Black Robe Essay

English 233:   Introduction to Western Humanities ­ Baroque & Enlightenment

Extra-credit Option

on the film Black Robe

The film Black Robe is based on the novel of the same title, by Brian Moore, who also did the screenplay for the film.  Novel and film are set in New France in 1634, and concern the missionary work of the Jesuits in Québec, under the governorship of Samuel de Champlain, who had in 1608 set up a trading post at what is now Québec city.

The most famous of the historical French Jesuit missionaries is Jean de Brébeuf (1593-1649), now the patron saint of Canada. [1]   Having grown up in Normandy, he was sent in 1625 to Québec, where he worked among the Huron Indians.  The region was the site of intense imperial and native conflict:  the British and French were contesting access to the lucrative fur trade, and established alliances with Native American peoples - the Iroquois and the Huron, respectively - who had a long history of mutual enmity.  Warfare between the Huron and Iroquois forced the French Jesuits to abandon the mission to the Huron in 1629.  In 1629, Québec had to surrender to the English,[2]  and Brébeuf went back to France.  He returned to his missionary labors in 1633.  In 1649, the French having (temporarily) concluded peace with the British and with the Iroquois, the Iroquois decided to have done with their Huron enemies.  In the course of their campaign, they captured Brébeuf and his assistant Gabriel Lalement and tortured them to death.

Brébeuf does not directly appear in Moore's novel or its film adaptation, but does figure in the novel as "Father Brabant," who serves as Father Laforgue's inspiration, and whose (pre-1629) reports to his superiors are the basis for some of the advice Father Broque gives to Laforgue.  (In the film, this is the man the young Laforgue visits in the recollected scene in the cathedral - the man whose ear has been cut off.)

Readings in preparation for the assignment.  This assignment requires you to do a brief bit of background reading to help focus your attention on important issues raised by the events in the film.  These readings are available from the Arts & Sciences Copy Center (Eisenhower 11).  Be sure that you have acquired and studied these materials before sitting down to watch the film.

Begin by reading Tobias Wolff's meditation on Brébeuf, "Second Thoughts on Certainty:  Saint Jean de Brébeuf among the Hurons," from A Tremor of Bliss:  Contemporary Writers on the Saints, ed.  Paul Elie (New York:  Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1974).[3]

Next read the "Introduction" Brian Moore wrote for his novel Black Robe.

  • As you read these, use a highlighter and take notes in the margin of your copy to bring into relief the chief issues that these modern mentalities find themselves fascinated by in contemplating the missionary experience, and its effects, in 17th-century New France.

Consider the motives of the missionaries, their strategy and tactics, and the effects of their interventions on the lives of the people they sought to help.[4]

Also:  what do you see as the principle matters that interest Wolff and Moore concerning the Native American peoples (Algonkian, Huron, Iroquois) with whom the Jesuits came into contact?

Then rent a video of the film Black Robe.[5]   (Both Dillon's East and Dillon's West here in Manhattan have copies available for 39 cents (!) per day.  Blockbuster Video here also has copies (multiple), for $3.00/3 days.  (If you run into a logjam at all of these, call me at home [539-5189]  and I can arrange for you to borrow one of my own copies.)   Watch the film in the light of the issues raised by Wolff's meditation, Moore's Introduction, and the topics and study guide that follow.

The choice of topics.  After watching the film, write a brief essay on one of the following topics.  (As a rough guide to scale:  shoot for at least a page, single­spaced, typed, with standard margins.)  Strive for an intelligibly logical scheme of organization for deploying the points that, together, constitute your insight.  Be sure to develop these points with specific reference to the concrete details of the work.  Don't forget to explain your interpretive insights.  Here, then, are your topic options:

Topic A.   Both the Algonkians and the French Jesuits find it difficult to understand each other.  Pick one point of mutual confusion between them.  Describe it in detail and analyze its roots in the differences between the two parties' framework assumptions.

Topic B.   What is the fuller thematic significance of the contrast that develops between Daniel and Father Laforgue?

Topic C.   Spell out a set of ironic parallels that the film finds ways to point to between the Native American and European ways of thinking and behaving.[6]

Study Guide to the film.   Here are some more specific questions that may point you to reflections useful in one way or another in connection with one of these options:  

(1) What frame of mind do we imagine Father Laforgue to be in at the end of the film when he agrees to administer baptism to the Hurons?  

Does he believe the sacrament is effective for the purpose for which they seek to undergo it?

What after all is that purpose?

And what is his understanding of the purpose of it?

What does he decide, in response to the request, and why?

What meaning does his decision have for us?

Has he changed, or has he remained basically the same as what he was when he began his journey in the interview, in the cathedral in France with Fr.  Brabant?  Explain.

(2) What assumptions about the nature of divine providence and/or original sin do we have to be aware of in order to understand Laforgue's feelings about sex?  about his mission?  about wildness and wilderness and savages?

(3) What is the dream that the Algonkian leader Neehatin has at the beginning of the canoe party's up-river journey?

What assumptions do you detect as responsible for the interpretation of the dream finally settled upon?

What decision does it give rise to, and what are the ultimate results of that decision?

Where does the dream come up later on in the story?

(4) What connections is it helpful to make with what we learn in the Wolff essay and in Brian Moore's Introduction to his novel about the role of dreams in Algonkian and Huron life?

(4) What is the point of the epigraph at the end of the film, reminding us of the eventual fate of the Jesuit missions to the Hurons?  


[1]  Along with 7 others - including his companion and assistant Gabriel Lalemant - he was canonized in 1930.  Collectively these 8 men are known as "the Jesuit Martyrs of North America."   Return.

[2]  It was later recaptured by the French.  Québec did not become a province of British Canada until 1763, as a result of the British victory on the Plains of Abraham.  (This is the famous battle in which both commanders - Montcalm and Wolfe - perished.)   Return.

[3]  Wolff mentions the use he made of the figure of Brébeuf in a famous story of his called "In the Garden of the North American Martyrs."  I've attached this story as well to the packet of materials at the A&S Copy Center, even though it is not a part of the present assignment.  Note the 20th-century reverberation of the figure of Brébeuf, as someone with the courage to "speak truth to power":  Wolff brings him in in the climactic moment of a story concerned with a person's eventual refusal to stop giving in to the cultural conformity fostered by the "McCarthyist" intimidation of universities in the 1950s.  But note how the implications Wolff draws upon for the purposes of this story do not exhaust the significance, for the same writer, of the same historical figure.  Hence the title:  "Second Thoughts on Certainty...."  The same complexities are at work in the valuation Brian Moore invites us to consider making of his fictional protagonist, Father Laforgue.   Return.

[4]  In relating this back to Wolff, you might begin by distinguishing among (a) what he says he can hardly imagine, (b) what he can imagine and admires, and (c) what he finds chastising and stirring and troubling in Brébeuf's life.   Return.

[5]  If you prefer, you can instead read the novel.  There's a copy available in the library, but you may wish to order the paperback.  It goes for only $4.95, and can be had within a week of ordering from Claflin Books and Copies.  Partly because it is written from an "omniscient point of view" (affording us direct insights into the consciousness of a variety of characters, French and Native American), it affords us a wealth of complexity concerning the specific issues at stake in the encounters between the two cultures that is impossible to convey in all its richness in the film medium.   Return.

[6]  It will not do to say such vague and general things as "they both don't understand each other"! Tell us specifically the points at which misunderstanding arises, and make explicit what we are to appreciate as the differences between the parties' axiom systems that accounts for these misunderstandings.   Return.

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      Contents copyright © 2000 by Lyman A. Baker. 

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      This page last updated 11 October 2000.

The simple black judicial robe has been a part of my life for nearly four decades. I first wore one in 1975 when I became a trial judge in Arizona. When I was appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States, in 1981, I brought that same robe with me to Washington and wore it on my first day on the bench. Although I retired in 2006, I still wear a robe in my role as a “circuit-rider,” sitting frequently, as many retired justices do, on various federal Courts of Appeals across the country.

It is surprising to me how little we know about where this plain black judicial uniform comes from. Colonial judges in England wore robes, and the tradition took off on American soil as well. But English judges also wore colorful robes and ornate wigs—a tradition that was not adopted in the United States. Some speculate that the Supreme Court began with more colorful attire; the court’s official portrait of the first chief justice, John Jay, shows him in a robe of black and red with white borders. The story, perhaps apocryphal, is that Thomas Jefferson himself objected to such unnecessary pomp: As an ardent supporter of modest republican citizenship, Jefferson was against “any needless official apparel,” especially “the monstrous wig which makes the English judges look like rats peeping through bunches of oakum.” It is believed that by 1801, when John Marshall became chief justice, the justices were in the habit of wearing black.

Today, every federal and state judge in the country wears a very similar, simple black robe. I am fond of the symbolism of this tradition. It shows that all of us judges are engaged in upholding the Constitution and the rule of law. We have a common responsibility.

Remarkably, this similarity among our judges and justices is purely a matter of tradition. There are no rules that dictate what judges or justices must wear on the bench, nor is there even a common source for Supreme Court robes. The court’s internal correspondence suggests that, in the 19th century, the justices all wore black silk robes from a single tailor. By the 20th century, other materials were often used and judges selected their robes from those available to college graduates and choir singers. For the most part, we have all chosen to wear a very similar style of black judicial robe.

Of course, there have been a few exceptions, intentional or otherwise. In the marshal’s office records of the court, there is a note that in 1969, Justice Hugo Black “returned to the Bench” without his robe on and sat on the bench for the remainder of the court session, departing with his colleagues. But there’s no record of whether something happened to his robe or he just forgot to put it on. And Chief Justice William Rehnquist added gold stripes to one arm of his robe. It was an unannounced departure: He simply surprised us with the change one morning. He said he had recently seen a Gilbert & Sullivan opera in which the lord chief justice wore a robe with gold stripes. Our chief asked the seamstress at the court to sew some on his own robe. I myself made a modest addition to the simple black robe by choosing to wear a white judicial collar.

My fondest thoughts about my robe have to do with the tradition at the Supreme Court for putting it on. On argument days, a buzzer sounds about five minutes before the oral argument starts. The justices go to the robing room—the court’s version of a locker room. Each justice has a locker; attendants help the justices fasten their robes. Then the justices, without fail, engage in a wonderful custom. Each justice shakes the hand of every other justice before walking into the courtroom—an important reminder that, despite the justices’ occasional differences in opinion, the court is a place of collegiality and common purpose.

“People often ask me if, as the first woman on the Supreme Court, I had any special preferences for my robe.” says Sandra Day O’Connor. “But honestly, I took whatever was available and put it on.”

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