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  • The Codex Canadensis and the Writings of Louis Nicolas by François-Marc Gagnon, Nancy Senior, and Réal Ouellet
  • Meridith Beck Sayre
Gagnon, François-Marc, Nancy Senior and Réal Ouellet – The Codex Canadensis and the Writings of Louis Nicolas. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011. Pp. 676

This lavish, large-format work is a modern edition of two extraordinary seventeenth-century manuscripts concerned with the people, flora, and fauna of northeastern North America: the Codex Canadensis, a predominantly pictorial work comprising 180 rich images, and the Histoire naturelle des Indes occidentales, a textual account of Canadian natural history. These works—attributed to the same author, Louis Nicolas—are introduced by art historian François-Marc Gagnon, while Réal Ouellet and Nancy Senior provide modernized French and English translations of the Histoire naturelle. Together these two texts resulted from an ambitious project to illustrate, describe, and classify the natural world of New France.

The Codex Canadensis, described by Gagnon as “an album of pen drawings,” is now housed at the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma, while the Histoire naturelle resides at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Although the texts were neither signed nor dated, Gagnon’s extensive introduction does the crucial work of mapping out the provenance of the manuscripts—analysis and background that is key to the value of this volume. He demonstrates how both works have been attributed to Nicolas, a French Jesuit who missioned in New France between 1664 and 1674. Gagnon lays out several textual clues that render this ascription highly plausible, including analyses by Anne-Marie Sioui and Germaine Warkentin which suggest that the manuscripts were penned in the same hand.

Nicolas proves to be as interesting as the work he produced; his temper and unusual behavior—such as taming and training two bears to perform tricks at the Jesuits’ Sillery residence—led to the disapproval of his confrères. While in New France, Nicolas travelled a great deal beyond the Saint Lawrence Valley, from Iroquoia to the pays d’en haut. As a result of his travels, his texts give a lively and sweeping depiction of the geography, flora, fauna, and peoples of northeastern North America. The Codex’s vivid drawings of men and women from various nations, including members of the Illinois, Ottawa, and Sioux, as well as images of indigenous material culture, such as several styles of canoes and cabins, are ethnographically significant. The Codex also includes two fascinating maps—one of eastern North America and one of the interior of New France—an area Nicolas refers to as “la Manitoünie”—that will surely spark scholarly interest. Interestingly, Gagnon notes (as has Warkentin) that Nicolas often modeled his images on preexisting plates or woodcuts found in well-known published works, such as François Du Creux’s Historiae canadensis (1664) and Conrad Gesner’s Historiae Animalium (1551). Nicolas’s method, however, was not unusual and does not lessen the value of the images. [End Page 235] The Histoire naturelle, on the other hand, yields a wealth of botanical and zoological information. Although it is teeming with nomenclature that will be unfamiliar to most readers, the texts are extensively annotated with a focus on the identification of modern species names. These footnotes are the result of a collaboration of scholars from across the sciences and humanities, and reveal the truly interdisciplinary and comprehensive effort that went into producing this volume.

Drawing on Foucault’s Les mots et les choses, Gagnon’s introduction situates Nicolas’s approach to natural history as one caught between the epistemological shift from a reliance on similitude to determine natural laws to a more empirical and inductive naturalism. Gagnon argues that the frequent comparison between the Old and New Worlds, emphasis on the rare, the “poverty of the objective descriptions on the one hand, and the great place still given to analogies on the other” (p. 31) are all hallmarks of an antiquated approach to knowledge, or a “sixteenth-century épistémè” (p. 56). What Gagnon finds particularly anachronistic about Nicolas’ work is the “absence of a systematic conception of the order of nature...


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