Travel Writing – Part 1

December 10, 2007


I have heard you often complain that we see Relations enough of China and Canada, but that none had yet appeared which truly declared, what Country Jansenia is. Be content Sir, here is what you have longed for…

So begins A Relation of the Country of Jansenia; Wherein is treated of the Singularities founded therein, the Customes, Manners, and Religion of it’s Inhabitants by Le P. Zacharie de Lisieux (ps Fountaine), 1660, translated into English and published in London, 1668.


 This comes complete with map, showing Jansenia lying between her neighbours: Desesperia, where you will see men hanging from cypress trees among the rocks, Libertinia, a well-inhabited land of pleasure with statues of Bacchus and Venus, and Calvinia where Jansenists come out into the open and declare themselves true disciples of Calvin. Those that don’t venture quite so far remain in Jansenism itself, and the monsters and shipwrecks at the bottom of the picture show us, none too subtily, where that leads.

You guessed it! This is not a sympathetic treatment like that of Theophilus Gale. This is fairly strong polemic against Jansenism. Quite why a translation was printed in England I cannot tell. Perhaps Roman Catholics felt a need to counter the effect of the Provincial Letters which were selling well. But who did they hope to convince? Perhaps it was to steady the faithful; theological pornography for the closet Ultramontanist.

The account itself has the feel of a Utopian, or rather Dystopian, tale. The land was first colonised by ‘Flemings’ who made it famous by the novelty of their laws. The inhabitants are described in less than flattering terms. A number of specimens have been dissected revealing two hearts, suggested as an explanation of their insincerity and equivocation. The most common ailment is ‘a dangerous swelling’ which can only be cured by leaving, but the inhabitants force people to stay. They imagine that they alone possess the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They cannot make their own arms but have become very good at polishing those that come from neighbouring Calvinia. There is ‘a great correspondency’ with the Calvinists in learning too, ‘and they also mutually lend their Professors when by death some Chair is vacant, and they have nobody to supply it’. They trade with neighbouring Libertinia for wines, fine clothes and all things sensual. Their trade is less profitable in Desesperia.

They venerate their ‘Holy Book’ like the Sibyls in Rome, respectfully kissing the cover though they have no idea what it contains. They claim their town was built by ‘a Prince of Hippo’ about 1200 years before, or rather he repaired that founded 400 yeas before by ‘a famous Prince of Tarsus’, and they claim to have the title deeds to prove it beyond question. Those in the know laugh secretly at the credulity of others. They write so many books that they have to keep great gaggles of geese for quills.

Their gospel is intermingled with many wicked things:

They maintain with much obstinacy, that there are some certain people for whom alone our Saviour dyed: that others, the number whereof is incomparably far greater receive no manner of helps which might lead them to an happy Eternity: that Jesus Christ never intended any such thing, when he shed his blood.

They claim that God is pleased to act in this way. That he charges people to keep impossible laws without giving them aid to do so, to fly without wings, and then destroys them justly. Through temporal favours, veils to cover his true intent, he fattens up the wicked for the day of sacrifice. All the while he binds them to calling him ‘Loving Father’. It is this doctrine that drives men to Desesperia.

After a description of eucharistic practice our traveller turns to confession. The priests ‘most often deny them absolution, without any cause that deserveth it, and comfort them up with promises’. Scandalous! Some have had to go out of the country to have their sins absolved. Others are mired in despair.

Part 2 tomorrow whenever.


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