Friday, May 24, 2013

Something to see at the Museum of Civilization

I am going to be in Ottawa at the end of May, and I'm tempted to make a trip over to the Museum of Civilization just to see this:  Samuel de Champlain's baptismal registry. It's a caution against historical speculation, you might say.

The historical tradition was that Champlain was born in 1567 and already about 41 when Quebec was founded in 1608. But a scholar named Jean Loisel Liebel (otherwise unknown to me, and I don't have the citation to hand) made a powerful case years ago that there was no persuasive foundation for the 1567 birthdate. Loisel Liebel cited a lot of reasons to posit a birthdate of about 1580, making him a relatively youthful 28 in 1608 and still just 55, not 68, at his death in 1635.

I was persuaded enough by this that I did my best in my essay on New France in The Illustrated History of Canada to make 1580 the standard (if approximate) birthdate. I would not say it entirely caught on. David Hackett Fischer, in his well researched Champlain's Dream a few years ago, was willing to go as late as 1570, but preferred to stick with the older Champlain of tradition. And Marcel Trudel remained unconvinced.

Well, now there is a baptismal certificate, and it looks to be the real thing -- even though the name on it is Chapeleau and not Champlain. This seems to have settled the birthdate question.The date in the register is August 13, 1574. Seven years younger than the traditional date, six years older than Jean Loisel Liebel's estimate. Oh, and he was baptised Protestant too, another frequent subject of speculation never previously confirmed.

And it goes on display at the Museum of Civilization on May 29, on loan from the French repository and in connection with the 400th anniversary of Champlain's voyage up the Ottawa River.

Technology note:  after all these years of research, the entry was turned up by a machine search after the records in question were digitized.

Methodological note: you have to speculate sometime, and when you do you go with the best evidence available. But the cunning of history prevails. Mostly when you speculate about history, you are wrong.

Update, May 28:  Charlevoix links to the doubts and reservations about linking this baptismal certificate to Champlain the explorer.
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