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About Louis Nicolas

Biographical Notes on Louis Nicolas, Presumed Author of the Codex canadensis

As we know, Marc de Villiers attributed the Codex canadensis to Charles Bécart de Grandville (1675-1703). This attribution is no longer considered valid. The number of similarities between the content of the Codex canadensis and the Histoire Naturelle des Indes Occidentales, located in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, indicates that these two documents may have a common author. The Histoire Naturelle is signed with the initials "M.L.N.P." These same initials appear in the Grammaire algonquine and, fortunately, are spelled out as "Messire Louis Nicolas Prêtre" or "Louis Nicolas, Missionary Priest." It is reasonable to conclude that the three documents flowed from the same pen.

Who was Louis Nicolas? Born on August 15, 1634, in Aubenas, in the Ardèche region of France, Louis Nicolas joined the Society of Jesus in 1654 and was sent to Toulouse. According to the Journal des Jésuites, he arrived in Canada in 1664 and stayed until 1675. As a missionary, he traveled widely, from the western end of Lake Superior to Sept-Îles, and from Trois-Rivières to the Iroquois lands south of Lake Ontario, making numerous visits to Québec. However, he seems to have been more interested in researching Aboriginal languages -- he became expert in Algonquin -- and natural history than in converting the First Nations to Catholicism. The tone of the Relations Jésuites is somewhat circumspect, if not slightly embarrassed, with regard to Nicolas. He reportedly did not behave very well toward the First Nations. The anti-Jesuit tract La Morale pratique des Jésuites, by Antoine Arnauld, quotes a memoire by Antoine Alet, secretary to Sulpician superior M. de Queylus, in which Louis Nicolas is described as a quick-tempered and rather vain man. He is even said to have beaten Kinongé, an Outaouais chief and French ally, with a club. Nicolas also went to great expense to tame two bear cubs at the Jesuits' residence in Sillery, near Québec. He was quite proud of them and wanted to show them off to the King. As one might well imagine, the Jesuit community was not at all pleased.

Nothing more was heard of Nicolas after he returned to France. He seems to have left the Jesuits after his superiors refused to let him print his Histoire Naturelle. It is not known when he died, although 1682 has been suggested but not substantiated. If that date is accurate, we must assume that the Codex, which dates from 1700, was not drawn by Nicolas but by a colleague who knew his work well. However, knowledgeable paleographers affirm that the handwriting found in the Codex is the same as that in the Histoire Naturelle. Louis Nicolas would have been 66 years old in 1700. Until there is proof to the contrary, he can be considered the author of the Codex canadensis.

François-Marc Gagnon
Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Institute for Studies in Canadian Art
Concordia University, Montréal