Constructing the Libertine in New France, 1648–1763

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 8:30 AM
Mile High Ballroom 4B (Colorado Convention Center)
Jennifer J. Davis, University of Oklahoma
This presentation introduces travel accounts, novels, police reports and court records from Quebec and Louisiana to chart the changing significance of the term libertine as deployed by authors and authorities in the French Atlantic over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  A generation of research among literary scholars has documented the significance of the libertine genre of literature in challenging royal and Church authority within eighteenth-century France.  But what relationship existed between this literature and the men and women accused of libertine behavior in the French Atlantic?  In 1648, one was deemed to be libertine in New France for failure to accept Catholic doctrine. Beyond religious heterodoxy, a few infractions regularly elicited the title of libertine behavior from municipal authorities and represented a real threat to colonial social order. These included servants who left their masters service without permission, Europeans who sold alcohol to Amerindians despite the repeated prohibitions, and women who engaged in sex outside of marriage. Moreover, under the expansive powers afforded by the royal lettres de cachet, sons and daughters who dishonored their families for a wide array of offenses might be imprisoned or exiled, and New France became one of the chief destinations for these libertines in the 1720s.  By extending the discussion of how libertine behavior was defined, prosecuted or tolerated beyond France, this research restores libertinism to its capacious roots encompassing multiple forms of social antiauthoritarianism.  This research documents how the category of the libertine was shaped by French experiences of overseas empire, particularly Amerindian theological resistance to European claims of religious truth, cross-cultural ideals of gender and family, and contested authority between the Church and Crown.
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