Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Seigneurial System

Feudalism came to America with the seigneurial system of New France. The Industrial Revolution brought an end to feudalism in England by the 17th century, but on the lower, or seigneurial level, it was still alive in France and survived until the French Revolution.

It was only natural that the French should bring their mode of owning land with them to Canada. Since feudalism was a system concerned with governance and defense as well as land, it was particularly well-suited to meeting the problems of colonizing the North American wilderness.

Under feudalism, the lord owned duties of government and military leadership to his tenants. They, in turn, owed obedience and armed support to him. Hence, in New France, the seigneurs were the military leaders and the seigneurie was the unit of local government and defense. Additionally, the system was supposed to provide a means of settling the land. Large tracts were granted to seigneurs on condition that they would bring out settlers who would tenant their land, clearing and developing it in the process. Thus, block by block, in an orderly fashion, New France would be built up by the seigneurial system. Unfortunately, it did not work out as planned.

The king sold the rights to colonization to a private company known as the "One Hundred Associates." They were to have parceled out the seigneuries, but not many were taken up. Court favorites and land speculators acquired large tracts of land and either failed to bring out settlers or did not try. They preferred to hold the land for sale to others making a profit without taking a risk. Seigneuries granted to religious orders tended to be taken up, populated and developed. Yet in general, the system failed as a means of bringing about private colonization.

By 1663, the crown had had enough of free private enterprise. The king took an active interest in the colonization and brought out settlers directly. Thus, the seigneuries began to be populated by the tide of immigration flooding into New France. Unfortunately, this flow was short lived. By the turn of the century, because of wars in Europe, the crown lost interest and the immigrant stream slowed to a trickle. Until the conquest and thereafter, New France grew chiefly through its own high birth rate.

The seigneuries did serve, however, as units of local government and community life. Their role in defense was marked by the establishment of military seigneuries along the Richelieu as a barrier to the Iroquois, where the tenants, who were ex-soldiers, still owed military service. Therefore, much of the life of New France was that of the seigneury. It was the habitants little world.

It cannot be held that the conditions of seigneurialism were really burdensome to the tenant. The system was far less oppressive in Canada than in France. With the frontier at the edge of every farm promising freedom, possible fortune in the fur trade and the ever-present need for more farmers, it would not have been possible to place heavy obligations on the habitants. They owed their "corvees," the obligation to give work time to the seigneur on his farm or on communal property such as roads, but this came to only a few days a year. They had to pay rent in the form of "cens et rentes" ... the former a small annual payment per month, the later often paid in produce or domestic animals. The land was sold or passed on by other than direct inheritance ... sums called "lods et centes" were due. But none of these obligations were odious or severe. As for the "banalite," the requirements to use the mill or the seigneur to grind his grain, the expense of building the mill far outweighed the tolls that were charged.

Relations between habitant and seigneur were far closer and more friendly than in old France. After all, they were both in the same boat, working together against the wilderness. The house of the seigneur was usually larger and more comfortable than that of his farmers, but it was far from a castle or palace. The seigneur himself was not usually from an old noble family ... he might often have sprung from the bourgeois, the merchant or trading middle class. In sum, the habitant was much better off, while the seigneurs were not as well off as their counterparts in France. Moreover, the conditions of pioneer life in New France produced the same open, independent attitudes that were found on the frontiers in the American colonies to the south. The habitant was no downtrodden peasant but a self-sufficient, self-respecting farmer. In this respect, he was not a great distance from the seigneur in wealth.

Nevertheless, if relations were good and no heavy burden of dues came between habitant and seigneur, there was still a broad distance of dignity and privilege to separate them. The seigneur was shown much respect. His word carried weight throughout the countryside, and above all, a farming community. Hence, that system played so large a part in shaping the outlook of the French colonists. Historians and French-Canadian genealogical researchers on both sides of the North American border would do well to understand this former system of social organization.

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