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Review of Brazeau, Brian. Writing a New France, 1604-1632: Empire and Early Modern French Identity. Ashgate, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6112-2. Pp. 142.

Article Citation: 
XIII, 2 (2011): 209–211
Katherine Ibbett
Article Text: 


Brian Brazeau’s first book makes a series of useful connections between fields that too often have remained hermetically separated from each other. Instead of reading early modern Canada largely in terms of later Canadian national development, Brazeau seeks to understand how metropolitan French concerns about identity and history were played out across the Atlantic; thus, the project of settling new territory is presented in the context of the years following the Wars of Religion. Brazeau asks how French debates with which many readers will be familiar might be imagined differently in the context of new world realities, and in so doing pushes us all to think farther afield.

Brazeau’s book gives a precise account of developments in New France; it would serve as a well-structured introduction for anyone eager to learn more about France’s missions and settlements in the new world. The book carefully delineates its historical remit, addressing the first period of French writing about North America, taking in authors such as Samuel de Champlain, Marc Lescarbot, and the early years of the Jesuit Relations. Brazeau describes how Nouvelle France could be imagined as just that, a new version of the old, and sets out a number of ways in which the relation between self and other were understood, both more broadly in this period and in the writings that first introduced the territories of Nouvelle France to a readership back home.

The book consists of an introduction and four chapters, all of which raise engaging questions. The first chapter addresses the French insistence that Canada was an appropriate territory for viniculture. Faced with the surprise of bitter winters, French settlers described the potential for winemaking in order to make the colonial project seem more viable. This chapter provides a wealth of charming material; I particularly liked Lescarbot’s account of those on the journey who were too sick to sip at their wine and instead had it brought to them in hosepipes. Though I would have appreciated a more historically engaged reading of French viticulture, this chapter is impressive for its careful reading of the language of conversion and community evinced by these early modern assessments of wine.

The second chapter addresses the French evaluations and translations of indigenous languages such as Gabriel Sagard’s Huron dictionary, serving as a useful correction of platitudinous assumptions about French respect for Amerindian cultures. It gives a solid account of French/Amerindian dictionaries and grammars and the problems of translation, putting this linguistic work into the context of mid seventeenth-century debates about language in metropolitan France.

The third chapter reads Marc Lescarbot’s Histoire de la Nouvelle-France in relation to Renaissance historiography, showing how the “new” France was understood in relation to a particular vision of French history and progress. If both the Gauls and the Amerindians could be imagined to have Noah as a common ancestor, then, as Brazeau deftly puts it, the project of New France could be said to be a form of family reunion.

The fourth chapter takes up the relation between missionaries and merchants in New France, and though it is strong on specifics (setting Lescarbot and Champlain in dialog with contemporary mercantilist theory) ventures into rather uncertain territory in making claims about the relation between religion and commerce, arguing that “France…traditionally insulated the religious from the economic.” I found this argument rather less convincing than those in other chapters, but I appreciated the comparative elements of this chapter, which deftly contrast English approaches in the New World with those of the French.

Brazeau’s book will open up an area that remains opaque to many readers, and it takes the important step of indicating the complex relations, imaginary and economic, between the two Frances, “old” and “new.”

Katherine Ibbett, University College, London

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