In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Jesuit Relations

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Publication History and Reception
  • Catholic Reformation
  • Hagiography
  • Paul Le Jeune
  • Representation of Amerindian Cultures
  • Intellectual History
  • The Language Encounter
  • Women
  • Religious Conversion
  • Intercultural Exchange
  • The Jesuit Mission and Its Relations in Global Perspective
  • Novels and Films

American Literature Jesuit Relations
Micah True
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • 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 Amerindian 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

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. Dubois 2009 and Greer 2000 are brief and accessible summaries, useful for alerting students and scholars to the general characteristics of the texts and their religious and historical stakes.

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

    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.

  • Donnelly, Joseph P. “Introduction.” In Thwaites’ Jesuit Relations: Errata and Addenda. Edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites, 1–16. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1967.

    One of the best and most influential general introductions to 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.

  • Dubois, Laurent M. “The Jesuit Relations.” In A New Literary History of America. Edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollers, 50–54. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

    Brief and engaging overview of the history, purpose, contents, and form of the Relations, appropriate for students. Uses the Jesuit missionary Jacques Marquette’s famous 1673 voyage down the Mississippi River to illustrate the religious, intellectual, and historical importance of the Jesuit mission to New France and its Relations.

  • Greer, Allan, ed. The Jesuit Relations: Natives and Missionaries in Seventeenth-Century North America. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2000.

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

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

    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.

    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.

    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 Amerindian 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.30.24296575

    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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