- The Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs by Emma Anderson
Emma Anderson’s new book explores the origins and evolution of the cult of the North American martyrs from 1642 to the present day. Over the course of seven chapters it uncovers the “artificial, subjective, and inherently unfair process” (p. 5) that isolated eight Jesuits from all other French and indigenous people who died in colonial violence and made them martyrs of the Catholic Church. The purpose here is not to repeat tired tropes of missionary heroism or religious colonialism, however, but rather to account for the multiple processes of “remembering and reinvention” (p. 6) deployed both by devotees of the martyrs and by their detractors over the years. The pivotal point of the book comes in chapter 6, “The Naked and [End Page 635] the Dead,” where Anderson turns from an historical examination of the martyrs’ cult to an exploration of its contemporary relevance for believers and other participants centered on major shrines at Midland, Ontario, and Auriesville, New York. Through a combination of detailed historical research, interviews, observations of devotional events, and a compelling narrative style, Anderson shows the essential contingency of the martyrs’ cult, and the frequently conflicting and occasionally irreconcilable nexus of beliefs and interpretations that meet within it.
At the heart of the book lies the critically important observation that martyrdom is not a fact or an event, but always an interpretation. Chapters 1 and 2 explore the differing viewpoints of seventeenth-century French Jesuits, Wendats (Huron), and Mohawks on these deaths, and the role played by a French nursing sister and mystic in perpetuating the cult of martyrdom that followed. Moving beyond these lived experiences, chapter 3 examines the revival of the cult in nineteenth-century Quebec as a key element in the clerical-nationalism of that era and examines the curious emergence of competing cults in Anglo-Protestant Ontario and amongst Catholics in the United States. In chapters 4 and 5, nationalism, the involvement of ethnic and religious minorities, and indigenous reactions to the emerging modern cults define Anderson’s understanding of the conflicted meanings that lay behind the martyrs’ reputations in the mid-twentieth-century. Finally, chapters 6 and 7 highlight significant differences in how the cult of the martyrs has evolved to the present-day north and south of the border, emphasizing inclusivity and multiculturalism at Midland and a strict orthodoxy, exclusion, and conservatism at Auriesville.
Death and Afterlife carves a new and exciting path through what seems at times to be familiar territory. Yet, Anderson’s insistence on moving away from questions about martyrdom itself to focus instead on how people and groups have perceived the martyrs and made them into meaningful and relevant figures brings to light a new and fraught history, one generally buried under layers of hagiographic writing, devotional imagery, and cultic practices. In her deft treatment of both Catholic and traditionalist indigenous views, for example, basic binaries are blurred to reveal an array of beliefs, meanings, and interpretations held by Wendats, Quebecers, Americans, Mohawks, and others. Her focus on imagery, inclusion of oral testimony, and occasional juxtapositioning of seemingly unrelated events provides a new evidentiary base that supplements and bolsters more traditional historical sources. Occasionally some conclusions can seem overstated or under-examined. The division drawn between the inclusive and multicultural cult at Midland, for example, and the exclusive and ultra-conservative cult discovered by Anderson at Auriesville tends to reinforce nationalist tropes (familiar at least to Canadians) without significantly interrogating them. In the end, however, this is a compelling book that raises important historical and contemporary questions about the place and role of cultural icons in society, how those icons are created, and the purposes and people they serve (and do not serve). [End Page 636]
London, Ontario, Canada