Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Reimagining the Romance of History in the CHR

Never happened.

Catching up on some reading, I recently opened the June 2016 Canadian Historical Review.  One of its articles is a new take on an old subject:  "Brébeuf was Never Martyred: Reimagining the Life and Death of Canada's First Saint " by James Taylor Carson.  (abstract here)

Carson writes of "the enormous edifice that has been built atop Brébeuf's blessed bones" and condemns historians' uncritical acceptance of hagiography.
Instead of questioning the hagiographic narrative, however, historians have, for the most part, left Ragueneau's first telling, and Brébeuf's consequent legacy, largely untouched for more than three-and-a-half centuries.
For the most part?  This seems an extraordinarily selective reading of the historiography of 17th century Euro-Amerindian relations. A small army of ethnohistorians, anthropologists, and New France specialists has produced a shelf of honoured and influential volumes reassessing the Jesuit-Huron encounter and permanently displacing (for any serious reader) the saint-worshipping folktales Carson disparages. Think of the work of Fenton, Trigger, Heidenreich, Jaenen, Dickason, Sioui, to name a few who actually appear in Carson's footnotes. All historians are tempted, of course, to declare their work "revisionist" or "ground-breaking," but surely it is a good deal less than revolutionary to present Brébeuf as something other than simply a holy Catholic martyr .

I think Carson's real innovation -- at least for an article in a scholarly journal -- is the vivid "you are there" reconstruction of the events of 1649 in what is now called Huronia. His title promises a "reimagining," and there is certainly a lot of imagining:
The invaders passed the snowy months hunting and talking, and when the daylight started to stretch they began to ponder their impending assault on Wendake's eastern towns.

Powder pans flashed. Balls whistled through the air. Knives slit throats. Arrows found their marks. Hatchets crunched heads. Blood pooled. The several hundred not killed were captured, doomed to be tortured.
How does a scholar analyze or criticize this evocative language, often from inside the heads ("they began to ponder") of its subjects?  I find myself thinking of Bruce Trigger's studied rationalism in addressing the same subject:
In The Children of Aatientsic I privileged a rationalist approach. [...] I therefore sought to explain native behaviour as far as possible in terms of rational calculations of how desired ends might be achieved. In doing this I eschewed the alternative romantic approach.
I certainly should not be discouraging historians from stylistic innovation and experiments in form. But which is more successful as a mode of scholarship?

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