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ARCHIVED - Codex canadensis

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About the Manuscript

The next short section on plants holds some surprises for modern readers. We must remember that the author preceded Linnaeus and used an old system for classifying plants and animals that put greater emphasis on their usefulness to humans than on objective analysis. For example, the author showed only the edible tubers of the ounonnata (an Iroquois word denoting all edible roots or specifically the rhizome of the Arrowhead plant, Sagittaria latifolia, figure 2 on page 23). Many of these plants were not familiar to him. For example, it is possible that the "limphata" on page 23 was the water lily Nymphea odorata or N. tuberosa. However, the drawing of corn on page 24 is remarkable. Spain and Portugal had introduced this plant to Europe but it was still not well known and had initially been considered merely ornamental. At the end of this section is a drawing of an extraordinary plant called the passion fruit, whose parts, according to the author, resemble different symbols of the passion of Christ. The author believed that the plants not only educated us about their uses but also helped to enlighten us!

The section on mammals opens with an illustration of a unicorn and a tiger (page 27). The author seems to have believed in the existence of unicorns. Travellers claimed to have seen them in Medina, and the Scandinavians sold narwhal tusks as unicorn horns on the European market. The horns were thought to have remarkable healing powers.

Drawings of mammals were often inspired by the Historia animalium, a major work by Conrad Gesner (1516-1565). This is not surprising as illustrators had not begun to work much from nature and preferred to base their drawings on existing images, even if that meant using European models to depict Canadian fauna. Animals were often shown with their tongues hanging out (see, for example, the bears on page 33 or the moose on page 36). We must remember that, at the time, animals were most useful when they were dead. This also explains why animals were often depicted with their bodies stretched out and stiff. It would take a radical change in perspective for animals to be drawn in a more realistic way. Once people began to question why a certain characteristic was useful to the animal, rather than to humans, the old anthropocentrism would disappear.