The Emerging Histories of the Early Modern French Atlantic Conference: An Early Modern Canadianist Perspective

Mairi Cowan

The early modernism of early Canadian history made a good showing last week in Williamsburg, Virginia. There, at the Emerging Histories of the Early Modern French Atlantic conference sponsored by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture, about a hundred scholars gathered to discuss the connections around and across the Atlantic from the fifteenth to the early nineteenth centuries. Co-organizers Brett Rushforth and Christopher Hodson said in their opening remarks that one of the conference’s goals was to transcend the boundaries of geography and periodization in the early modern French Atlantic.  This crossing of boundaries proved to be a major theme of the conference, and one that has the potential to enrich the study of early Canadian history in interesting ways.  In particular, it became clear that exciting work on early Canadian history is being vigorously pursued beyond Canada, and that scholarship on regions not normally associated with Canadian history as a field can provide valuable insights for early Canadianists.

Several papers at the conference were tied directly to early Canadian history, in the sense that their geographical scope included an area now within the borders of Canada. Taken together, these papers demonstrate that Canadian history is not restricted to scholars with Canadian addresses; early Canada, as a subject of study, has wide appeal. In the session on “Legalities”, Alexandra Havrylyshyn (University of California, Berkeley) interrogated the presumption that there were no lawyers in New France. In her paper “Practitioners and Procurators in the Litigious Society in New France: An Atlantic Perspective”, she argued for a departure from the common rigid definition of “lawyer” towards a broader understanding of a group of legal professionals that included practitioners and procurators. In the same session, Marie Houllemare (Université de Picardie Jules Verne) delivered a paper on “Penal Circulations in the French Atlantic, 18th century”. Some of the banishments she discussed were cases of people being sent to or from Canada. The session on “Cultures” also featured two papers with strong connections to early Canada. Céline Carayon (Salisbury University), in her paper “Embodied Empire? Communication, Sensibilities, and the Making of the French-Indian Atlantic World”, made a persuasive case for the role of gestures in a system of communication that was deeply embodied and sustained by individual connections grounded in physicality. My own paper, “Demons in New France and the Atlantic Anxieties of Early Canada”, considered how the demonology of New France included both European and North American features in response to Atlantic colonial anxieties. In the session on “Boundaries”, Thomas Wien (Université de Montréal) played with the notion of the “Space of flows” in his paper “Flows of the Space: New France and Central Europe, même combat?” Using images by Franz Xaver Habermann and various textual sources, he showed a surprising series of connections between New France and Central Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Helen Dewar (Boston College), for her part in the session “Religion and Power”, explored how commerce and religion were linked in the seventeenth-century French Atlantic through the example of “A Collaborative Enterprise: Financiers, Religious Orders, and the Company of New France”.

Omohundro logoMany of the papers at the conference were not about Canadian history directly, but nonetheless had a great deal to offer historians of early Canada as comparative studies, or as inspirations for new theoretical and methodological approaches.  For example, the discussion of the West African Fort Ouidah by Elisabeth Heijmans (Leiden University) and the examination of patronage networks in Saint-Domingue by Alexandre Dubé (Washington University in St. Louis) provide lessons about the plurality of states in the French Atlantic, the significance of local actors, and the importance of considering how power actually worked on the ground in the early modern period. The ways in which Robert Taber (University of Florida) used marriage records from Saint-Domingue to investigate racialization and the realities of how colonialism functioned in the Atlantic World could inspire projects drawing upon the rich collection of marriage records from New France. The archaeological studies of French plantations in the Caribbean by Steve Lenik (St. Mary’s College of Maryland) and Kenneth Kelly (University of South Carolina) hint at some of the ways in which historians of early Canada could benefit from a closer acquaintance with the findings of archaeologists, such as the remains of houses and objects used in everyday life, in order to understand more fully the daily lived experiences of people who did not leave their own written records.

The stretching of French Atlantic boundaries was most explicit in the final session of the conference, called “Angles of Vision”. Gayle K Brunelle (California State University, Fullerton) spoke of how the long sixteenth century does not fit neatly into the larger paradigms commonly articulated by ancien régime historians, being less informed by an imperial teleology and preoccupation with state formation, more by commerce, confessional division, and tensions between the centre and the periphery. She encouraged historians of this “early early modern” French Atlantic to recall the importance of trading networks and trading colonies, and to look beyond Paris and France for sources. Her insights about the sixteenth-century Atlantic have clear implications for historians working on the long sixteenth century in Canadian history, whether they focus on the French Atlantic or not. Sue Peabody (Washington State University) compared the legislation of race emerging in the Indian Ocean to that of the French Atlantic. Acknowledging that a study of legislation alone has serious limitations for any attempt to understand people’s lives, she discussed how French colonial law reflected an ongoing tension between metropolitan uniformity and local conditions. She also advised that in order for our work to be relevant, we must consider the legacy of slavery in the present; an obvious correspondence for historians of early Canada would be to consider the legacy of colonial policies and practices for First Nations. Gilles Havard (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), in his discussion of “Les Amérindiens”, focussed on imperial and continental perspectives for understanding the roles of Native Americans in the history of the Atlantic. From an imperial perspective, a study of Native Americans challenges traditional notions of the French state, French diplomacy, and the French colonial empire. From a continental perspective, Havard proposed, a study of Amerindian worlds – multi-polar and diverse in many ways – reveals a significant difference between the French experience in North America and the colonial efforts in Africa and Asia: Native North America was characterized by a kind of political and territorial “porosity” that allowed the French to circulate and settle relatively easily.

In addition to the sessions, this conference also ran two workshops of interest to Canadian historians studying French Atlantic topics. Contributors to the Teaching Session workshop shared course materials and approaches to teaching French Atlantic history at the postsecondary level. Participants in the Research Portal Meeting discussed what should go into a website that will serve as a portal to online materials held in various archives, libraries, and research institutions around the world.

These sessions and workshops certainly confirm the assertion made by Karin Wulf, director of the Omohundro Institute, that her organization builds “intellectual infrastructure” for scholars of early America broadly conceived. Like all good conferences, Emerging Histories of the Early Modern French Atlantic also created open space for discussion. Respondents provided thoughtful observations at the conclusion of each session, which initiated rigorous yet supportive question-and-answer periods. Breakfasts in the conference room each morning and receptions at the College of William and Mary each evening allowed additional opportunities for people to develop and share their ideas. Among the ideas that I considered while enjoying the cordial fellowship of the conference was that historians of early Canada have much to learn from, and much to contribute to, the scholarship of the early modern world more widely. As early modernists who happen to have Canadian research topics, historians of early Canada should be well placed to appreciate the value of engaging more fully with an international network of scholars in Canada, at the Omohundro Institute, and wherever else the paths through our intellectual networks may lead.


Mairi Cowan is an Associate Professor of History, Teaching Stream, at the Department of Historical Studies, University of Toronto. She is currently writing a book about the demonology of New France, and she is continually delighted by how much kindness Canadianists show to a newcomer in the field. You can find her on Twitter @Historian_Mairi.


Feature Image: Wren Building, College of William and Mary (where a conference reception was held). The image is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (modified).

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