American Literature Jesuit Relations
Micah True
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 April 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0097


As Jesuit missionaries fanned out across the globe during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, they sent accounts of their work and of the cultures that they encountered back to Europe. Initially conceived as mandatory annual reports for circulation only within the Society of Jesus, such texts sometimes came to be published, serving to inform Europe’s reading public of events in distant places and helping to rally spiritual and material support for the missions, which were a key part of the Catholic Reformation. The famed Jesuit Relations from New France are among the best known of these published reports, at least partly due to the unparalleled regularity and longevity of the series. Beginning in 1632, a new installment appeared every year, without interruption, until external pressures forced cessation of publication in 1673. Several similar texts that were published prior to 1632 are also sometimes considered part of the corpus. As required of all such missions, the superior in New France assembled each year’s Relation on the basis of letters from missionaries in what is now Quebec, Ontario, and upstate New York. The manuscripts were then sent to France on the merchant ships that departed the colony each autumn, where, upon reaching Paris, they were edited again and published. The available evidence suggests that the Relations were widely read and much appreciated by France’s reading public. In the early 21st century, the texts serve as prime examples of the relation or récit de voyage, a genre inspired by travel that was popular in 17th-century France, with some 1,500 texts published by the end of the century. And because the Jesuits enjoyed a monopoly on mission activity in New France for several decades, coinciding with the publication of the Relations, the texts also are the single most important source of ethnohistorical information on the Iroquoian and Algonquian cultures that the missionaries encountered, as well as on contact between Indigenous and French cultures in New France. Eight different missionaries signed the texts over the course of the published series, although the longtime mission superior and compiler of the Relations, Paul Le Jeune, often overshadows the others in scholarship.

General Overviews

McShea 2019 is not a study of the Relations per se, but rather a thorough examination of the history of the Jesuit mission to New France, with particular attention to its relationship to France’s efforts to establish and grow an overseas empire. It can serve as a useful introduction to the mission and to the texts it produced, and to the relationship of these both to metropolitan French concerns. Each of the major modern editions of the Jesuit RelationsCampeau 1967–2003 and Thwaites 1896–1901—contains a general introduction to the series. In Lucien Campeau’s case, each volume contains a discussion of the texts it includes and the historical events that they treat, adding up to the most detailed and exhaustive general overviews available, despite the occasional partisanship of the author, himself a Jesuit. Reuben Gold Thwaites’s introduction considers the mission and its Relations in the broader context of the colonization of the Americas. Donnelly 1967 offers a close examination of the history of the published series from the 17th- to the mid-20th centuries and is especially useful as an introduction to the Thwaites edition. Both Wroth 1936 and Rigault and Ouellet 1980 analyze, in English and French respectively, a number of key issues surrounding the Relations, such as the problem of authorship, the role of printers in Paris, the reception of the texts, and their enduring scholarly value. Pouliot 1940 places the series in the broader context of Jesuit mission reports and examines the circumstances of their publication. Desbarats 2014 and Greer 2019 are brief and accessible summaries, useful for alerting students and scholars to the general characteristics of the texts and their religious and historical stakes. Codignola 2020 is the richest survey available of the historiography of the Jesuits’ New France mission and can serve as an introduction to the various critical issues the texts raise.

  • Campeau, Lucien, ed. Monumenta Novae Franciae. 9 vols. Rome: Monumenta Historica Societatis Jesu, 1967–2003.

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    Each volume includes an introduction to the historical context of the Relations and to the other texts that it contains, as well as prefaces to each Relation. Subjects treated vary across the volumes but generally include some commentary on the texts contained in the volume and their historical and religious value. In French.

  • Codignola, Luca. “The Historiography on the Jesuits of New France.” In Jesuit Historiography Online. Edited by Robert Maryks. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2020.

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    Rich critical overview of the history and current state of scholarship on the New France Jesuits and their Relations.

  • Desbarats, Catherine M. “1616–1673; Les Jésuites, Relations des Jésuites.” In Monuments intellectuels de la Nouvelle-France et du Québec ancien: Aux origines d’une tradition culturelle. Edited by Claude Corbo, 51–62. Montreal: Les Presses de l’Université du Montréal, 2014.

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    Overview of the Relations, including not only their well-known ethnographic value but also their relationship to less-studied linguistic texts, journals, and other manuscript sources as well as the mission’s relationship to France.

  • Donnelly, Joseph P. Thwaites’ Jesuit Relations: Errata and Addenda. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1967.

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    The introductory chapter is one of the best and most influential general discussions of the Relations. Provides details on how the texts were composed and published, and on their Publication History and Reception from the 17th to the 20th centuries.

  • Greer, Allan, ed. The Jesuit Relations: Natives and Missionaries in Seventeenth-Century North America. Boston: Bedford Books, 2019.

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    Contains a concise and accessible introduction to the Relations and their historical context, suitable for students. Includes sections on the Society of Jesus, Indigenous groups, the Relations and their readers, the history of colonization and missionization, and the problems posed by cultural differences.

  • McShea, Bronwen. Apostles of Empire: The Jesuits and New France. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctvgc62nsSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    History of the Jesuit mission in New France and its relationship to French empire, containing many original and useful insights about the Relations.

  • Pouliot, Léon. Etude sur les Relations des Jésuites de la Nouvelle-France (1632–1672). Montreal: Desclée de Brouwer, 1940.

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    Book-length study of the Relations, with a useful description of the series in the broader context of Jesuit mission publications, the history of their publication and reception, and chapters devoted to their historical and religious significance.

  • Rigault, Claude, and Réal Ouellet. “Relations des Jésuites.” In Dictionnaire des oeuvres littéraires du Québec. Edited by Maurice Lemire, 637–648. Montreal: Fides, 1980.

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    Includes discussion of the composition of the texts and the problem of authorship, the roles of original publisher Cramoisy and the French state, the evolution of the genre, and the Relations’ historical and ethnographic value.

  • Thwaites, Reuben Gold, ed. The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France 1610–1791. 73 vols. Cleveland, OH: Burrows Brothers, 1896–1901.

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    Volume 1 contains a general preface and historical introduction that together provide background on the Jesuit mission’s place in the colonization of North America, the Indigenous groups described in the Relations, the Jesuit mission to each group, and the series itself.

  • Wroth, Lawrence C. “The Jesuit Relations from New France.” Papers of the Bibliographic Society of America 30.2 (1936): 110–149.

    DOI: 10.1086/pbsa.30.24296575Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Situates the Relations in the global Jesuit tradition of missionary reports and examines the sparse clues about their reception. Includes long sections on their composition and historical and ethnological value, as well as the original printers Cramoisy and Boullenger and the discontinuation of the published series. Reprinted as a book also in 1936 in Chicago.

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