Review of Peter A. Goddard’s “The Devil in New France: Jesuit Demonology”


The essay The Devil in New France: Jesuit Demonology, 1611-50 by Peter A. Goddard is an informative and well researched look at the attitudes and opinions of the Jesuits and early missionaries regarding demonology during the pre-enlightenment period of the early to mid-seventeenth century in New France. Goddard’s opening paragraph focuses on the observations of a number of pioneering missionaries and Jesuits which lends credence to the theory that demonology was alive and well in the minds of these religious men. Quoted or paraphrased sources include Paul Le Jeune, Jean de Brébeuf and Pierre Biard. These sources are especially relevant as they supply the reader with firsthand observations by people that lived in the culture and time in question, namely between 1611-50. Goddard presents ample evidence suggesting Jesuits truly believed Algonquian and Iroquoian peoples where directly influenced by the Devil. Bruce Trigger, Karen Anderson and William Eccles concur that Jesuits had an ardent belief in the Devil and that New France was “truly a fertile ground for the Demon.”

The clash of cultures between European explorers and First Nations people reveals a host of differences in attitudes, beliefs and core values that often led to misunderstandings and even armed conflicts. First Nations were generally matrilineal, while the Jesuits where patrilineal. The multitude of cultural differences led to mutual suspicion and distrust. Although both Europeans and First Nations had colourful and well-entrenched beliefs in the afterlife, the European’s dogmatic approach and religious zeal framed their mission to convert the so-called savages. Since the native’s beliefs were not organized or hierarchical, the Europeans did not consider them to be true religion. They believed that the only path to eternal salvation lay in the acceptance of the Catholic religion through baptism. It can be argued that First Nations people may have been more accepting of Catholicism if not for the fact that many baptized people were struck down by disease and illnesses. The Jesuits exhibited a number of other characteristics that further exacerbated the issue, for example they had a tendency to dress in all black, they had mysterious contrivances, such as clocks and the written word. First Nations relied on oral tradition in the form of stories or songs in order to pass on information and to record their history as a people. These cultural differences led many First Nations to distrust the white men and to think of them as sorcerers and workers of evil magic.

For their part, the Europeans had their own misconceptions regarding the native people. Initially, they were quick to assign devilish influences whenever they witnessed practices they considered to be irreligious.  Dream guidance was one such issue of contention. Jean de Brébeuf states that the natives “consider the dream as the master of their lives, it is the God in their country.” The issue of dream guidance is also referenced in the film Black Robe, released in 1991. In the film, Chimona, the Algonquin Chief, has a prophetic dream about Jean LaForgue, a Jesuit priest who is traveling with them. With great import and reverence he recounts the dream to his men. His dream suggests a course of action, which is interpreted as the need to leave Jean LaForgue, the Black Robe, behind. When one of Chimona’s warriors says, “a dream is more real than death and battle” it further illustrates the importance of dreams to the First Nations people. The early Jesuits saw these dreams as evidence of direct communication between the Devil and the heathens.

The concept of good and evil, heaven and hell, and the struggle between God and the Devil was pervasive during the seventeenth century. The Jesuits used these themes to underscore the importance of conversion. Through the use of illustrations or pictures, Jesuits could communicate exoterically to their intended converts. It is worth noting that when the Jesuits requested images from Europe they asked for demonic depictions of hell, not the gentler and uplifting images of Jesus and heaven. This may have been a tool used to frighten the people into accepting baptism. Contrary to the use of fear and scare tactics, the Europeans also gave gifts as a way to incent co-operation. These gifts included basic tools and implements as well as the highly prized muskets, which according to French policy were only given to “First Nations people that were baptized.”

The ultimate goal of the Jesuits was to bring religion, and therefore salvation, to the natives. They saw this as their heavenly mandate, but their progress was slow and setbacks were common. In order to explain their lack of progress, the Jesuits often referred to the Devil as being the source of their problems. Whether they truly believed this or were using it as an excuse is difficult to determine, but it is clear that explaining natural events in the light of demonology was still an accepted practice.

By 1650 the Devil was seen as an ever-present agent working against the Jesuits in an overarching sense if not in a direct way. This fact is evidenced in the Relations sent back to France. Whether or not the Devil was involved in specific and individual events remained an open question, although skepticism was a growing position among progressive Jesuits. In fact, Jesuits began to interrogate the “unlearned and religiously suspect witnesses” in order to disprove their claims of diabolic activity. The burden of proof for demonic interference, and miracles alike, was being raised. It can be argued that rampant demonology threatened to spiral out of control and therefore needed to be reined in if the Jesuits wanted to maintain their authority on matters of the divine and supernatural. As demonology came under heavier scrutiny it was used less and less as a way to explain the undesirable customs of the natives. Paul Ragueneau was pragmatic in entreating his fellow Jesuits to treat irreligion as mere stupidity. He may have been shrewd enough to know that humiliating the natives by pointing out the silliness of their actions was more efficacious than doggedly forbidding native customs as crimes against God. Paul Ragueneau was also reluctant to attribute dream guidance as direct intercourse with the Devil, rather attributing these claims to “herd mentality and suggestibility.” Using this approach the Jesuits were apt to discredit native beliefs and to substitute their own biased ideas. It is possible the Jesuits were able to discern the tactics of the shamans to  “invent … new contrivances to keep his people in a state of agitation and to make himself popular” because they used these same tactics themselves.

Both First Nations and Europeans had deeply entrenched worldviews. They both viewed the customs and practices of the other party through the lens of superstition and fear. Ultimately, that clash of cultures led to the destruction of many lives, and even the extinction of entire populations. As Goddard’s essay makes clear, the tendency for people to invent elaborate fantasies to explain that which they do not understand is a reoccurring theme. It is a lesson that must not be forgotten, lest we slip back into ignorance and false ideology.

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