Codex Canadensis

Codex Canadensis, c. 1700, ink on paper, 33.7 x 21.6 cm (Gilcrease Museum)

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This work at the Gilcrease Museum

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:05] We’re at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in front of the Codex Canadensis. This remarkable manuscript from around 1700, filled with about 180 illustrations of people, animals, plants, sea creatures, birds, all of which come from the Great Lakes region and the Haudenosaunee area.

Jenny Keller: [0:30] This manuscript was created by a French Jesuit priest, Louis Nicolas.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:35] This Jesuit missionary comes to what was then referred to as Nouvelle France, and Nicolas is part of this larger missionary activity of the Jesuits, where they are going to encounter different cultural groups. Trying to immerse themselves, to learn the languages, to understand customs as a way to aid in the conversion of peoples to Christianity but also because the Jesuits were very interested in gaining encyclopedic knowledge.

[1:07] The Codex Canadensis represents that really well.

Jenny: [1:11] When we’re looking at this object in the museum, we want to look at that in consultation with tribal communities, people who are represented, and get their perspective. They’re going to know what’s true and what isn’t. As fascinating as it is, there’s a lot of unknowns, especially with depictions of people.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:28] This is an object that has relevance for us today. It is very much connected to communities thriving today. It’s a continuation of cultural knowledge. Nicolas, as a Jesuit, was very much immersed in thinking about natural philosophy or natural history.

[1:46] In the 17th century, what that meant was to try to amass a certain type of encyclopedic knowledge as a way to understand God’s creation. It also meant thinking about the world in a very particular way. It starts out with several maps to help orient us.

[2:04] Then it focuses on different groups of things arranged according to a hierarchy. At the top of that hierarchy is humans. After that, we have land-based mammals. Then we have plants. The plants are organized based specifically on what’s most useful. Then we proceed to things like sea animals, amphibians, and reptiles, birds, and fish.

Jenny: [2:28] His approach is very much European, Western-based. This is not a hierarchy that our peoples on this continent necessarily would have understood or embraced.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:38] Let’s talk about what is actually considered more accurate and what liberties he took that turn out to be more incorrect.

Jenny: [2:45] There are elements that are very true and recognizable and then there are things that just don’t make sense or are straight up lost. Different tribes, through different traumas, we’ve lost so much. If you look at, for example, plate four, some of the consultation work that we did with the Haudenosaunee. This was one of the images we presented to them.

[3:05] There are several aspects to this image that are known. For example, the figure is pointing up to the sun, and even though he may not have quite got it right saying that they were worshiping the sun, they’re recognizing the sun as another living being that they refer to as their elder brother, a big warrior.

[3:25] What he got wrong is he is saying that this individual is walking on hot coals.

[3:31] We showed this to our partners. They all said, “This is not a practice we’re familiar with.” But something that they are familiar with is a practice of sprinkling tobacco over hot coals. The smoke that comes up is this prayer to the sun, our elder brother, for a successful harvest, for healthy crops in the future.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:49] Nicolas was not a trained artist. He is traveling around, storing some of this information in his memory, drawing these once he’s already returned to France, so there’s definitely a distance of time.

[4:00] I also notice that the figure is standing in this classicizing pose that we call contrapposto, where there’s a weight shift in the body.

[4:10] That makes sense because we know that once Nicolas has returned to France and he’s creating this project, he is looking at other books and engravings for inspiration.

[4:20] On another page, we see another figure. Again, it’s a type that draws on a long-standing tradition of homogenizing Indigenous peoples of the Americas that goes back to the initial waves of European invasions and conquest. But we know from your consultations with tribal members that some of the material culture that’s depicted in this scene is actually very accurate.

Jenny: [4:45] The axe, for example, is a known object. The axe is European, the metal, we know that this is connected to the fur trade. The handle is a very specific type of burned spiral wooden handle. The pipe is an accurate representation of one that you would see.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:00] We could turn to another page with an image of a unicorn. Nicolas was very determined to prove their existence. In fact, he claims to have seen a dead one, which proved to him that people who didn’t believe they exist were wrong.

[5:14] What was Nicolas spending all this time drawing 180 images if not to impress someone?

[5:21] Scholars are not entirely certain who this was intended for, but there are elements of the manuscript that suggest that he wanted it to find an audience with the King of France. Yet the Codex Canadensis remains, unfortunately, very understudied and not as well known as it should be.

Jenny: [5:41] There is a lot of inherent value. It can work to supplement some knowledges that we may know of or have heard of but haven’t seen a lot of examples of. There are some really great positive benefits to seeing this sort of object. They can really help supplement what isn’t known about this very interesting document.

[6:01] [music]

Cite this page as: Jenny Keller and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, "Codex Canadensis," in Smarthistory, July 25, 2022, accessed July 15, 2024,