The Language of “Mission”: Envoys, Enquiries, and Inquisitions in a Global French Context, 1600–1800

AHA Session 45
Thursday, January 2, 2014: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM
Wilson Room B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Michael P. Breen, Reed College
Paul W. Mapp, College of William and Mary

Session Abstract

Over the last few decades, scholarship has exposed the importance of personal relations in the governance of Early Modern France. Indeed, increasing bureaucratization from the sixteenth century onward never undermined patronage as the main operating system of Bourbon administration. The construction of clientages remained as integral to the operations of royal finance, justice and foreign relations in the eighteenth century as they did in earlier epochs. Such a vantage point simultaneously brings into view the unstable and contested nature of political service at this time, since the office holder operated at the nexus of competing interests that were political as well as other in nature. This was particularly true for those who had no claims to venal office holding, and especially those entrusted with commissions to regions remote from France.

Our intent here is to look closely at those intermediary figures charged with special political, economic, and religious purpose on the part of the Early Modern French state in a broader imperial context. For these individuals, the successful completion of their office pivoted significantly upon their ability to work within and between two or more very different political cultures. How they interpreted and sought to effect their “mission” is our focus. In each of the three cases discussed here, the language of mission or special purpose became especially important when the envoy or visitor found their responsibilities threatened by political contestation. In Sara Chapman’s paper, the governor, Cadillac, urged the special importance of the site of Detroit for the protection of French economic, religious and political interests in New France to wheedle permission for the construction of a fort. Alex Dubé’s operative, charged with investigating fraud in Louisiana, used the language of moral purpose to justify and effect his fiscal reform. The apostolic visitor in Armstrong’s found the language of spiritual reform sufficiently ambiguous to pursue his twin responsibilities as an agent of a French state eager to extend its control over Catholic missions in the eastern Mediterranean, and a high ranking member of a recently reformed branch of the Franciscan order. The Capuchins were more than a little eager to replace their rivals, the Observant Catholics, as the principle missionaries in Ottoman lands. This panel should attract a abroad audience, including those interested in early modern political culture, French imperialism, Catholic missions, and the interplay of religion and politics.

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