Tuesday, October 27, 2020


Dirty Words and Captain Clock 

French Priests Among First Americans

Portrait of Jesuit missionary, Fr. Jacques Marquette, by Wilhelm Lamprecht (1838-1906).
This romanticized vision contrasts with more realistic depictions, such as portrayed in "Black Robe," the Brian Moore novel, and the movie which it inspired.  

Once again, I have been perusing “TheJesuit Relations” online. It’s a collection of letters that French missionary priests in North America, particularly in Canada, sent their superiors back home in the 1600 and 1700s. The letters are fascinating sources of ethnographic detail on indigenous peoples, especially on Iroquoian and Algonquin tribes. The letters also provide insights into the attitudes of these priests, which could range from earnest concern for the souls of “les sauvages” to the self-righteous condescension of proselytization. The letters can be fascinating, horrible, and sometimes hilarious.

I recently came across a funny scene in which a young priest ruefully recounts how an Indian host embarrassed him. This host, an old man, was intrigued by the Jesuit’s ability to write and read. He decided to test the priest by dictating Huron sentences to him, insisting that every word be transcribed exactly.  This is no small task for the priest. He is still struggling to learn the Huron language. He doesn't understand what he's hearing. He simply writes phonetically what the old man says. After he has managed to take down a few words, his host asks him to read them aloud to the assembled company.

Here, it deserves mention that one of the things that could drive the more contemplative priests nuts was that there always seemed to be company. Being alone was something the Indians rarely did!

Anyway, the audience reaction to the priest’s recitation is overwhelming. As the young man slowly enunciates each word, his listeners start to laugh. Before he can say more than a few words, the lodge is filled with fits of gasping, howling laughter. This earnest young Jesuit, who has hoped to enlighten the benighted, has brought down the house!

But the young priest is no dummy. It doesn't take him long to realize that he's been set up. The old man has dictated to him obscenities. And the young man is bound to be struggling with their pronunciation, perhaps repeating them syllable by syllable, which makes them even more hilarious.  The priest wants to stop, but his host tells him it’s out of the question. He’s got to continue! And a grand old time is had by all (save one), especially when the Indians see that the young priest is truly embarrassed.

If we are to believe the Jesuit accounts, the Indians routinely used language that the French considered obscene. Men and women, boys and girls, young and old, cheerfully bantered, using terms for sexual acts and bodily functions. And yet, from what the priests say, the Indians were not “libidinous” in behavior.  

Canadian writer Brian Moore seems to have depended heavily on the “Jesuit Relations” for his fine novel, “BlackRobe” (1985), the English rendering of the name the Indians used for the Jesuits. In turn, Moore’s book inspired the film of the same name (1991) directed by Bruce Beresford.  The movie includes a scene where the Indians gather together around a clock the Jesuits have brought into the forest. The Indians call the timepiece, “Captain Clock.” The priests seem to have told them when to expect the tolling, and there’s a sense of anticipation among them as the hands move into position. The priests have also encouraged them to think that the captain is under priestly command, and they order it to stop just in time.

If memory serves, I encountered a description of this scene years ago from another reading of the “Jesuit Relations.” It makes the Indians seem childlike and naïve. What I most like about the account of the young priest taking dictation is that it shows how the tables could be turned. For a time, in the forests of North America, it was the Europeans who were like naive children.


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