French American Studies Working Group Considers a “Monetary Episode” in New France, circa 1685

Written by Erin Johnson

On February 24, 2017, Catherine Desbarats, Professor of History at McGill University, visited the Yale campus for a lecture entitled, “ ‘Inventing’ Paper Money in New France, 1685.”

Prof. Catherine Desbarats speaking to the crowd on February 24, 2017.

After introductions and welcomes in English and French, the talk, which Professor Desbarats termed, “a thick description of a monetary episode,” got underway. The professor began by setting the scene, orienting the audience both temporally (the year is 1685 and Louis XIV is king; the Edict Nantes is revoked, declaring Protestantism illegal; and le Code Noir, which will have longstanding impacts on slavery and freedoms in the French colonies, is codified) and spatially (Canada was at that time a colony within a much broader North American imperial space known to the French and other European powers as ‘New France’). As Professor Desbarats observed, New France was a “vast domain”…“surrounded by indigenous enclaves and polities.” She then launched into heart of the story, which took place in colonial Québec, the capital of the French North American empire.

1685, as it turns out, was also the year in which French soldiers had arrived in Canada, responding to earlier requests from colonial officials for a standing army to help them fight the Iroquois. Without robust resources from the French state, the king’s agent in Canada, Jacques De Meulles, lacked sufficient funds to pay these soldiers. Rather than refuse payment, De Meulles devised a novel solution: he created a monetary system out of playing cards.

Playing-Card Money (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-17069) –

Beyond a simple narrative recounting of De Meulles’ “invention,” Professor Desbarats’ lecture also examined this “monetary episode” from linguistic and anthropological perspectives. She considered what appears to have been an intentional avoidance of the word “monnaie” (“money” in English) in descriptions of this playing card system and the practice of using the word “jouer” (“to play”) to describe transactions. (Coins of the realm, metal money, by way of contrast, bore the likeness of the king. Possessing coins was “like having a piece of sovereignty in your hands.”) She provided details on the systems of payment in France at that time and through the early 18th century and she also discussed how these playing cards factored into broader material culture and existing customs and behaviors. Her examination also touched on what this episode might tell us about colonial rule in French North America by illuminating the ways in which colonial state actors cobbled together their own improvised systems, thus creating a system of legal pluralism, in the absence of strict and clear oversight by the French monarchy. Using a word  that would be understood in both Quebec and Louisiana, it was a system characterized by “bricolage.”

Professor Desbarats is a founding member of the French Atlantic History Group and the author or co-author of several books related to Québec and French North America in the 17th and 18th centuries. Her visit was sponsored by the Howard R. Lamar Center for the study of Frontiers and Borders at Yale and the Committee on Canadian Studies and it was organized through the French American Studies Working Group that is sponsored by the Yale Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration (RITM). You can learn more about the working group here.

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