- Apostles of Empire: The Jesuits and New France by Bronwen Mcshea
In Apostles of Empire: The Jesuits and New France, Bronwen McShea has written a must read for scholars of early America and the early modern Atlantic world. Bringing wide reading in early modern French political and social history to the history of the Society of Jesus' missions to colonial French North America, McShea provides a necessary Atlantic perspective to what are often framed as American histories.
When McShea explains in her introduction that "The Jesuits of New France, in short, were men planted knee-deep in an untidy world of politics, social pressures, and war" (p. xxvii), she succinctly announces the major thematic interests of Apostles of Empire. Indeed, as the book proceeds through chronological narrative of the Society of Jesus' mission to French North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, individual chapters highlight moments in the mission's history where the Jesuits' attention to the social and political contexts of metropolitan France directly shaped their missionary practice in the New World. In an early chapter "Rescuing the 'Poor Miserable Savage'," for example, McShea skillfully traces out the particularly French valences of the Jesuits' conception of poverty. Only [End Page 809] by understanding how Jesuits identified "a lack of infrastructure compared to urban France" can we make sense of their deep interest in native foods and housing (p. 37). Similarly, a later chapter "Crusading for Iroquois Country" reveals how scholarly focus on Jesuit celebration of suffering has overlooked "the missionaries' primarily positive—sometimes theologically validated—posture towards offensive, not only defensive, war again those seen as enemies of French expansion and Catholicism in America." (p. 130) The focus of the book weighs towards the seventeenth century, but by including a wide range of other printed and archival materials produced by the missionaries in the eighteenth century, McShea's work is able to provide a broader temporal overview than is often the case in histories of the Jesuit missions to North America.
McShea writes commandingly and beautifully and it is this focus on a readable and engaging chronological narrative that makes Apostles of Empire such a success. As somebody who spent many of their Sundays as a child at a church named Canadian Martyrs staring at stained-glass depictions of Brébeuf and Jogues, I knew precisely what she meant when she states in her introduction that "the Jesuits of New France remain trapped in iconic tableaux." (p. xx) Since those days, I have read a lot of histories of New France and these missionaries in particular, and they have never come to life for me in the way that they do here. Paul Le Jeune, in particular, jumps from the page with personality and a social history that makes so much of what he accomplished as a missionary understandable. Apostles of Empire, and particularly its earliest chapters, would make a supremely teachable book and has real crossover appeal for a broader body of readers among an interested public.
Nonetheless, this commitment to a readable narrative will limit its contributions to scholars of this period. Aside from a historiographical introduction and occasionally vague gestures to a academic debate throughout the text, readers will struggle to understand Apostles of Empire's historiographical context. Some of this likely results from McShea's summaries of existing literature that simplify complex fields and do little to highlight the unique contributions of her work. The claim that discussions of French Jesuits in North America manifest a "perduring Americentrism" (p. xxii) is not entirely wrong, but overlooks and undervalues the work of scholars such as Allan Greer and Dominique Deslandres—among others—who have made good faith efforts to write Atlantic histories of Jesuit thought and practice. If the author has legitimate critiques, she should state them clearly, but to simply deny their existence does her work and its readers a disservice. Now, not every book needs to have historiographical discussions in the [End Page 810] body of its text, but McShea...