French Empire

One King, One Law, One Faith: Missionaries as an Arm of the French Empire

When it comes to the topic of comparative colonialism, France is a strange case. Up until 1795, it was the most populous country in Europe, with an assumed total of 20 million people living with its borders in the seventeenth-century.1 Yet, their colony of New France would never number more than about 25,000 European inhabitants and settlers, less than the population of colonial Philadelphia alone.2 And, much unlike the English, neither the state actors nor colonizers of New France had any recent experience with colonial conquests upon which to draw. Due to these factors, whereas the wealth of the French kingdom at home was based upon land and the resources drawn from it, the French empire abroad became based upon trade.

One exception to note would be France’s colonies in the Caribbean. Populated almost entirely by slaves from West Africa, these islands became France’s most lucrative colonies that pushed out cash crops like sugar in enormous amounts.

Though the borders of France’s holdings in Europe did expand during the Early Modern era, its biggest territorial acquisitions came through diplomatic alliances, marriages, and inheritances. Due to this lack of outright conquest like we saw with the English in Ireland, I’d like to focus on the way the French state partnered with religious orders in an attempt to acculturate these added territories into a greater ‘Frenchness’ and thus build a French empire. In order to fit this into one blog post, I’ll be concentrating on the territory I know the most about (and which just so happened to be the least French of all the French territories in Europe), Brittany. I’ll then compare the Breton’s experience to that of the Native Nations of what is now eastern Canada.

For about 600 years, Brittany existed as an independent duchy, bordering the French kingdom to the northwest. It’s people were Celtic in culture, their ancestors having immigrated from Celtic England during the Anglo-Saxon invasions following the fall of the Roman Empire. And, the people of Brittany had been Catholic since about the 9th century, when they were evangelized by missionaries from Ireland. But, once Brittany became a province of France in 1547, that didn’t stop the Parisian elite from seeing them as a Celtic ‘other’ who needed to be acculturated.3 But, acculturation as we think of it today, the literal destruction of another people’s culture in favor of the conquering party’s culture (including language, religion, sport, etc.) was still yet impossible in the 16th and 17th centuries. The sheer amount of time that communication would have taken between the various provinces of the Kingdom and its rulers in Paris, and later Versailles, would surely boggle the mind of any modern reader.

So, acculturation into the burgeoning French empire took on one prominent form – conversion to the ‘true’ form of Catholicism as it was practiced by the elites. All over France, people spoke different languages or dialects and practiced different ‘folk’ traditions (I put folk in quotes because it seems to me that the only difference between folk culture and culture was the ability of the latter’s practitioners to make written note of their beliefs and customs). Due to this, throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the French monarchy commissioned the missionization of its people, and nobody fit the bill for a spiritual conquest better than this strange new Celtic province in the northwest.

For the rest of this section, I’d like to focus on one missionary in particular, Julien Maunoir. Originally born in Brittany (though he would grow to forget the Breton language and have to relearn it when he began his missionization), he spent most of his adult life working as a missionary for the Jesuit order in that rocky, maritime province. There was a general sentiment among the Jesuit missionaries of the French provinces that the peasants they encountered were equally “ignorant of the Christian faith as were the pagans of Canada, Constantinople, or Madagascar,” and thus these provinces came to be known as the ‘Black Indies of the Interior.’4

In Brittany, there were two major things that set their version of Catholicism apart from that of the orthodox version put forth by Rome. Having roots in the polytheistic beliefs of their Celtic ancestors, the Breton peasants continued to believe in the concepts of Ankou and the Anaon. Ankou was a skeletal figure, conceived as the harbinger of death. In burial sites across Brittany, pictures of Ankou appear with inscriptions such as:  “With my dart, I will terrorize you”; “I will kill you all”; “poor or rich, there is no one to whom I will give grace.” And, among the peasants of this rocky province, it was widely believed that the last person who died in a calendar year became Ankou for the following year.5 After Ankou had come and taken your soul from its body, if you had unfinished business here on earth, your soul would enter a collectivity of souls, or “society of the dead,” known as the Anaon.6 In pre-Christian Celtic religions, the Anaon had been the dwelling place of the gods and departed souls, but after Brittany’s conversion to Catholicism, it became more a place of purgation, where entry into the Anaon was predicated upon some kind of fault committed while alive.7 And, while souls resided in the Anaon, they dwelled in a metaphysical plane between heaven and earth, and were able to interact with earthly objects and people. It was due to such beliefs that Breton peasants would empty vessels of unused water so that the souls in the house wouldn’t drown, or put a stone by the fireplace so that the souls of their ancestors could sit and warm themselves.8

When Julien Maunoir arrived in Brittany, he was appalled by such beliefs. Labeling them as ‘superstitions’ and ‘sins,’ he wasted no time in preaching against such conceptions of the metaphysical. During the decades Maunoir worked in Brittany, he used a combination of educating children in orthodox belief systems, preaching to large groups (i.e. thousands of onlookers), and performing miracles. It seems to me that this latter method was indeed the most effective, as Maunoir claimed (and I put a large emphasis on ‘claimed’ here) to heal the sick, dispel demons, and induce visions of the Virgin Mary and the official saint of Brittany, Saint Corentin. Essentially, he was trying to mind fuck the Bretons into converting to orthodox Catholicism. Indeed, during the year 1641, while working in Ouessant, an island off the western coast of Brittany, Maunoir says he gave two blind people their vision back. In his memoirs, he describes how, after using a piece of grain that had come in contact with the remains of Saint Corentin, “an old blind man recovered his vision….” and how, “it happened in the same way for a little girl, deprived of her vision since the age of ten.”9 As Maunoir spent about four decades evangelizing the Breton countryside, he gave countless examples of such miraculous occurrences. And, indeed, his tactics seemed to have worked (or least, in his mind they did), as in 1642, he claims to have “obtained the conversion of four thousand sinners.”10

I’ll go ahead and wrap up this section of the post here, though this material is kind of my jam, so I don’t get bogged down and make this post even more dry and academic. But, as we move into the next section, keep in mind the Jesuits’ desire to, as I so eloquently put it, mind fuck their listeners into conversion.

Okay, so, in this section, I’m going to concentrate on source material known as the Jesuit Relations, which is a large body of letters Jesuit missionaries in French Canada sent their superiors back home in Paris. Within these texts, we get another look at how the French empire hoped to use religious conversion as a means of making French citizens out of the Native Nations they claimed to have conquered. Though the French empire, or the French people for that matter, was never as invested in their New World colonies as Spain or England, French monarchs nonetheless saw it as their duty to spread Catholicism and convert ‘the heathen.’ And in this war for souls, the Jesuits were the biggest gun in the king’s arsenal (or maybe I should say musket?).  

It was not just the kings of France who saw “Frenchification” of the peoples of Canada as a primary step to gaining and holding power there, but so did the men they sent to build the French empire. Samuel de Champlain, the founder of Quebec City, and one of the most recognizable names in the history of French Canada and the French empire, is said to have told leaders of the Wendat and Ottawa nations that, once French settlements were established, “our young men will marry your daughters, and we shall be one people.”11 Thus we see a pervasive desire by French leadership to, literally, create a new France in the Americas. Now, this is not to say that the leaders of the French colonies in Canada were more enlightened than their English colonial neighbors to the south, because they weren’t. This policy of intermarriage with and assimilation of the native peoples of Canada stemmed from France’s inability, and unwillingness to, export massive amounts of people from their kingdom to the far flung lands of the French empire, for fear of weakening their standing on the European continent.12

Enter the Jesuits. A class of well educated, staunchly orthodox Catholics from one of the richest places in Europe – they are, essentially, what you’d think of if someone said the phrase, ‘old, dead white guys.’ When the Jesuits arrived in North America, they were appalled by the spiritual beliefs they found among peoples of Canada. And while you cannot represent Native American spiritual beliefs as homogenous across all peoples, as has often been done, there does seem to have been a large animistic principle guiding most of the beliefs featured in the Jesuit Relations. Many people of this area of Canada also seem to have relied on shamans as their spiritual leaders. There were many types of shamans, but the most important was the shaman who could heal illness. Among the Wendat, a ceremony known as the ‘hot cinders dance’ was lead by such a shaman, who used rituals and songs “known only to the holy people belonging to the many Wendat curing societies” to heal the afflicted.13

The Jesuits proved rather adept at playing off beliefs within the native populations that religious men could heal the sick. Just as they did in Brittany, Jesuits in Canada looked to exploit this tradition of supernatural healing to gain converts among the indigenous peoples of Canada. In one section of the Relations, we get a story in which a Jesuit known as Father Biard

according to his custom, [was] visiting the sick people of the place, and reciting over them passages from the holy Gospels, [when he was] showed [sic] a certain one [Native American man] who was not expected to live, having been sick for three months. He was then having a violent attack, speaking only with great difficulty, and bathed in a cold perspiration, the forerunner of death. The Jesuit had him kiss a cross several times, which he attached to his neck, announcing as well as he could the good tidings of the salvation acquired thereby; there were a number of Savages present, who listened, and, by their countenances, showed great satisfaction in what was being said. The Father left them thus kindly disposed, and returned to the barque. Now what God did in his absence was apparent from what we saw a day later. For when Sieur de Biencourt was trading in his barque, this Savage, with several others, came there healthy and happy, parading his cross, and, with great demonstrations of joy, expressed his gratitude to Father Biard before them all.”14

Sorry for the long quote, but I think it’s rather telling. We see two Jesuits using symbols and rituals that were key to the Catholic conception of the divine in order to heal a sick man. As we have seen, such a process of healing was not foreign to the native peoples of Canada, but fit neatly within their own conceptions of the universe. And so, when the man was healed, he seems to have thanked the Jesuits for their intercession on his behalf, and believed that the artifact used in his healing, the cross, held some sort of supernatural ability.

Through processes like this, the Jesuits looked to convert the Native Nations of Canada, and bring them into the Catholic fold. While the Jesuits first priority may not have been the political power of France or the spread of the French empire, it certainly seems to be the reason the monarchy sent them.


  4. Dominiques Deslandres, “Dreams Clash: The War over Authorized Interpretation in Seventeenth-Century French Missions,” in Empires of God: Religious Encounters in the Early Modern Atlantic ed. Linda Gregerson and Susan Juster (University of Pennsylvania Press, April 2013): 145
  5. Jordan Baker, “Economy of Salvation,” 25
  6. Alain Croix, La Bretagne aux 16e et 17e siècles: la vie, la mort, la foi, tome II (Paris: Maloine S.A. Editeur, 1981), 1059.
  7. Jordan Baker, “Economy of Salvation,” 26
  8. Elizabeth Tingle, “The sacred space of Julien Maunoir: the re-Christianising of the landscape in seventeenth-century Brittany,” in Sacred space in early modern Europe ed. Will Coster and Andrew Spicer (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 252.
  9. Erec Lébèc. Miracles et Sabbats: Journal de Père Julien Maunoir. Paris: Les editions de Paris, 1997, 39.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Saliha Belmessous, “Assimilation and Racialism in Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century French Colonial Policy,” The American Historical Review, Volume 110, Issue 2, 1 April 2005, 327.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Georges E. Sioui, Huron-Wendat: The Heritage of the Circle, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1999,161-162.
  14. Jesuit Relations, Volume 4: Québec 1633 to 1634, Biard’s Relation de la Nouvelle France, 92.

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