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The Jesuit Relations and the History of New France

The End of the Relations


The 1672 Relation, which was printed by Sébastien Cramoisy in 1673, was the last one to be published in the 17th century. Several reasons have been given to explain the end of the series. Some historians believe that it came to an end because of the intervention of influential persons in New France, such as the Count of Frontenac, who were hostile to the Jesuits. There is no document, however, that gives concrete support to this interpretation.

It seems rather that the end of the Relations was due to events that had nothing to do with the history of New France. The first was the publication by Pope Clement X, on April 6, 1673, of the Papal brief Creditae nobis caelitus. The purpose of this brief was to establish tight control over the distribution of writings about foreign missions. All texts of this kind had henceforth to receive the approval of the Propaganda cardinals before being circulated. This decision put an end to the intense polemic concerning Chinese rites that was the source of conflict between Jesuits and other missionaries working in China. The controversy, fuelled by publication of missionary writings, aroused strong feelings in Europe.

On its own, the brief by Clement X did not put an end to the Relations of the Jesuits in New France, because the Company of Jesus would certainly have been able to obtain the necessary approval from Rome to publish their annual accounts. Why did they not do so? No doubt because of the disputes that existed between the Papacy and French royal power. The jurisdiction of the Propaganda cardinals, the only ones empowered to authorize publication of the Relations, was not recognized in France, where the Company of Jesus would also have had to obtain authorization for its annual accounts. In short, the Jesuits faced a dilemma. They could no longer publish their Relations without the Pope's authorization, and such a request would automatically lead to the French authorities' refusing to allow them to publish their accounts in France. The simplest solution was to stop publishing this type of text, which is what the Jesuits did.

For some years, the Jesuits in New France were to continue to compile their annual Relations, no doubt in the hope that a solution would be found to the dilemma presented by the Papal brief, and they would be able to publish their accounts again. But this did not happen. Rome maintained its control over publication of missionaries' accounts and, after 1678, the Jesuits in New France stopped preparing their annual Relations, which could only have achieved their intended purpose if they were circulated in France.