frenchmen acted like women because they were “excited in their movements” and often “speak all together and interrupt one another.”[13] An administrative pyramid determined French codes of conduct and justice. While Amerindians compensated the injured party, French justice focused on punishment of the guilty with rigid impersonality.

Collectivist and individualistic values differentiated attitudes in war as well. Europeans, who observed formalities in declaring, conducting and ceasing hostilities, found aboriginal warfare inexplicable. Because it was generally non-economic and non-political in motive, it appeared spontaneous in its outbreak, unregulated in its conduct, and unrelenting in its ferocity. Any recognition of its religious character or masculine courage was obliterated by the emotional impact the effects had on French observers.

The cruelty of Amerindian platform torture and scalping was never compared with the cruelty of French judicial practices or military abuses. Europeans felt such intense repulsion at ritual cannibalism and mutilation that dispassionate study of what function these customs fulfilled was impossible. The Jesuits’ extensive treatment of these matters in the Relations is justified by their threat of martyrdom. It helped distort subsequent literature on Indians but the underlying fear accounts for the age’s “blunted” response to intercultural contact.

In other words, European shock, implicit in texts and icons, indicates that they were not blind to cultural differences.[14] The disturbance of this recognition made psychological assimilation a matter of urgency. Ryan has suggested that the unconscious mechanism for immediate assimilation was the concept of paganism:

“In a Europe which could still see itself as a Respublica Christiana, paganism was the most inclusive, unambiguous category of otherness. Moreover, what distinguishes much of this early ethnography from later traditions is the fact that more often than not it was written by missionaries and formed part of a problematic of conversion.”[15]

The Canadian Relations were not just written by missionaries but by the order that was the most steeped in humanistic scholarship. Terminology for pagans and paganism was conveniently at hand in Classical and Patristic antiquity: gentiles, ethnici, barbari, etc. From the beginning of contact, Americans, Africans and Asians could be incorporated into this enormous literature. Writers seemed to express a kind of joy whenever past and present heathens conformed.

“This tendency to compare — if not confuse — ancients with exotics has puzzled some historians, who have regarded it as an example of the heavy hand of ancient authority, as an obstacle to the achievement of a clearer perspective, and as the root of an epistemological problem which has informed ethnological thinking for the past two centuries.”[16]

Establishment of a commonality was in fact the preliminary step to assimilation.

The Jesuits in New France verbalized their feelings of approval, repugnance, and purpose in terms of paganism. The general view that Indians were a healthy and handsome people was, for example, expressed in the following fashion:

“J’ay quasi creu autrefois que les images des empereurs romains représentaient l’idée des peintres, plus tost que des hommes qui eussent jamais esté, tant leurs testes sont grosses et puissantes, mais je vis icy sur les espaules de ce peuple les testes de Jules César, de Pompée, d’Auguste, d’Othon et des autres que ju’ai veu en France tirées sur le papier ou relevées en médailles.”[17]

This selection was taken from the chapter entitled “Les choses bonnes qui se trouvent dans les sauvages.” Historians believe that such “good” remarks about the aborigines are linked to missionary polemics and tended to increase with Rome’s displeasure with the Jesuit methods.[18]

Jesuit displeasure with Amerindian practices made Satan the culprit behind paganism. Gilbert Chinard, the first to examine the Relations for the history of ideas, commented on this obsession:

“Dans les premières relations, on trouve fermement établie cette croyance que le Canada est par excellence la terre des démons. Si nous en croyons les Jésuites, il n’est pas de contrée où l’empire de Satan soit plus fermement établi. Dans leurs récits, on voit se succéder scènes de diableries arrangées par les jongleurs des tribus, cérémonies d’exorcisme, morts terrifiantes où le démon attend au pied du lit d’un moibond que l’âme s’échappe de ses lèvres pour la saisir, apparitions nocturnes dans les forêts...”[19]

The 1639 Relation closed its final chapter with the title “Du règne de Satan en ces contrées et des diverses superstitions qui s’y trouvent introduites et établies comme premiers principes et lois fondamentales de l’Estat et conservation de ces peoples.”[20] Seventeenth-century Europe, which still witnessed witchcraft trials and had a large body of demonological theory, supplied the Jesuits with the conceptual tools to make sense of shamanic trances and other inexplicable, often terrifying, native behavior.[21]

These horrors that the Jesuits bravely faced convinced them all the more of the truth and goodness of their own revealed religion. The Biblical prophecies that said that the pagans would be converted maintained their apostolic courage. In the beginning of contact, when voyagers described everything in the negative because the absence of European institutions meant “ni roi, ni loi, ni foi,” (“neither king, law, or faith” was a play on words of King Louis XIV’s motto: “un roi, une loi, une foi” meaning one king, one law, one faith only) it was thought that no religion existed in the New World to oppose Catholic conversion. However, intimate living with the Amerindians over time acquainted the Jesuits with some of their spiritual beliefs, which may also account for the progressively increased tone of apology in the Relations. Nevertheless, a comprehensive understanding of either native religion or the role of religion in culture was never achieved.

The aspects of Amerindian culture that were the most mysterious and troublesome to the French were the ones that were spiritually based. Scalping, for instance, probably evolved from a pre-contact practice of headhunting; spiritual connotations of a cult of the skull are not absent in Catholicism (saint relics).[22] While both the French and Amerindian believed in spirit possession, the former saw it as undesirable whereas the latter sought it out. The importance of the dream in native culture was universally commented upon. This was an expression of supernatural direction that the Jesuits themselves wanted to use.[23]

Native resistance to conversion was the greatest hurdle in French-Amerindian relations. Except in crisis of war — such as the famous but ill-fated conversion of the sedentary Hurons — or by promise of trade privileges, the Jesuits never succeeded in converting the population. French officials saw this religious assimilation policy as the means of raising the Amerindians to equal status with the Europeans.[24] They could not understand why these attractive and intelligent people failed to be brought to “right reason.”

French policy-makers interpreted certain Amerindian characteristics as improper behavior. Aboriginal resourcefulness and adaptability in the wilderness environment stood in contrast to French advance planning and made them appear unreliable. The nomadic tribes resembled too closely the movement of beggars in France. Indian labor division made it appear that the men never worked. The lack of professions and the permissive child rearing made these people idlers in the judgment of Louis XIV himself no less.[25]

Colbert, as Minister of the Marine with responsibility for the colonies, determined to correct native defects. In 1665 manual labor was ordered to be part of the children’s school curriculum.[26] But the religious schools could not manage to hang on to the majority of their wards. French discipline was an aberration to a people for whom education was an integral part of everyday life. The administration blamed the Jesuits in 1668 for failing to carry out royal orders by claiming that they sought baptismal statistics.[27] In public challenge to the Jesuits, colonial officials tried to raise some native children themselves, to prove acculturation possible, but they were unsuccessful.[28] The more drastic segregation of adults in the Jesuit reserves disintegrated into refugee camps. By 1685 — the year that the French monarch sent the first Jesuit mathematicians to China — ecclesiastical and civil officials admitted public defeat.

French desire to reshape Amerindian customs along Christian or mercantilist lines was blind to the reality that native religion, culture, and psychological well being were as mutually interdependent as in European civilization.

“Conversion to Catholicism was as much a deviation from accepted forms of behavior and as much a threat to group cohesion and established authority among the Hurons as Huguenotism was a threat to national unity and prosperity to the Catholics in France.”[29]

The seventeenth-century mind was closed to this kind of holistic analysis by the very reason that it leaned towards historic analysis.

The age of Louis XIV, sickened by the religious wars of the preceding century, sought to control human passion by rational means. The achievements of Descartes indicated a positive direction towards order. Thinking in terms of measurement, however, resulted in the systematics and taxonomies so characteristic of the seventeenth century. The items that were thus classified were correlated in the imagination by the unity of origin.[30] Europeans understood that the present state of their civilization was the result of a genealogy. Its sources were presented in the inspired book of Genesis. Consequently they were more interested in the past than in the present of the non-Europeans.[31]

stork or Chinese

Noahide ancestors were still being eagerly sought for the Amerindians in the seventeenth century, but it was the discovery of the Chinese imperial annals that made a real impact in Europe. The most impressive quality of these records in the century of Newton was the fact that the Chinese historians had marked important events with astronomical observations. The first systematic account of Chinese chronology was Father Martinio Martini’s Sinicae historiae decas prima (1658), translated into French by 1692. Seven Chinese emperors are described as having reigned before the generally accepted date for the Flood. Although Martini did not try to reconcile the sacred and profane chronologies, European scholars pursued various alternatives throughout the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Among those who tried to identify the Chinese emperors with Old Testament patriarchs, the most extreme group was the “Figurists.” They hoped to confirm the common origin of Christianity and Confucianism by interpreting Chinese history figuratively rather than literally. They were in communication with Leibniz, an advocate of perennial philosophy, the belief that the Chinese ancient record could help recover the original revelation to Adam. A more immediate solution to the problem was to adopt chronological calculations from the Greek Septuagint text instead of the commonly used Hebrew Masoretic version. The Jesuits in China resorted to this after 1658.

They had little choice. In China, rejection of the ancient emperors led to a penalty of death. The Jesuits moreover were trying to convert the literati by presenting the bible as a historic aid to them! Their presence in the xenophobic Celestial Kingdom, where all non-Chinese were viewed as barbarians, was thanks only to their mathematical and astronomical skills. Jesuit willingness to accommodate with Chinese customs for the sake of conversion were so far as to wearing mandarin robes, saying the Mass in Chinese, and turning a blind eye to ancestor worship. The adversaries of the Jesuits raised a storm in Europe. The “Quarrel of the Chinese Rites” would have remained an internal theological quarrel if Pascal had not foreseen its convenience for the Jansenists.[32] China entered French consciousness thereafter in a form heavily edited by the Jesuits.

The doctrine of Confucius became a Jesuit specialty. The teachings of the six-century B.C. “Sage” were the result of his brilliant and humble life experiences. Jesuit interpretation of Confucius represented his cult as a secular conduct of ethics. This would not conflict with conversion supposedly. The Jesuits stressed only the non-disturbing elements of Chinese life, as the following letter illustrates, when Father Couplet and his neophyte visited the monarch Louis XIV.

“Le jeune Indien estoit en ses habits Indiens, ayant une riche veste de Brocard d’or fond bleu, avec des figures de Dragons, et un visage affreux sur le haut de chaque manche. Sa Majesté après avoir entendu ses prières en langue Chinoise lui fit servir une Assiette sur la Table, pour voir la propreté et l’adresse des Chinois à manger avec dux petites baguettes d’yvoire à quatre pans, et d’un pied de long, qu’ils tiennent dans la main droite entre deux doigts. Peu de jours après le P. Couplet et son Chinois reçurent des visiteurs à la maison de St. Luis et ils leur montrèrent quantité de portraits sur du tafetas de la Chine et notamment le Docteur Confucius, avec ses grandes moustaches noires.”[33]

Confusion about Asians, fascination with Chinese design, curiosity about chopsticks, and Doctor Confucius were the extent of French interest in the Chinese themselves. By ignoring Chinese Buddhism, Taoism, contemporary revisions of Confucianism, and popular superstitions, the Jesuits created an image that was readily assimilated to European patterns. Rationalistic Confucianism became synonymous with China for a century.

Distorted from reality as the Jesuit representation was, its details were susceptible of ever more divergent interpretations. The seventeenth-century heirs of humanistic skeptics, the so-called libertines erudits used anthropological data of the day, which were practically always Jesuit, the way “St. Paul had utilized Greek sources and culture in establishing the primacy of Christianity.”[34] What the Jesuits used to prove Chinese commonality to Christianity, the freethinkers used to assert Chinese atheism. Natives’ easy birthing, lack of shame of nudity, and their widespread belief in immortality also served to undermine Biblical authority. One of the most popular supports for seventeenth-century deism was Garcilaso de la Vega’s Historia de los Incas, repeatedly reprinted in French after 1632, because the author was half-Indian and the account described an ideal kingdom that had but shortly existed. Cyrano de Bergerac, Gabriel de Foigny, Denis Vairasse, Claude Gilbert, and Tyssot de Patot all borrowed such details for their “libertine” opinions. That the travel reports assimilated with, rather than caused, skepticism is exemplified in François La Mothe le Vayer’s La vertu des payens, written in 1641 for Richelieu to help discredit the Jansenists. La Mothe is credited with being the first to juxtapose the classical and ontemporary pagan in a chapter headed “De Confucious, le Socrate de la Chine.” Pierre Bayle would argue the former’s ideas to the extreme, independence of morality from religion, fifty years later.[35]

Most social critics in seventeenth-century France wanted to stay within the bounds of tradition. When Jesuit missionaries implied criticism by praising an aspect of Indian life that had a counterpart in France, they intended reform within the orthodox framework. China proved to be a particularly fruitful means of judging the government of Louis XIV. A monarchy ruled by a sovereign with absolute power as in France, China was extolled for superior results (e.g., a more numerous population) because its absolutism was unimpeded by external controls. These commentators hinted for a purer or more paternalistically run government in France. Vauban, in his outspoken Projet d’une dîme royale (1707), tried to pass China among his gospel and Greek examples as proof that his tax reform proposals were not innovations.

Anthropological information not only provided flexible source material, but it served as a rhetorical device of itself. The ability of travel reports to slip in innocent-appearing satire in long descriptions of distant countries created a new type of novel in the seventeenth century. Fictitious narratives called “Extraordinary Voyages,” purporting to be a true account of a voyage made to an existent but little known land together with a description of the happy condition of society found there, was a freer medium for didactic purposes. Fénelon, was the only great author to explore this genre in this century; Les Aventures de Télémaque enjoyed twenty printings in 1699 alone. His use of an ancient East Mediterranean setting and Greek epic style did not disguise the details borrowed from travel reports in shipwrecks, port description, land clearings, and the Indian-like commonwealth of the ideal Bétique.[36] But the fact that the Kingdom of Salente, that resembled a seventeenth-century European community, was the only one in which practical reforms were suggested illustrated once more the Eurocentric end to which anthropological information was applied.

The increasingly fictitious references to alien cultures — exemplified in the Noble Savage and Chinese Sage motives that would predominate in the Enlightenment — was in direct proportion to the social disorganization of the post-contact lands. Contact had resulted in epidemics, today referred to as a protohistoric disaster, which well continued into the seventeenth century. Fatal too was the demoralization that followed the disruption in native culture. Adopting the material goods from the Europeans had altered traditional habits and created an interdependency from which neither party could withdraw. Dependence upon French suppliers intensified the struggles for middleman status and enabled the French to insist on assimilation, i.e. Frenchification. French society was sufficiently supple to absorb new elements; traditional society was not. Comprised of resourceful and chauvinistic individuals, Amerindian society itself was held together by the very belief system the French sought to undermine. The Amerindians developed counter-innovative techniques, particularly on the new religion, but the relentless attacks on their value system (e.g., the impotency of the shamans to cope with the new infections) made them adopt some of the worst elements from European culture (e.g., alcoholism).

The French had some sense of how well integrated Amerindian culture was: the latter had a notable ability to attract and integrate outsiders successfully into their societies, quite in contrast to the French.[37] For one group of people the French never entertained any question of assimilation or conversion: the Africans. Race may not yet have reified in seventeenth-century Europe but African slaves were singled out among the world’s people. Acquainted with Africa from Biblical and ancient accounts, Europeans saw the Africans as tainted by their ancient enemy of Islam. As with the Chinese, the Africans themselves otherwise remained unknown to the Europeans throughout the century, but their enslaved members were subject to a peculiar double standard by the Europeans.

vulture or Africans

Circumstances afforded the Amerindians a certain protection from complete exploitation. If colonists occasionally enslaved hostile Indians, as the natives themselves did, their trade and survival ultimately depended on friendly relationships. Indian slaves could escape on their home territory. Furthermore, Indian slavery required witnessing the violence of the act, making it difficult to maintain the classical justification of enslavement for crime. However, conditions for the Africans were otherwise.

Originally the West African kingdoms had been able to deal on nearly equal terms with the European traders, but, as among the Amerindians, the intrusion of European goods unbalanced native societies. While tribal power grew increasingly dependent on guns, slaves remained the only commodity in great demand by the Europeans. Colbert’s investments in the Caribbean sugar economies greatly encouraged the slave trade. The remoteness of the African continent and the fact that captives were generally derived from the hinterland made it easier for Europeans to deny the true violence of enslavement. They preferred to imagine interior Africa as a hostile world and that the removal of her inhabitants was a form of blessing for them.[38] African slaves had no place to escape to once they were shipped to the New World.

The missionaries who protested vigorously against Indian slavery themselves owned African slaves. The colonists who demanded more and more slaves at the same time feared the disproportionate growth between the latter and themselves. And the age that devoted increasing attention to liberty in Europe was ironically based on slave labor abroad. No European philosopher in the seventeenth century criticized slavery.

rooster or Frenchmen

The reign of reason under Louis XIV had limitations. Cartesian thought was as conducive to cartographical exactness, technological precision, and economic theories as it was not to anthropological conceptualizations and evaluations. The colonial policy that failed in New France failed because cultural reality was not understood as a phenomenon in itself. Seventeenth-century thinking translated reality through mathematics, taxonomy, and genealogy. Mercantilism thus designated the Africans as slaves, paganism proclaimed that the Amerindians could be assimilated, and antiquity endowed the Chinese libraries with veneration.

European dilution of alien otherness was due to the fact that it was they who physically explored the rest of the world. This psychological ownership forced all anthropological data to serve home interest. The further the material got from its scene of origin, the more distorted the image of the non-European became from reality. By the time that the most radical French writers used the Jesuit information, preconceived dreams or grievances were hung on a skeleton proclaimed to be an Indian or Chinaman.

While this literary trend became a characteristic specialty in the eighteenth century, the change of mental climate that opened directions to anthropological thinking had less to do with Voltaire or Defoe than an epistemological dissatisfaction with order and mechanism. Analysis in the nature of biology, rather than botany, provided organic insights into cultural interpretations, but it also had the unfortunate side effect of introducing grounds for theories of physical races instead of mere human variety.

Historians of anthropology reflect this very history. There is a wide practice of pointing out that seventeenth-century travel literature failed to notice the color of skin or other racial characteristics.

“Indeed, it was not until roughly about 1750, that writers began to notice what are for us obvious differences [our italics], so as to think them worthy of mention.”[39]

This articulation comments as much about our era as the following report, so frequently cited in the seventeenth-century voyages, reflected the France full of pain from the religious wars:

“These people are contented and have plenty. They have neither churches, priests, nor any ceremonies of religion.”[40]


[1] Anthropologists group this information as “folk anthropology” or “ethnoscience.” Its quality has been reevaluated. Amerindian medicine, for example, was superior to the French in the seventeenth century. A. Irving Hallowell, “The History of Anthropology as an Anthropological Problem,” Readings in the History of Anthropology, ed. Regna Darnell (New York: Harper and Row, 1974): 304-321. Cornelius J. Jaenen, Friend and Foe: Aspects of French-Amerindian Cultural Contact in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ontario: McClelland and Stewart, 1976): 105.

[2] This society was only rediscovered in the 1960s by George W. Stocking, Jr. For a brief summary of the history of the history of anthropology, see Robert Wokler, “The Ape Debates in Enlightenment anthropology,” Transactions of the Fifth International Congress on the Enlightenment 192 (1980): 1166-7.

[3] John H. Elliott, “Renaissance Europe and America: A Blunted Impact?” First Images of America: The Impact of the New World on the Old, ed. Fredi Chiappelli (University of California Press, 1976), v. 1, pp. 11-23. A. Irving Hallowell, ibid. Donald F. Lach, Asia in the Making of Europe (University of Chicago Press, 1977), v. 2, bk. 2. G. V. Scammell, “The New Worlds and Europe in the Sixteenth Century,” Historical Journal 12 (1969): 389-412.

[4] This kind of celebration did not disappear in the Classical Age. Louis XIV was entertained by Iroquois captives canoeing on the ponds of Versailles, and his court is said to have ushered the year 1700 in with Chinese festivals. Jaenen, p. 15. Basil Guy, The French Image of China Before and After Voltaire (Geneva: Les Delices, 1963): 176.

[5] Gilbert Chinard, L’Exotism américain dans la literature françse au XVIe siècle d’après Rabelais, Ronsard, Montaigne, etc. (Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1911, 1970): 40, 62.

[6] Chinard, ibid. Daniel Defert, “The Collection of the World: Accounts of Voyages from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Centuries,” Dialectical Anthropology 7 (1982): 11-20. Benjamin Keen, The Aztec Image in Western Thought (Rutgers University Press, 1971). Frank Lestringant, “Les representations du sauvage dans l’iconographie relative aux ouvrages du cosmographe André Thevet,” Bibliothèque d’humanisme et renaissance, travaux et documents 40 (1978): 583-595. Alfred Métraux, “Les précurseurs de l’ethnologie en France du XVIe au XVIIIe siècle,” Cahiers d’histoire mondiale 7 (1963): 721-738.

[7] Chinard, p.196.

[8] R. A. Sayce, The Essays of Montaigne: A Critical Exploration (London: 1972) as cited in Jaenen, p. 147.

[9] Michael T. Ryan, “Assimilating New Worlds in the sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 23 (1981): 520.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The one historian who wrote on the 17th century in the context of anthropology, Margaret T. Hodgen, falls into this anachronistic pattern of analysis as well.

[12] Ryan, ibid.

[13] Father Sagard as cited in Cornelius J. Jaenen, “Amerindian Views of French Culture in the Seventeenth Century,” Canadian Historical Review 55 (1974): 261-291.

[14] Lestringant, ibid. Bernadette Bucher, Icon and Conquest: A Structural Analysis of the Illustrations of de Bry’s “Great Voyages,” trans. of “La sauvage aux seins pendants” by Basia Miller Gulati (University of Chicago Press, 1977, 1981).

[15] Ryan, p. 525.

[16] Ryan, p. 529.

[17] Father Lejeune, Relation de 1634, as quoted in Gilbert Chinard, L’Amérique et le rêve exotique dans la literature française au XVIIe et au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Droz, 1934): 139.

[18] George R. Healy, “The French Jesuits and the Idea of the Noble Savage,” William and Mary Quarterly 15 (1958): 143-167.

[19] Chinard, L’Amérique, p. 134.

[20] Ibid., p. 135.

[21] “The conformities Satan helped establish outlived him and became enduring features in ethnography: ancestor of the ‘primitive mind’.” Ryan, p. 531.

[22] Something that the Protestants were happy to point out as well. Jaenen, Friend and Foe, pp. 122-125.

[23] Ibid., pp. 57-58.

[24] Ibid., pp. 153-154.

[25] Ibid., p. 84.

[26] Ibid., 175.

[27] Ibid., pp. 175-176.

[28] In 1672, and again in 1680. Ibid., p. 176.

[29] Ibid., p. 65.

[30] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, trans. of “Les mots et les choses” (New York: vintage, 1966, 1973). James Edward King, Science and Rationalism in the Government of Louis XIV: 1661-1683 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1949).

[31] Ryan, p. 531.

[32] Virgile Pinot, La Chine et la formation de l?esprit philosophique en France (1640-1740) (Paris: Geuthner, 1932): 79-81.

[33] September 1684, Mercure Galant, as quoted in footnote 74 in Pinot, p. 44.

[34] Guy, p. 107.

[35] Ibid., pp. 118-129.

[36] Geoffroy Atkinson, The Extraordinary Voyage in French Literature before 1700 (New York: AMs Press, 1920, 1966): 144-153. Geoffroy Atkinson, The Extraordinary Voyage in French Literature from 1700 to 1720 (Paris: Champion, 1922): 27.

[37] Jaenen, Friend and Foe, pp. 184-5.

[38] David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Cornell University Press, 1966): 131-132, 153, 176-186.

[39] Guy, p. 165.

[40] Atkinson, The Extraordinary Voyage in French Literature from 1700 to 1720, p. 18.


Centre de Recherche sur la Littérature des Voyages

Jesuits and the Sciences: 1540-1995

Mapping New Worlds


Virtual Museum of New France

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