Somewhere, a Unicorn : Missionary notes from the 17th century

A book came my way a few months ago, a literally weighty tome of almost seven pounds, quarto sized, two and a half inches thick. The book is The Codex Canadensis and the Writings of Louis Nicolas, a beautiful, scholarly work with 555 numbered pages of text and illustrations. I found it through a Google news search with the keyword “Jesuit,” a search I often make when I first check news, email and The Jesuit Post at the start of a workday. I got on Amazon and placed my order, and a few days later I was leafing through the challenge, the mystery, the humor and the inspiration this book brought my way.

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The Codex Canadensis is an album in the collection of the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Okla. It comprises two maps and 79 plates, with drawings of native peoples, flora and fauna, and hand-made objects from Canada of the mid- to late 1600s along with commentary. Plates I and II show the royal mace and the crown royal of France. Each plate appears on the right hand page; the left translates the accompanying text.

After the plates, an English text gives a translation of the Histoire Naturelle des Indes Occidentales, a manuscript in the Bibliothèque de Paris that describes the people, natural phenomena and objects found in Canada in the late 1600s. A modern French version follows. Copious footnotes accompany these texts.

Before this old material, however, the book begins with a long scholarly introduction that lays out a mystery and an argument toward solving that mystery. The mystery is the authorship. No name appears as the author either of the Codex or of the Natural History; but Louis Nicolas was the author of an Algonquin grammar, and internal evidence suggests his authorship of the Natural History too. Then, though lacking direct proof but with heavy circumstantial evidence, the scholars suggest that Louis Nicolas was also the source of the drawings in the Codex. And through the text and the commentary, a picture of life on this frontier emerges that is sometimes funny, sometimes gross, always informative and in a few places inspiring.

Louis Nicolas was a young French Jesuit filled with energy and zeal. Born in 1634, he entered the Society of Jesus 20 years later. Ten years after that, in 1664, he arrived in Canada as a missionary. Hints in a number of places, though, suggest that he had made a first trip to Canada in 1661—crossing the Atlantic several times as a scholastic and thus setting a challenge for his peers of later centuries.

Not yet ordained when he arrived in Canada in 1664, he began studying native languages. A report to Rome described him as “profectus in litteris et in theologia parvus”—proficient in languages and weak in theology. Before pronouncing his final vows as a Jesuit in 1667, he spent much time among the native peoples for months at a time. In August of that year, he joined Claude Allouez, S.J., on a missionary trip to Lake Superior. As an eager observer of nature and of the human society he encountered, he was fascinated, judgmental and respectful. But for all his zeal, he was unmanageable and unable to settle down. He seems to have gotten involved in the fur trade with unhappy results. In the fall of 1669, Father Allouez would not let him return to Lake Superior; his replacement was Jacques Marquette, S.J. After further travels in eastern Canada and the area of today’s New York State and further controversies, Nicolas returned to France by 1675. He left the Society of Jesus in 1678, and his name does not appear in records after this. He may have continued life as a parish priest.

The English version of the Natural History, including the footnotes, fills 126 pages. Nicolas classifies the plants and animals in a prescientific, pre-Linnaeus way, categorizing according to size and usefulness to people, referring to ancients like Pliny and Aristotle and comparing trees and fish and birds with their counterparts in France. Along with commentary on trees and animals, he describes many facets of everyday life. He greatly admires some aspects of the American Indian culture. Just as hunting is the pursuit of “the nobility in the most illustrious and flourishing state in the world, under the blessed reign of Louis le Grand,” so too the American native men “devote themselves with a passion to war and hunting, which are the genuine and highest mark of the oldest nobility.” But there is a counterbalance. Because the threat of hunger creates a never-ending need for hunting, gathering and preservation, leisure time for refinement is lacking. It is the women’s job to smoke meat to preserve it for the winter, and they must work fast. After describing their looks, like the “Furies,” and the cabins full of animal hair and children covered with grime, he notes that a boy “soils himself on his mother’s knee, and she wipes him with her hand and continues with her work without bothering to wash her hands.” No time for niceties.

Goldfinches and Willow Trees

As a good storyteller, Louis Nicolas cannot pass up an amusing anecdote, sometimes stretching thin any relevance to the topic at hand. After describing a red-headed American bird that has “some similarity to our canaries and our goldfinches,” he tells a story supported by “more than two or three thousand witnesses.” In 1676 at a certain monastery in France there was a male goldfinch in a cage; this caged bird had an enchanting song and attracted a free male finch, which could not get into the cage: “These two birds kissed each other by touching their beaks. This love lasted three or four months until one of the monks…gave these two birds to his general. I do not know whether the two birds left each other afterward. My pen cannot express how remarkable I found this.” The scholarly introduction notes that for Nicolas an event like this was not trivial: “These goldfinches were important because of the similarity of their behaviour to that of human lovers. Nobody seems to have been troubled by the fact that the two birds were male!”

Another anecdote wanders farther still from relevance to scientific natural history, trivial to anyone other than its subject. Nicolas is discussing willow trees. They grow along riverbanks but are not plentiful, he notes. They are not cultivated, and the wood is not used, so “it is not as good as ours.” Since willows are not cultivated, “one never sees any that from a distance look like well-ordered rows of soldiers, like those that formerly frightened the unfortunate Marquis d’Ancre, who, knowing that he had powerful enemies at court, on seeing from a distance from his coach and thinking that they were men waiting for him to kill him, was so frightened that he did in his breeches something I will not say.” The marquis was real and had his reasons to fear, but this anecdote does not appear in his Wikipedia entry. And the marquis has little to do with Canadian willows. But Nicolas could not pass up a good story, and obviously neither could I.

Nicolas grows lyrical in describing bears and may have been the first to introduce polar bears to his readers. On folio 73, Nicolas tells of his receiving a gift of two bear cubs; through extreme punishments, he succeeded in taming them, to the amusement of neighbors: “They would play with dogs and small children, they would do a thousand amusing tricks, a hundred pretty jumps and kicks.” (His Jesuit brothers at the residence at Sillery were not so amused.)

He tells of the young Frenchman who was so hungry that he ate a dog’s liver, despite warnings that his skin would fall off. “His skin fell off several days later as he had been warned. He found that he had changed his skin like a snake. Americans have a long experience of this effect.”

He mentions a weasel and offers scholarly Greek names; he then mentions an animal “of the same nature that Erasmus spoke of, and said that fugiens, pessime pedit.” The Latin text has an unfortunate typo, but I leave this as a scholarly challenge.

He presented two chipmunks to “His Majesty, who is moved by the noble desire to learn and to see everything that is beautiful, curious and rare in nature” but could not get some flying squirrels to him. He also presented a pair of snowshoes to the dauphin.

Nicolas, known to be vain, writes with sarcastic contempt of the purposefully ignorant types who are so stubborn that they “insist there is no unicorn anywhere in the world.” Such are the folk who “have never lost sight of their parish church tower, and who hardly know how to get to the Place Maubert or the Place Royale without asking the way.” Nicolas is defending his drawing of the dead unicorn that he saw—he does not tell where or when—which fits the description by Monsieur Thévenot, following Lodovico Berthamano. So there! With the dismissive contempt of a Fox News or MSNBC commentator, he heaps his scorn on those untraveled, uneducated and unread unbelievers.

‘Drunkards on Human Blood’

For all its sometimes strangeness and sometimes fun, the text is in places inspiring. The missionaries shared the rugged life of the people to whom they preached the Gospel. They shared the pain of paddling their canoes. They shared the cold and the wet, the dirt and the misery. Nicolas is not just telling a tale when describing the mosquitoes, “little tyrants” that are worse than those in France called “thieves of patience” and “drunkards on human blood.” Here in Canada, “If someone is forced to stop for a single moment, these thieves of the greatest patience attack him so quickly…that there are very few people who can keep their patience. It is very difficult to drink, and it is even harder when the traveler has to stop to answer the call of nature. If he suffers only a million bites he is fortunate, although it seems that his bottom is on fire, no matter what fly-chasers he carries.” This is not an amusing anecdote. This is painful experience.

In a section on fish, he digresses to extol the strength of one group of native peoples: “These Indians are always exposed to all kinds of weather, like animals. They are hunters, fishermen, great navigators, brave warriors, indefatigable travelers, etc.” He then notes how the missionaries experience this life:

One can judge from this what sufferings are endured by those who have the charity to follow them to teach them to know God, in travels of a thousand or twelve hundred leagues at once, coming or going with a paddle eternally in their hands like convicts, with bare feet on portages, loaded with baggage like porters, with snowshoes on their feet in the winter in the snow, pulling a sled bearing all the clothing, food, and everything necessary for saying Mass, exposed with no shelter or house to all kinds of weather, to rain, wind, shipwreck, cold, heat, snow, ice, hail, freezing weather, fog and frost so cold that often big pieces of ice form on the hair and the beard as well as on the eyelids and eyelashes and on the whole face; sleeping very uncomfortably still dressed and on the ground; and if amid all this misery one becomes ill, one is more miserable than a dog.

But Nicolas is not complaining. Elsewhere, after remarking about surviving the winter with boiled meat and broth as his only food and explaining that a child with open sores did the work of stirring the broth 20 times a day, he notes:

it is necessary to get used to living like this or else renounce the noblest calling on Earth, which is to preach Jesus Christ to these infidels who have no knowledge of Him. By the grace of God, one can adapt to this way of life so well that the only discouraging thing is not to have any of this well-prepared meat to eat or this good consommé to drink. That is the life that Jesuit missionaries and those who follow their example lead in this country.

In the end, it is about mission. Months of living on broth, or months of facing classrooms filled with sophomores. Carrying one’s snowshoes or one’s essays to correct. Portages to clear or retreats to preach; mosquitoes to swat or texts to edit. Good health or bad; wealth or poverty; honor or discredit; long life or short; the 17th-century Canada of the Codex and the Histoire Naturelle or 1,000 sites for mission today. The accidentals do not matter. The substance matters, the commitment, the faith, the trust. Yes, it is about mission.

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