Nuns at the end of the world (NEW): Cross-cultural contact in 17th-century colonial Québec

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Bastian Felter Vaucanson




University of Québec (Canada) and Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris)


DKK 631,347




Internationalisation Fellowships


Reality likely hit hard when the French Ursuline nuns settled in their new home in colonial Québec in August 1639. The seemingly never-ending wilderness of the Northwestern territories must have acutely intensified the isolation of their religious vocation. The nuns were cloistered and received intelligence about the outside world from the Jesuit priests who ventured deep into the land, encountering the Indigenous in trade, mission, fights, torture, and death. At the reinforced oaken door of their convent, the nuns received local Indigenous girls and taught them French culture. But what did the Ursulines learn in return? How did this encounter facilitate cross-cultural exchange? That is the research question of my project.


By writing the history of the French empire from the perspective of the female missionaries, my project can contribute to changing our knowledge about the early-modern intersection of devotional culture and colonization. Women’s history is often oriented towards social history, but in fact also requires deep knowledge of devotional culture across genders. But colonial religious historiography has privileged the experience of the male Jesuits and for this reason, a lot of the female material remains underexplored. Examining it from a church-historical perspective will undoubtedly generate new knowledge about women’s role in the history of the French empire.


The project utilises a large and underexplored collection of objects held at the Archives of the Ursuline Convent in Québec as well as archival material in France. These archival sources are material traces of cross-cultural contact and exchanges related to female devotion. For instance, an alter cloth depicting First Nation motifs (a village) but using Western techniques (embroidery), or another using First Nations techniques (beading) depicting Western motifs (crosses). But there are also a large number of hand-written meditation books used by the nuns and letters of spiritual direction that testify to their devotional practices.

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