Notes on “La Nouvelle France” by Peter Moogk

I thought I would write a little about Peter Moogk’s book “La Nouvelle France” as one person’s point of view and findings on that place. I have found that the book is singularly hard to distill down because it is as much a statement of the author’s point of view as it is of the various and interesting facts he writes about.

Peter N. Moogk is currently Professor Emeritus (History) at the University of British Columbia, with a special interest in the history of New France. He starts his book talking about how our school system prepared students for the language and culture of Paris rather than French speaking Canada, a difference I also noticed when I first studied high school French. Everything in the texts seemed so polished and formal. It just didn’t seem relevant to our own culture. Moogk found a difference in political ideology and civil law, for instance, the fact that marriage contracts (prenuptial agreements) were the norm in Quebec and that genealogy and family ties found common threads in conversation. He also states that the distinctiveness of French Canadian culture was discussed in only a very general way in history books. After that, Moogk goes on to explain what the position of historian should be.

There is a difference between historical fiction and scholarly history. Complete objectivity is unattainable, yet a credible interpretation will appeal to the evidence and allow the reader to verify that there is a foundation for the writer’s view. All historical evidence is not of equal value, and the well-trained historian will appraise the veracity of surviving testimony, consider the context of the times, and produce an  account that is consistent with the best evidence.”

The author disputes the idea that the culture of New France was based solely on economics and states that most of the current histories of New France were based on the correspondence of French bureaucrats and not ordinary people. He states that the “colonists of French North America were social conservatives who were determined to preserve what they remembered of their homeland’s ways.” In other words, they did not just come here to make money, for example through the fur trade.

Moogk also states that  small samples of authoritative evidence are preferable to large bodies of information from questionable sources but this can present problems in itself if there is no authoritative evidence. Then he must create a composite picture out of selections from written sources and this is risky because it requires experience and informed judgement.

He then goes on to talk about how we cannot hope to understand the minds of our ancestors because what we consider appropriate now was not the same in the past. The French colonists were “proud, mutually suspicious and fearful people living in a dangerously unpredictable world.”  Moogk’s purpose was to look inside that world and find the source of the cultural differences in French Canada that exist even to this day.

As I talk about life for my ancestors in New France, I will be referring at times to this book.

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