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The Seigneurs of Old Canada: by William Bennett Munro

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and captains of industry, they contributed their full
share to the sum of French achievement, alike in war and
peace. By intermarriage also the Le Moynes of Longueuil
connected themselves with other prominent families of
French Canada, notably those of Beaujeu, Lanaudiere, and
Gaspe. Unlike most of the colonial noblesse, they were
well-to-do from the start, and the barony of Longueuil
may be rightly regarded as a good illustration of what
the seigneurial system could accomplish at its best.

These three seigneurs, Hebert, La Durantaye, and Le Moyne,
represent three different, yet not so very dissimilar
types of landed pioneer. Hebert, the man of humble birth
and limited attainments, made his way to success by
unremitting personal labour under great discouragements.
He lived and died a plain citizen. He had less to show
for his life-work than the others, perhaps; but in those
swaddling days of the colony's history his task was
greater. Morel de la Durantaye, the man-at-arms, well
born and bred, took his seigneurial rank as a matter of
course, and his duties without much seriousness. His
seigneury had his attention only when opportunities for
some more exciting field of action failed to present
themselves. Interesting figure though he was--an excellent
type of a hundred others--it was well for the colony that
not all its seigneurs were like him in temperament and
ways. Le Moyne, the nearest Canadian approach to the
seigneur of Old France in the days before the Revolution,
combined the best qualities of the other two. There was
plenty of red blood in his veins, and to some of his
progeny went more of it than was good for them. He was
ready with his sword when the occasion called. An arm
shot off by an Iroquois flintlock in 1687 gave him through
life a grim reminder of his combative habits in early
days. But warfare was only an avocation; the first fruits
of the land absorbed his main interest throughout the
larger part of his days. Each of these men had others
like him, and the peculiar circumstances of the colony
found places for them all. The seigneurs of Old Canada
did not form a homogeneous class; men of widely differing
tastes and attainments were included among them. There
were workers and drones; there were men who made a signal
success as seigneurs, and others who made an utter failure.
But taken as a group there was nothing very commonplace
about them, and it is to her two hundred seigneurs or
thereabouts that New France owes much of the glamour that
marks her tragic history.



In its attitude toward the seigneurs the crown was always
generous. The seigneuries were large, and from the
seigneurs the king asked no more than that they should
help to colonize their grants with settlers. It was
expected, in turn, that the seigneurs would show a like
spirit in all dealings with their dependants. Many of
them did; but some did not. On the whole, however, the
habitants who took farms within the seigneuries fared
pretty well in the matter of the feudal dues and services
demanded from them. Compared with the seigneurial tenantry
of Old France their obligations were few in number, and
imposed almost no burden at all.

This is a matter upon which a great deal of nonsense has
been written by English writers on the early history of
Canada, most of whom have been able to see nothing but
the spectre of paternalism in every domain of colonial
life. It is quite true, as Tocqueville tells us, that
the physiognomy of a government can be best judged in
its colonies, for there its merits and faults appear as
through a microscope. But in Canada it was the merits
rather than the faults of French feudalism which came to
the front in bold relief. There it was that seigneurial
polity put its best foot forward. It showed that so long
as defence was of more importance than opulence the
institution could fully justify its existence. Against
the seigneurial system as such no element in the population
of New France ever raised, so far as the records attest,
one word of protest during the entire period of French
dominion. The habitants, as every shred of reliable
contemporary evidence goes to prove, were altogether
contented with the terms upon which they held their lands,
and thought only of the great measure of freedom from
burdens which they enjoyed as compared with their friends
at home. To speak of them as 'slaves to the corvees and
unpaid military service, debarred from education and
crammed with gross fictions as an aid to their docility
and their value as food for powder,' [Footnote: A. G.
Bradley, The fight with France for North America (London,
1905, p. 388).] is to display a rare combination of
hopeless bigotry and crass ignorance. The habitant of
the old regime in Canada was neither a slave nor a serf;
neither down-trodden nor maltreated; neither was he docile
and spineless when his own rights were at issue. So often
has all this been shown that it is high time an end were
made of these fictions concerning the woes of Canadian
folk-life in the days before the conquest.

We have ample testimony concerning the relations of
seigneur and habitant in early Canada, and it comes from
many quarters. First of all there are the title-deeds of
lands, thousands of which have been preserved in the
various notarial archives. It ought to be explained, in
passing, that when a seigneur wished to make a grant of
land the services of a notary were enlisted. Notaries
were plentiful; the census of 1681 enumerated twenty-four
of them in a population of less than ten thousand. The
notary made his documents in the presence of the parties,
had them signed, witnessed, and sealed with due formality.
The seigneur kept one copy, the habitant another, and
the notary kept the original. In the course of time,
therefore, each notary accumulated quite a collection or
cadastre of legal records which he kept carefully. At
his death they were passed over to the general registry,
or office of the greffier, at Quebec. In general the
notaries were men of rather meagre education; their work
on deeds and marriage settlements was too often very
poorly done, and lawsuits were all the more common in
consequence. But the colony managed to get along with
this system of conveyancing, crude and undependable as
it was.

In the title-deeds of lands granted by the seigneurs to
the habitants the situation and area are first set forth.
The grants were of all shapes and sizes. As a rule,
however, they were in the form of a parallelogram, with
the shorter end fronting the river and the longer side
extending inland. The usual river frontage was from five
to ten lineal arpents, and the depth ranged from ten to
eighty arpents. It should be explained that the arpen de
Paris, in terms of which colonial land measurements were
invariably expressed, served both as a unit of length
and as a unit of area. The lineal arpent was the equivalent
of one hundred and ninety-two English feet. The superficial
arpent, or arpent of area, contained about five-sixths
of an acre. The habitant's customary frontage on the
river was, accordingly, from about a thousand to two
thousand feet, while his farm extended rearwards a distance
of anywhere from under a half-mile to three miles.

This rather peculiar configuration of the farms arose
wholly from the way in which the colony was first settled.
For over a century after the French came to the St Lawrence
all the seigneuries were situated directly on the shores
of the river. This was only natural, for the great waterway
formed the colony's carotid artery, supplying the life-blood
of all New France so far as communications were concerned.
From seigneury to seigneury men traversed it in canoes
or bateaux in summer, and over its frozen surface they
drove by carriole during the long winters. Every one
wanted to be in contact with this main highway, so that
the demand for farms which should have some river frontage,
however small, was brisk from the outset. Near the river
the habitant began his clearing and built his house.
Farther inland, as the lands rose from the shore, was
the pasture; and behind this again lay the still uncleared
woodland. When the colony built its first road, this
thoroughfare skirted the north shore of the St Lawrence,
and so placed an even greater premium on farms contiguous
to the river. It was only after all the best lands with
river frontage had been taken up that settlers resorted
to what was called 'the second range' farther inland.

Now it happened that in thus adapting the shape of grants
to the immediate convenience and caprice of the habitants
a curious handicap was in the long run placed upon
agricultural progress. By the terms of the Custom of
Paris, which was the common law of the colony, all the
children of a habitant's family, male and female, inherited
equal shares of his lands. When, therefore, a farm was
to be divided at its owner's decease each participant in
the division wanted a share in the river frontage. With
large families the rule, it can easily be seen that this
demand could only be met by shredding the farm into mere
ribbons of land with a frontage of only fifty or a hundred
feet and a depth of a mile or more. That was the usual
course pursued; each child had his strip, and either
undertook to get a living out of it or sold his land to
an adjoining heir. In any case, the houses and barns of
the one who came into ownership of these thin oblongs
were always situated at or near the water-front, so that
the work of farming the land necessitated a great deal
of travelling back and forth. Too many of the habitants,
accordingly, got into the habit of spending all their
time on the fields nearest the house and letting the rear
grow wild. The situation militated against proper rotation
of crops, and in many ways proved an obstacle to progress.
The trouble was not that the farms were too small to
afford the family a living. In point of area they were
large enough; but their abnormal shape rendered it
difficult for the habitant to get from them their full
productive power with the rather short season of cultivation
that the climate allowed.

So important a handicap did this situation place upon
the progress of agriculture that in 1744 the governor
and the intendant drew the attention of the home authorities
to it, and urged that some remedy be provided. With simple
faith in the healing power of a royal edict, the king
promptly responded with a decree which ordered that no
habitant should thenceforth build his house and barn on
any plot of land which did not have at least one and
one-half lineal arpents of frontage (about three hundred
feet). Any buildings so erected were to be demolished.
What a crude method of dealing with a problem which had
its roots deep down in the very law and geography of the
colony! But this royal remedy for the ills of New France
went the way of many others. The authorities saw that it
would work no cure, and only one attempt was ever made
to punish those habitants who showed defiance. The
intendant Bigot, in 1748, ordered that some houses which
various habitants had erected at L'Ange-Gardien should
be pulled down, but there was a great hue and cry from
the owners, and the order remained unenforced. The practice
of parcelling lands in the old way continued, and in time
these cotes, as the habitants termed each line of houses
along the river, stretched all the way from Quebec to
Montreal. From the St Lawrence the whole colony looked
like one unending, straggling village-street.

But let us outline the dues and services which the
habitant, by the terms of his title-deed, must render to
his seigneur. First among these were the annual payments
commonly known as the cens et rentes. To the habitant
this was a sort of annual rental, although it was really
made up of two separate dues, each of which had a different
origin and nature. The cens was a money payment and merely
nominal in amount. Back in the early days of feudalism
it was very probably a greater burden; in Canada it never
exceeded a few sous for a whole farm. The rate of cens
was not uniform: each seigneur was entitled to what he
and the habitant might agree upon, but it never amounted
to more than the merest pittance, nor could it ever by
any stretch of the imagination be deemed a burden. With
the cens went the rentes, the latter being fixed in terms
of money, poultry, or produce, or all three combined.
'One fat fowl of the brood of the month of May or twenty
sols (sous) for each lineal arpent of frontage'; or 'one
minot of sound wheat or twenty sols for each arpent of
frontage' is the way in which the obligation finds record
in some title-deeds which are typical of all the rest.
The seigneur had the right to say whether he wanted his
rentes in money or in kind, and he naturally chose the
former when prices were low and the latter when prices
were high.

It is a little difficult to estimate just what the ordinary
habitant paid each year by way of cens et rentes to his
seigneur, but under ordinary conditions the rental would
amount to about ten or twelve sous and a half-dozen
chickens or a bushel of grain for the average farm. Not
a very onerous annual payment for fifty or sixty acres
of land! Yet this was the only annual emolument which
the seigneur of Old Canada drew each year from his
tenantry. With twenty-five allotments in his seigneury
the yearly income would be perhaps thirty or forty livres
if translated into money, that is to say, six or eight
dollars in our currency. Allowing for changes in the
purchasing power of money during the last two hundred
years, a fair idea of the burden placed on the habitant
by his payment of the cens et rentes may be given by
estimating it, in terms of present-day agricultural
rentals, at, say, fifty cents yearly per acre. This is,
of course, a rough estimate, but it conveys an idea that
is approximately correct and, indeed, about as near the
mark as one can come after a study of the seigneurial
system in all its phases. The payment constituted a
burden, and the habitants doubtless would have welcomed
its abolition; but it was not a heavy tax upon their
energies; it was less than the Church demanded from them;
and they made no serious complaints regarding its

The cens et rentes were paid each year on St Martin's
Day, early in November. By that time the harvest had been
flailed and safely stowed away; the poultry had fattened
among the fields of stubble. One and all, the habitants
came to the manor-house to give the seigneur his annual
tribute. Carrioles and celeches filled his yard. Women
and children were brought along, and the occasion became
a neighbourhood holiday. The manor-house was a lively
place throughout the day, the seigneur busily checking
off his lists as the habitants, one after another, drove
in with their grain, their poultry, and their wallets of
copper coins. The men smoked assiduously; so did the
women sometimes. Not infrequently, as the November air
was damp and chill, the seigneur passed his flagon of
brandy among the thirsty brotherhood, and few there were
who allowed this token of hospitality to pass them by.
With their tongues thus loosened, men and women glibly
retailed the neighbourhood gossip and the latest tidings
which had filtered through from Quebec or Montreal. There
was an incessant clatter all day long, to which the
captive fowls, with their feet bundled together but with
throats at full liberty, contributed their noisy share.
As dusk drew near there was a general handshaking, and
the carrioles scurried off along the highway. Every one
called his neighbour a friend, and the people of each
seigneury were as one great family.

The cens et rentes made up the only payment which the
seigneur received each year, but there was another which
became due at intervals. This was the payment known as
the lods et ventes, a mutation fine which the seigneur
had the right to demand whenever a farm changed hands by
sale or by descent, except to direct heirs. One-twelfth
of the value was the seigneur's share, but it was his
custom to rebate one-third of this amount. Lands changed
hands rather infrequently, and in any case the seigneur's
fine was very small. From this source he received but
little revenue and it came irregularly. Only in the days
after the conquest, when land rose in value and transfers
became more frequent, could the lods et ventes be counted
among real sources of seigneurial income.

Then there were the so-termed banalites. In France their
name was legion; no one but a seigneur could own a
grist-mill, wine-press, slaughter-house, or even a dovecot.
The peasant, when he wanted his grain made into flour or
his grapes made into wine, was required to use his
seigneur's mill, or press, and to pay the toll demanded.
This toll was often exorbitant and the service poor. In
Canada, however, there was only one droit de banalite--the
grist-mill right. The Canadian seigneur had the exclusive
milling privilege; his habitants were bound by their
title-deed to bring their grist to his mill, and his
legal toll was one-fourteenth of their grain. This
obligation did not bear heavily on the people of the
seigneuries; most of the complaints concerning it came
rather from the seigneurs, who claimed that the toll was
too small and did not suffice, in the average seigneury,
to pay the wages of the miller. Many seigneurs declined
to build mills until the royal authorities stepped in
with a decree commanding that those who did not do so
should lose their banal right for all time. Then they
bestirred themselves.

The seigneurial mills were not very efficient, from all
accounts. Crude, clumsy, poorly built affairs, they
sometimes did little more than crack the wheat into coarse
meal--it could hardly be called flour. The bakers of
Quebec complained that the product was often unfit to
use. The mills were commonly built in tower-like fashion,
and were at times loop-holed in order that they might be
used if necessary in the defence of seigneuries against
Indian attack. The mill of the Seminary of St Sulpice at
Montreal, for example, was a veritable stronghold, rightly
counted upon as a place of sure refuge for the settlers
in time of need. Racked and decayed by the ravages of
time, some of those old walls still stand in their
loneliness, bearing to an age of smoke-belching industry
their message of more modest achievement in earlier days.
Most of these banal mills were fitted with clumsy
wind-wheels, somewhat after the Dutch fashion. But nature
would not always hearken to the miller's command, and
often for days the habitants stood around with their
grist waiting in patience for the wind to come up and be

Some Canadian seigneurs laid claim to the oven right
(droit de four banal) as well. But the intendant, ever
the tribune of his people, sternly set his foot on this
pretension. In France the seigneur insisted that the
peasantry should bake their bread in the great oven of
the seigneury, paying the customary toll for its use.
But in Canada, as the intendant explained, this arrangement
was utterly impracticable. Through the long months of
winter some of the habitants would have to bring their
dough a half-dozen miles, and it would be frozen on the
way. Each was therefore permitted to have a bake-oven of
his own, and there was, of course, plenty of wood near
by to keep it blazing.

Many allusions have been made, in writings on the old
regime, to the habitant's corvee or obligation to give
his seigneur so many days of free labour in each year.
In France this incident of seigneurial tenure cloaked
some dire abuses. Peasants were harried from their farms
and forced to spend weeks on the lord's domain, while
their own grain rotted in the fields. But there was
nothing of this sort in Canada. Six days of corvee per
year was all that the seigneur could demand; and he
usually asked for only three, that is to say, one day
each in the seasons of ploughing, seedtime, and harvest.
And when the habitant worked for his seigneur in this
way the latter had to furnish him with both food and
tools, a requirement which greatly impaired the value of
corvee labour from the seigneur's point of view. So far
as a painstaking study of the records can disclose, the
corvee obligation was never looked upon as an imposition
of any moment. It was apparently no more generally resented
than is the so-termed statute-labour obligation which
exists among the farming communities of some Canadian
provinces at the present day.

As for the other services which the habitant had to render
his seigneur, they were of little importance. When he
caught fish, one fish in every eleven belonged to his
chief. But the seigneur seldom claimed this share, and
received it even less often. The seigneur was entitled
to take stone, sand, and firewood from the land of any
one within his estate; but when he did this it was
customary to give the habitant something of equal value
in return. Few seigneurs of New France ever insisted on
their full pound of flesh in these matters; a generous
spirit of give and take marked most of their dealings
with the men who worked the land.

Then there was the maypole obligation, quaintest among
seigneurial claims. By the terms of their tenure the
habitants of the seigneury were required to appear each
May Day before the main door of the manor-house, and
there to plant a pole in the seigneur's honour.

Le premier jour de mai,
J'm'en fus planter un mai,
A la porte a ma mie.

Bright and early in the morning, as Gaspe tells us, the
whole neighbourhood appeared, decked out fantastically,
and greeted the manor-house with a salvo of blank musketry.
With them they bore a tall fir-tree, its branches cut
and its bark peeled to within a few feet of the top.
There the tuft of greenery remained. The pole, having
been gaudily embellished, was majestically reared aloft
and planted firmly in the ground. Round it the men and
maidens danced, while the seigneur and his family,
enthroned in chairs brought from the manor-house, looked
on with approval. Then came a rattling feu de joie with
shouts of 'Long live the King!' and 'Long live our
seigneur!' This over, the seigneur invited the whole
gathering to refreshments indoors. Brandy and cakes
disappeared with great celerity before appetites whetted
by an hour's exercise in the clear spring air. They drank
to the seigneur's health, and to the health of all his
kin. At intervals some guest would rush out and fire his
musket once again at the maypole, returning for more
hospitality with a sense of duty well performed. Before
noon the merry company, with the usual round of handshaking,
went away again, leaving the blackened pole behind. The
echoes of more musket-shots came back through the valleys
as they passed out of sight and hearing. The seigneur
was more than a mere landlord, as the occasion testified.



The seigneurs of New France were not a privileged order.
Between them and the habitants there was no great gulf
fixed, no social impasse such as existed between the two
classes in France. The seigneur often lived and worked
like a habitant; his home was not a great deal better
than theirs; his daily fare was much the same. The
habitant, on the other hand, might himself become a
seigneur by saving a little money, and this is what
frequently happened. By becoming a seigneur, however, he
did not change his mode of life, but continued to work
as he had done before. There were some, of course, who
took their social rank with great seriousness, and proved
ready to pay out good money for letters-patent giving
them minor titles of nobility. Thus Jacques Le Ber, a
bourgeois of Montreal who made a comfortable fortune out
of the fur trade, bought a seigneury and then acquired
the rank of gentilhomme by paying six thousand livres
for it. But the possession of an empty title, acquired
by purchase or through the influence of official friends
at Quebec, did not make much impression on the masses of
the people. The first citizens in the hearts of the
community were the men of personal courage, talent, and
worldly virtues.

Sur cette terre encor sauvage
Les vieux titres sont inconnus;
La noblesse est dans le courage,
Dans les talents, dans les vertus.

Nevertheless, to be a seigneur was always an honour, for
the manor-house was the recognized social centre of every

The manor-house was not a mansion. Built sometimes of
rough-hewn timber, but more commonly of stone, it was
roomy and comfortable, although not much more pretentious
than the homes of well-to-do habitants. Three or four
rooms on the ground floor with a spacious attic made up
the living quarters. The furniture often came from France,
and its quality gave the whole interior an air of
distinction. As for the habitants, their homes were also
of stone or timber--long and rather narrow structures,
heavily built, and low. They were whitewashed on the
outside with religious punctuality each spring. The eaves
projected over the walls, and high-peaked little dormer
windows thrust themselves from the roof here and there.
The houses stood very near the roadway, with scarcely
ever a grass plot or single shade tree before them. In
midsummer the sun beat furiously upon them; in winter
they stood in all their bleakness full-square to the
blasts that drove across the river.

Behind the house was a storeroom built in 'lean-to'
fashion, and not far away stood the barn and stable, made
usually of timbers laid one upon the other with chinks
securely mortared. Somewhat aloof was the root-house,
half dug in the ground, banked generously with earth
round about and overhead. Within convenient distance of
the house, likewise, was the bake-oven, built of boulders,
mortar, and earth, with the wood-pile near by. Here with
roaring fires once or twice each week the family baking
was done. Round the various buildings ran some sort of
fence, whether of piled stones or rails, and in a corner
of the enclosed plot was the habitant's garden. Viewed
by the traveller who passed along the river this straggling
line of whitewashed structures stood out in bold relief
against the towering background of green hills beyond. The
whole colony formed one long rambling village, each habitant
touching elbows with his neighbour on either side.

Within the habitant's abode there were usually not more
than three regular rooms. The front door opened into a
capacious living room with its great open fireplace and
hearth. This served as dining-room as well. A gaily
coloured woollen carpet or rug, made in the colony,
usually decked the floor. There was a table and a couch;
there were chairs made of pine with seats of woven
underbark, all more or less comfortable. Often a huge
side-board rose from the floor to the low, open-beamed
ceiling. Pictures of saints adorned the walls. A
spinning-wheel stood in the corner, sharing place perhaps
with a musket set on the floor stock downward, but primed
for ready use. Adjoining this room was the kitchen with
its fireplace for cooking, its array of pots and dishes,
its cupboards, shelves, and other furnishings. All of
these latter the habitant and his sons made for themselves.
The economic isolation of the parish made its people
versatile after their own crude fashion. The habitant
was a handy man, getting pretty good results from the
use of rough material and tools. Even at the present day
his descendants retain much of this facility. At the
opposite end of the house was a bedroom. Upstairs was
the attic, so low that one could scarcely stand upright
in any part of it, but running the full length and breadth
of the house. Here the children, often a round dozen of
them, were stowed at night. A shallow iron bowl of tallow
with a wick protruding gave its dingy light. Candles were
not unknown, but they were a luxury. Every one went to
bed when darkness came on, for there was nothing else to
do. Windows were few, and to keep out the cold they were
tightly battened down. The air within must have been
stifling; but, as one writer has suggested, the habitant
and his family got along without fresh air in his dwelling
just as his descendant of to-day manages to get along
without baths.

For the most part the people of Old Canada were comfortably
clothed and well fed. Warm cloth of drugget--etoffe du
pays, as it was called--came from the hand-looms of every
parish. It was all wool and stood unending wear. It was
cheap, and the women of the household fashioned it into
clothes. Men, women, and children alike wore it in everyday
use; but on occasions of festivity they liked to appear
in their brighter plumage of garments brought from France.
In the summer the children went nearly unclothed and
bare-footed always. A single garment without sleeves and
reaching to the knees was all that covered their nakedness.
In winter every one wore furs outdoors. Beaver skins were
nearly as cheap as cloth, and the wife of the poorest
habitant could have a winter wardrobe that it would
nowadays cost a small fortune to provide. Heavy clogs
made of hide--the bottes sauvages as they were called--or
moccasins of tanned and oiled skins, impervious to the
wet, were the popular footwear in winter and to some
extent in summer as well. They were laced high up above
the ankles, and with a liberal supply of coarse-knitted
woollen socks the people managed to trudge anywhere
without discomfort even in very cold weather. Plaited
straw hats were made by the women for ordinary summer
use, but hats of beaver, made in the fashion of the day,
were always worn on dress occasions. Every man wore one
to Mass each Sunday morning. In winter the knitted cap
or toque was the favourite. Made in double folds of
woollen yarn with all the colours of the rainbow, it
could be drawn down over the ears as a protection from
the cold; with its tassel swinging to and fro this toque
was worn by everybody, men, women, and children alike.
Attached to the coat was often a hood, known as a capuchin,
which might be pulled over the toque as an additional
head-covering on a journey through the storm. Knitted
woollen gloves were also made at home, likewise mitts of
sheepskin with the wool left inside. The apparel of the
people was thus adapted to their environment, and besides
being somewhat picturesque it was thoroughly comfortable.

The daily fare of New France was not of limitless variety,
but it was nourishing and adequate. Bread made from wheat
flour and cakes made from ground maize were plentiful.
Meat and fish were within the reach of all. Both were
cured by smoke after the Indian fashion and could be kept
through the winter without difficulty. Vegetables of
various kinds were grown, but peas were the great staple.
Peas were to the French what maize was to the redskin.
In every rural home soupe aux pois came daily to the
table. Whole families were reared to vigorous manhood on
it. Even to-day the French Canadian has not by any means
lost his liking for this nourishing and palatable food.
Beans, too, were a favourite vegetable in the old days;
not the tender haricots of the modern menu, but the feves
or large, tough-fibred beans that grew in Normandy and
were brought by its people to the New World. There were
potatoes, of course, and they were patates, not pommes
de terre. Cucumbers were plentiful, indeed they were
being grown by the Indians when the French first came to
the St Lawrence. As they were not indigenous to that
region it is for others than the student of history to
explain how they first came there. Fruits there were
also, such as apples, plums, cherries, and French
gooseberries, but not in abundance. Few habitants had
orchards, but most of them had one or two fruit-trees
grown from seedlings which came from France. Wild fruits,
especially raspberries, cranberries, and grapes, were to
be had for the picking, and the younger members of each
family gathered them all in season. Even in the humbler
homes of the land there was no need for any one to go
hungry. More than one visitor to the colony, indeed, was
impressed by the rude comfort in which the habitants
lived. 'The boors of these manours,' wrote the voluble
La Hontan, [Footnote: Louis Armand, Baron La Hontan, came
to Canada in 1683, and lived for some time among the
habitants of Beaupre, below Quebec, and afterwards in
the neighbourhood of Montreal. He also journeyed in the
Far West and wrote a fantastic account of his travels,
of which an English edition was published in 1703.] 'live
with greater comfort than an infinity of the gentry in
France.' And for once he was probably right.

As for drink, there were both tea and coffee to be had
from the traders; but they were costly and not in very
general use. Milk was cheap and plentiful. Brandy and
wine came from France in shiploads, but brandy was largely
used in the Indian trade, and wine appeared only on the
tables of the well-to-do; the ordinary habitant could
not afford it save on state occasions. Cheap beer, brewed
in the colony, was within easier range of his purse.
There were several breweries in the colony, although they
do not appear to have been very profitable to their
owners. Home-brewed ale was much in use. When duly aged
it made a fine beverage, although insidious in its effects
sometimes. But no guest ever came to any colonial home
without a proffer of something to drink. Hospitality
demanded it. The habitant, as a rule, was very fond of
the flagon. Very often, as the records of the day lead
us to believe, he drank not wisely but too well. Idleness
had a hand in the development of this trait, for in the
long winters the habitant had little to do but visit his

The men of New France smoked a great deal, and the women
sometimes followed their example. Children learned to
smoke before they learned to read or write. Tobacco was
grown in the colony, and every habitant had a patch of
it in his garden; and then as now this tabac canadien
was fierce stuff with an odour that scented the whole
seigneury. The art of smoking a pipe was one of the first
lessons which the Frenchman acquired from his Indian
friends, and this became the national solace through the
long spells of idleness. Such as it was, the tobacco of
the colony was no luxury, for every one could grow enough
and to spare to serve his wants. The leaves were set in
the sun to cure, and were then put away till needed.

As to the methods of farming, neither the contemporary
records nor the narratives of travel tell us much. But
it is beyond doubt that the habitant was not a very
scientific cultivator. Catalogne remarks in his valuable
report that if the fields of France were cultivated like
the farms of Canada three-fourths of the people would
starve. Fertilization of the land was rare. All that was
usually done in this direction was to burn the stubble
in the spring before the land went under the plough.
Rotation of crops was practically unknown. A portion of
each farm was allowed to lie fallow once in a while, but
as these fallow fields were rarely ploughed and weeds
might grow without restraint, the rest from cultivation
was of little value. Even the cultivated fields were
ploughed but once a year and rather poorly at that, for
the land was ploughed in ridges and there was a good deal
of waste between the furrows. When Peter Kalm, the famous
Scandinavian naturalist and traveller, paid his visit to
the colony in 1748 he found 'white wheat most commonly
in the fields.' But oats, rye, and barley were also grown.
Some of the habitants grew maize in great quantities,
while nearly all raised vegetables of various sorts,
chiefly cabbages, pumpkins, and coarse melons. Some gave
special attention to the cultivation of flax and hemp.
The meadows of the St Lawrence valley were very fertile,
and far superior, in Kalm's opinion, to those of the New
England colonies; they furnished fodder in abundance.
Wild hay could be had for the cutting, and every habitant
had his conical stack of it on the river marshes. Hence
the raising of cattle and horses became an important
branch of colonial husbandry. The cattle and sheep were
of inferior breed, undersized, and not very well cared
for. The horses were much better. The habitant had a
particular fondness for horses; even the poorest tried
to keep two or three. This, as Catalogne pointed out,
was a gross extravagance, for there was no work for the
horses to do during nearly half the year.

The implements of agriculture were as crude as the methods.
Most of them were made in the colony out of inferior
materials and with poor workmanship. Kalm saw no drains
in any part of the colony, although, as he naively
remarked, 'they seemed to be much needed in places.' The
fields were seldom fenced, and the cattle often made
their way among the growing grain. The women usually
worked with the men, especially at harvest time, for
extra labour was scarce. Even the wife and daughters of
the seigneur might be seen in the fields during the busy
season. Each habitant had a clumsy, wooden-wheeled cart
or wagon for workaday use. In this he trundled his produce
to town once or twice a year. For pleasure there was the
celeche and the carriole. The celeche was a quaint
two-wheeled vehicle with its seat set high in the air on
springs of generous girth; the carriole, a low-set sleigh
on solid wooden runners, with a high back to give protection
from the cold. Both are still used in various parts of
Quebec to-day. The habitant made his own harness, often
decorating it gaily and taking great pride in his

The feudal folk of New France did not spend all their
time or energies in toil. They had numerous holidays and
times of recreation. Loyal to his Church, the habitant
kept every jour de fete with religious precision. These
days came frequently, so much so, according to Catalogne's
report, that during the whole agricultural season from
May to October, only ninety clear days were left for
labour. On these numerous holidays were held the various
festivals, religious or secular. Sunday, also, was a day
of general rendezvous. Every one came to Mass, whatever
the weather. After the service various announcements were
made at the church door by the local capitaine de la
milice, who represented the civil government in the
parish. Then the rest of the day was given over to visiting
and recreation. There was plenty of time, moreover, for
hunting and fishing; and the average habitant did both
to his heart's content. In the winter there was a great
deal of visiting back and forth among neighbours, even
on week-days. Dancing was a favourite diversion and
card-playing also. Gambling at cards was more common
among the people than suited either the priests or the
civil authorities, as the records often attest. Less
objectionable amusements were afforded by the corvees
recreatives or gatherings at a habitant's home for some
combination of work and play. The corn-husking corvee,
for reasons which do not need elucidation, was of course
the most popular of these. Of study or reading there was
very little, for only a very small percentage of the
people could read. Save for a few manuals of devotion
there were no books in the home, and very few anywhere
in the colony.

Two or three chroniclers of the day have left us pen-
pictures of the French Canadians as they were before the
English came. As a race, Giles Hocquart says, they were
physically strong, well set-up, with plenty of stamina.
They impressed La Hontan also as vigorous and untiring
at anything that happened to gain their interest. They
were fond of honours and sensitive to the slightest
affront. This in part accounts for their tendency to
litigiousness, which various intendants mentioned with
regret. The habitant went to law with his neighbour at
every opportunity. His attitude toward questions of public
policy was one of rare self-control; but when anything
touched his own personal interests he always waxed warm
immediately. Pretexts for squabbling there were in plenty.
With lands unfenced and cattle wandering about, with most
deeds and other legal documents loosely drawn, with too
much time on their hands during the winter, it is not
surprising that the people were continually falling out
and rushing to the nearest royal court. The intendant
Raudot suggested that this propensity should be curbed,
otherwise there would soon be more lawsuits than settlers
in the colony.

On the whole, however, the habitant was well behaved and
gave the authorities very little trouble. To the Church
of his fathers he gave ungrudging devotion, attending
its services and paying its tithes with exemplary care.
The Church was a great deal to the habitant; it was his
school, his hospital, his newspaper, his philosopher
telling of things present and things to come. From a
religious point of view the whole colony was a unit.
'Thank God,' wrote one governor, 'there are no heretics
here.' The Church, needing to spend no time or thought
in crushing its enemies, could give all its attention to
its friends. As for offences against the laws of the land
these were conspicuously few. The banks of the St Lawrence,
when once the redskin danger was put out of the way, were
quite safe for men to live upon. The hand of justice was
swift and sure, but its intervention was not very often
needed. New France was as law-abiding as New England;
her people were quite as submissive to their leaders in
both Church and State.

The people were fond of music, and seem to have obtained
great enjoyment from their rasping, home-made violins.
Every parish had its fiddler. But the popular repertoire
was not very extensive. The Norman airs and folk-songs
of the day were easy to learn, simple and melodious. They
have remained in the hearts and on the lips of all French
Canada for over two centuries. The shantyman of Three
Rivers still goes off to the woods chanting the Malbrouck
s'en va-t-en guerre which his ancestors sang in the days
of Blenheim and Oudenarde. Many other traits of the race
have been borne to the present time with little change.
Then as now the habitant was a voluble talker, a teller
of great stories about his own feats and experiences.
Hocquart was impressed with the scant popular regard for
the truth in such things, and well he may have been. Even
to-day this trait has not wholly disappeared.

Unlike his prototype, the censitaire of Old France, the
habitant never became dispirited; even when things went
wrong he retained his bonhomie. Taking too little thought
for the morrow, he liked, as Charlevoix remarks, 'to get
the fun out of his money, and scarcely anybody amused
himself by hoarding it.' He was light-hearted even to
frivolousness, and this gave the austere Church fathers
many serious misgivings. He was courteous always, but
boastful, and regarded his race as the salt of the earth.
A Norman in every bone of his body, he used, as his
descendants still do, quaint Norman idioms and forms of
speech. He was proud of his ancestry. Stories that went
back to the days when 'twenty thousand thieves landed at
Hastings' were passed along from father to son, gaining
in terms of prodigious valour as they went. His versatility
gained him the friendship and confidence of the Indian,
an advantage which his English brother to the south was
rarely able to secure.

Much of the success which marked French diplomacy with
the tribes was due to this versatility. Beneath an ungainly
exterior the habitant often concealed a surprising ability
in certain lines of action. He was a master of blandishment
when he had an end thereby to gain. Dealings which required
duplicity, provided the outcome appeared to be desirable,
did not rudely shock his conscience. He had no Puritan
scruples in his dealings with men of another race and
religion. But in many things he had a high sense of
honour, and nothing roused his ire so readily as to
question it. Unstable as water, however, he did not excel
in tasks that took patience. He wanted to plough one day
and hunt the next, so that in the long run he rarely did
anything well. This spirit of independence was very
pronounced. The habitant felt himself to be a free man.
This is why he spurned the name 'censitaire.' As Charlevoix
puts it, 'he breathed from his birth the air of liberty,'
and showed it in the way he carried his head. A singular
type, when all is said, and worthy of more study than it
has received.



Church and State had a common aim in early Canada. Both
sought success, not for themselves, but for 'the greater
glory of God.' From beginning to end, therefore, the
Catholic Church was a staunch ally of the civil authorities
in all things which made for real and permanent colonial
progress. There were many occasions, of course, when
these two powers came almost to blows, for each had its
own interpretation of what constituted the colony's best
interests. But historians have given too much prominence
to these rather brief intervals of antagonism, and have
thereby created a misleading impression. The civil and
religious authorities of New France were not normally at
variance. They clashed fiercely now and then, it is quite
true; but during the far greater portion of two centuries
they supported each other firmly and worked hand in hand.

Now the root of all trouble, when these two interests
came into ill-tempered controversy, was the conduct of
the coureurs de bois. These roving traders taught the
savages all the vices of French civilization in its most
degenerate days. They debauched the Indian with brandy,
swindled him out of his furs, and entered into illicit
relations with the women of the tribes. They managed in
general to convince the aborigines that all Frenchmen
were dishonest and licentious. That the representatives
of the Most Christian King should tolerate such conduct
could not be regarded by the Church as anything other
than plain malfeasance in office.

The Church in New France was militant, and in its vanguard
of warriors was the Jesuit missionary. Members of the
Society of Jesus first came to Quebec in 1625; others
followed year by year and were sent off to establish
their outposts of religion in the wilderness. They were
men of great physical endurance and unconquerable will.
The Jesuit went where no others dared to go; he often
went alone, and always without armed protection.

Behold him on his way; his breviary
Which from his girdle hangs, his only shield.
That well-known habit is his panoply,
That Cross the only weapon he will wield;
By day he bears it for his staff afield,
By night it is the pillow of his bed.
No other lodging these wild woods can yield
Than Earth's hard lap, and rustling overhead
A canopy of deep and tangled boughs far spread.

It is not strange that the Jesuit father should have
disliked the traders. A single visit from these rough
and lawless men would undo the spiritual labour of years.
How could the missionary enforce his lessons of
righteousness when men of his own race so readily gave
the lie to all his teachings? The missionaries accordingly
complained to their superiors in poignant terms, and
these in turn hurled their thunderbolts of excommunication
against all who offended. But the trade was profitable,
and Mammon continued, as in all ages, to retain his corps
of ardent disciples. Religion and trade never became
friendly in New France, nor could they ever become friendly
so long as the Church stood firmly by its ancient tradition
as a friend of law and order.

With agriculture, however, religion was on better terms.
Men who stayed on their farms and tilled the soil might
be grouped into parishes, their lands could be made to
yield the tithe, their spiritual needs might readily be
ministered unto. Hence it became the policy of the Church
to support the civil authorities in getting lands cleared
for settlement, in improving the methods of cultivation,
and in strengthening the seigneurial system at every
point. This support the hierarchy gave in various ways,
by providing cures for outlying seigneuries, by helping
to bring peasant farmers from France, by using its
influence to promote early marriages, and above all by
setting an example before the people in having progressive
agriculture on Church lands.

Both directly and through its dependent organizations
the Catholic Church became the largest single landholder
of New France. As early as 1626 the Jesuits received
their first grant of land, the concession of Notre-Dame
des Anges, near Quebec; and from that date forward the
order received at intervals large tracts in various parts
of the colony. Before the close of French dominion in
Canada it had acquired a dozen estates, comprising almost
a million arpents of land. This was about one-eighth of
the entire area given out in seigneuries. Its two largest
seigneurial estates were Batiscan and Cap de la Magdelaine;
but Notre-Dame des Anges and Sillery, though smaller in
area, were from their closeness to Quebec of much greater
value. The king appreciated the work of the Jesuits in
Canada, and would gladly have contributed from the royal
funds to its furtherance. But as the civil projects of
the colony took a great deal of money, he was constrained,
for the most part, to show his appreciation of religious
enterprise by grants of land. As land was plentiful his
bounty was lavish--sometimes a hundred thousand arpents
at a time.

Next to the Jesuits as sharers of the royal generosity
came the bishop and the Quebec seminary, with a patrimony
of nearly seven hundred thousand arpents, an accumulation
which was largely the work of Francois de Laval, first
bishop of Quebec and founder of the seminary. The Sulpicians
had, at the time the colony passed into English hands,
an estate of about a quarter of a million arpents,
including the most valuable seigneury of New France, on
the island of Montreal. The Ursulines of Quebec and of
Three Rivers possessed about seventy-five thousand arpents,
while other orders and institutions, a half-dozen in all,
had estates of varying acreage. Directly under its control
the Church had thus acquired in mortmain over two million
arpents, while the lay landowners of the colony had
secured only about three times as much. It held about
one-quarter of all the granted lands, so that its position
in Canada was relatively much stronger than in France.

These lands came from the king or his colonial
representatives by royal patent. They were given sometimes
in frankalmoigne or sometimes as ordinary seigneuries.
The distinction was of little account however, for when
land once went into the 'dead hand' it was likely to stay
there for all time. The Church and its institutions, as
seigneurs of the land, granted farms to habitants on the
usual terms, gave them their deeds duly executed by a
notary, received their annual dues, and assumed all the
responsibilities of a lay seigneur. And as a rule the
Church made a good seigneur. Settlers were brought out
from France, and a great deal of care was taken in
selecting them. They were aided, encouraged, and supported
through the trying years of pioneering. As early as 1667
Laval was able to point with pride to the fact that his
seigneuries of Beaupre and Isle d'Orleans contained over
eleven hundred persons--more than one-quarter of the
colony's entire population. These ecclesiastical
seigneuries, moreover, were among the best in point of
intelligent cultivation. With funds and knowledge at its
disposal, the Church was better able than the ordinary
lay seigneur to provide banal mills and means of
communication. These seigneuries were therefore kept in
the front rank of agricultural progress, and the example
which they set before the eyes of the people must have
been of great value.

The seigneurial system was also strengthened by the fact
that the boundaries of seigneuries and parishes were
usually the same. The chief reason for this is that the
parish system was not created until most of the seigneuries
had been settled. There were parishes, so-termed, in the
colony from the very first; but not until 1722 was the
entire colony set off into parish divisions. Forty-one
parishes were created in the Quebec district; thirteen
in the district of Three Rivers; and twenty-eight in the
region round Montreal. These eighty-two parishes were
roughly coterminous with the existing seigneuries, but
not always so. Some few seigneuries had six or eight
parishes within their bounds. In other cases, two or
three seigneuries were merged into a single great parish.
In the main, however, the two units of civil and spiritual
power were alike.

From this identification of the parish and seigneury came
some interesting results. The seigneurial church became
the parish church; where no church had been provided the
manor-house was commonly used as a place of worship. Not
infrequently the parish cure took up his abode in the
seigneur's home and the two grew to be firm friends, each
aiding the other with the weight of his own special
authority and influence. The whole system of neighbourhood
government, as the late Abbe Casgrain once pointed out,
was based upon the authority of two men, the cure and
the seigneur, 'who walked side by side and extended mutual
help to each other. The censitaire, who was at the same
time parishioner, had his two rallying-points--the church
and the manor-house. The interests of the two were
identical.' From this close alliance with the parish the
seigneurial system naturally derived a great deal of its
strong hold upon the people, for their fidelity to the
priest was reflected in loyalty to the seigneur who ranked
as his chief local patron and protector.

The people of the seigneuries paid a tithe or ecclesiastical
tax for the support of their parish church. In origin,
as its name implies, this payment amounted to one-tenth
of the land's annual produce; but in New France the tithe
was first fixed in 1663 at one-thirteenth, but in 1679
this was reduced to one twenty-sixth. At this figure it
has remained to the present day. Tithes were at the outset
levied on every product of the soil or of the handiwork
of man; but in practice they were collected on grain
crops only. When the habitants of New France began to
raise flax, hemp, and tobacco some of the priests insisted
that these products should yield tithes also; but the
Superior Council at Quebec ruled against this claim, and
the king, on appeal, confirmed the council's decision.
The Church collected its dues with strictness; the cures
frequently went into the fields and estimated the total
crop of each farm, so that they might later judge whether
any habitant had held back the Church's due portion.
Tithes were usually paid at Michaelmas, everything being
delivered to the cure at his own place of abode. When he
lived with the seigneur the tithes and seigneurial dues
were paid together. But the total of the tithes collected
during any year of the old regime was not large. In 1700
they amounted in value to about five thousand livres, a
sum which did not support one-tenth of the colony's body
of priests. By far the larger part of the necessary funds
had to be provided by generous friends of the Church in

Churches were erected in the different seigneuries by
funds and labour secured in various ways. Sometimes the
bishop obtained money from France, sometimes the seigneur
provided it, sometimes the habitants collected it among
themselves. More often a part of what was necessary came
from each of these three sources. Except in the towns,
however, the churches were not pretentious in their
architecture, and rarely cost much money. Stone, timber,
and other building materials were taken freely from the
lands of the seigneury, and the work of construction was
usually performed by the parishioners themselves. As a
result the edifices were rather ungainly as a rule, being
built of rough-hewn timber. In 1681 there were only seven
stone churches in all the seigneuries, and the royal
officers deplored the fact that the people did not display
greater pride or taste in the architecture of their
sanctuaries. Bishop Laval felt strongly that this was
discreditable, and steadfastly refused to perform the
ceremony of consecration in any church which had not been
substantially built of stone.

Where a seigneur erected a church at his own expense it
was customary to let him have the patronage, or right of
naming the priest. This was an honour which the seigneurs
seem to have valued highly. 'Every one here is puffed up
with the greatest vanity,' wrote the intendant Duchesneau
in 1681; 'there is not one but pretends to be a patron
and wants the privilege of naming a cure for his lands,
yet they are heavily in debt and in extreme poverty.'
None of the great bishops of New France--Laval, St Vallier,
or Pontbriand--had much sympathy with this seigneurial
right of patronage or advowson, and each did what he
could to break down the custom. In the end they succeeded;
the bishop named the priest of every parish, although in
many cases he sought the seigneur's counsel on such

In the church of his seigneury the lord of the manor
continued, however, to have various other prerogatives.
For his use a special pew was always provided, and an
elaborate decree, issued in 1709, set forth precisely
where this pew should be. In religious processions the
seigneur was entitled to precedence over all other laymen
of the parish, taking his place directly behind the cure.
He was the first to receive the tokens of the day on
occasions of religious festival, as for example the palms
on Palm Sunday. And when he died, the seigneur was entitled
to interment beneath the floor of the church, a privilege
accorded only to men of worldly distinction and unblemished
lives. All this recognition impressed the habitants, and
they in turn gave their seigneur polite deference. Along
the line of travel his carriage or carriole had the right
of way, and the habitant doffed his cap in salute as the
seigneur drove by. Catalogne mentioned that, despite all
this, the Canadian seigneurs were not as ostentatiously
given tokens of the habitants' respect as were the
seigneurs in France. But this did not mean that the
relations between the two classes were any less cordial.
It meant only that the clear social atmosphere of the
colony had not yet become dimmed by the mists of court
duplicity. The habitants of New France respected the
horny-handed man in homespun whom they called their
seigneur: the depth of this loyalty and respect could
not fairly be measured by old-world standards.

As a seigneur of lands the Church had the right to hold
courts and administer justice within the bounds of its
great estates. Like most lay seigneurs it received its
lands with full rights of high, middle, and low jurisdiction
(haute, moyenne, et basse justice). In its seigneurial
courts fines might be imposed or terms of imprisonment
meted out. Even the death penalty might be exacted. Here
was a great opportunity for abuse. A very inquisition
would have been possible under the broad terms in which
the king gave his grant of jurisdiction. Yet the Church
in New France never to the slightest degree used its
powers of civil jurisdiction to work oppression. As a
matter of fact it rarely, if ever, made use of these
powers at all. Troubles which arose among the habitants
in the Church seigneuries were settled amicably, if
possible, by the parish priest. Where the good offices
of the priest did not suffice, the disputants were sent
off to the nearest royal court. All this is worth comment,
for in the earlier days of European feudalism the bishops
and abbots held regular courts within the fiefs of the
Church. And students of jurisprudence will recall that
they succeeded in tincturing the old feudal customs with
those principles of the canon law which all churchmen
had learned and knew. While ostensibly applying crude
mediaeval customs, many of these courts of the Church
fiefs were virtually administering a highly developed
system of jurisprudence based on the Roman law. Laval
might have made history repeat itself in Canada; but he
had too many other things engaging his attention.

Lay seigneurs, on the other hand, held their courts
regularly. And the fact that they did so is of great
historical significance, for the right of court-holding
rather than the obligation of military service is the
earmark which distinguishes feudalism from all other
systems of land tenure. Practically every Canadian seigneur
had the judicial prerogative; he could establish a court
in his seigneury, appoint its judge or judges, impose
penalties upon the habitants, and put the fees or costs
in his own pocket. In France this was a great source of
emolument, and too many seigneurs used their courts to
yield income rather than to dispense even-handed justice.
But in Canada, owing to the relatively small number of
suitors in the seigneuries, the system could not be made
to pay its way. Some seigneurs appointed judges who held
court once or twice a week. Others tried to save this
expense by doing the work themselves. Behind the big
table in the main room of his manor-house the seigneur
sat in state and meted out justice in rough-and-ready
fashion. He was supposed to administer it in true accord
with the Custom of Paris; he might as well have been
asked to apply the Code of Hammurabi or the Capitularies
of Charlemagne. But if the seigneur did not know the law,
he at least knew the disputants, and his decisions were
not often wide of the eternal equities. At any rate, if
a suitor was not satisfied he could appeal to the royal
courts. Only minor cases were dealt with in the seigneurial
courts, and the appeals were not numerous.

On the whole, despite its crudeness, the administration
of seigneurial justice in New France was satisfactory
enough. The habitants, as far as the records show, made
no complaint. Justice was prompt and inexpensive. It
discouraged chicane and common barratry. Even the sarcastic
La Hontan, who had little to say in general praise of
the colony and its institutions, accords the judicial
system a modest tribute. 'I will not say,' he writes,
'that the Goddess of Justice is more chaste here than in
France, but at any rate, if she is sold, she is sold more
cheaply. In Canada we do not pass through the clutches
of advocates, the talons of attorneys, and the claws of
clerks. These vermin do not as yet infest the land. Every
one here pleads his own cause. Our Themis is prompt, and
she does not bristle with fees, costs, and charges.' The
testimony of others, though not so rhetorically expressed,
is enough to prove that both royal and seigneurial courts
did their work in fairly acceptable fashion.

The Norman habitant, as has already been pointed out,
was by nature restive, impulsive, and quarrelsome. That
he did not make every seigneury a hotbed of petty strife
was due largely to the stern hand held over him by priest
and seigneur alike, but by his priest particularly. The
Church in the colony never lost, as in France, the full
confidence of the masses; the higher dignitaries never
lost touch with the priest, nor the latter with the
people. The clergy of New France did not form a privileged
order, living on the fruits of other men's labour. On
the contrary, they gave the colony far more than they
took from it. Although paid a mere pittance, they never
complained of the great physical drudgery that their work
too often required. Indeed, if labourers were ever worthy
of their hire, such toilers were the spiritual pioneers
of France beyond the seas. No one who does not approach
their aims and achievements with sympathy can ever fully
understand the history of these earlier days. No one who
does not appreciate the dominating place which the Church
occupied in every walk of colonial life can fully realize
the great help which it gave, both by its active interest
and by its example, to the agricultural policy of the
civil power. The Church owed much to the seigneurial
system, but not more than the system owed to it.



When the fleurs-de-lis of the Bourbons fluttered down
from the ramparts of Quebec on September 18, 1759, a new
era in the history of Canadian feudalism began. The new
British government promptly allayed the fears of the
conquered people by promising that all vested rights
should be respected and that 'the lords of manors' should
continue in possession of all their ancient privileges.
This meant that they intended to recognize and retain
the entire fabric of seigneurial tenure.

Now this step has been commonly regarded as a cardinal
error on the part of the new suzerains, and on the whole
the critics of British policy have had the testimony of
succeeding events on their side. By 1760 the seigneurial
system had fully performed for the colony all the good
service it was ever likely to perform. It could easily
have been abolished then and there. Had that action been
taken, a great many subsequent troubles would have been
avoided. But in their desire to be generous the English
authorities failed to do what was prudent, and the
seigneurial system remained.

Many of the seigneurs, when Canada passed under British
control, sold their seigneuries and went home to France.
How great this hegira was can scarcely be estimated with
exactness, but it is certain that the emigres included
all the military and most of the civil officials, together
with a great many merchants, traders, and landowners.
The colony lost those who could best afford to go; in
other words, those whom it could least afford to let go.
The priests, true to their traditions, stood by the colony
in its hours of trial. But whatever the extent and
character of the out-going, it is true that many seigneuries
changed hands during the years 1763-64. Englishmen bought
these lands at very low figures. Between them and the
habitants there were no bonds of race, religion, language,
or social sympathy. The new English seigneur looked upon
his estate as an investment, and proceeded to deal with
the habitants as though they were his tenantry. All this
gave the seigneurial system a rude shock.

There was still another feature which caused the system
to work much less smoothly after 1760 than before. The
English did not retain the office of intendant. Their
frame of government had no place for such an official.
Yet the intendant had been the balance-wheel of the whole
feudal machine in the days before the conquest. He it
was who kept the seigneurial system from developing
abuses; it was his praetorian power 'to order all things
as may seem just and proper' that kept the seigneur's
exactions within rigid bounds. The administration of New
France was a government of men; that of the new regime
was a government of laws. Hence it was that the British
officials, although altogether well-intentioned, allowed
grave wrongs to arise.

The new English judges, not unnaturally, misunderstood
the seigneurial system. They stumbled readily into the
error that tenure en censive was simply the old English
tenure in copyhold under another name. Now the English
copyholder held his land subject to the customs of the
manor; his dues and services were fixed by local custom
both as regards their nature and amount. What more easy,
then, than to seek the local custom in Canada, and apply
its rules to the decision of all controversies respecting
seigneurial claims?

Unfortunately for this simple solution, there was a great
and fundamental difference between these two tenures.
The Canadian censitaire had a written title-deed which
stated explicitly the dues and services he was bound to
give his seigneur; the copyholder had nothing of the
kind. The habitant, moreover, had various rights guaranteed
to him by royal decrees. No custom of the manor or
seigneury could prevail against written contracts and
statute-law. But the judges do not seem to have grasped
this distinction; when cases involving disputed obligations
came before them they called in notaries to establish
what the local customs were, and rendered judgment
accordingly. This gave the seigneur a great advantage,
for the notaries usually took their side. Moreover, the
new judicial system was more expensive than the old, so
that when a seigneur chose to take his claims into court
the habitants often let him have judgment by default
rather than incur heavy costs.

During the twenty years following the conquest the
externals of the seigneurial system remained unaltered;
but its spirit underwent a great change. This was amply
shown during the American War of Independence, when the
province was invaded by the Arnold-Montgomery expeditions.
In all the years that the colony had been under French
dominion a single word from any seigneur was enough to
summon every one of his able-bodied habitants to arms.
But now, only a dozen years after the English had assumed
control, the answer made by the habitant to such appeals
was of a very different nature. The authorities at Quebec,
having only a small body of regular troops available for
the defence of Canada against the invaders, called on
the seigneurs to rally the old feudal array. The
proclamation was issued on June 9, 1775. Most seigneurs
responded promptly and called their habitants to armed
service. But the latter, for the most part, refused to
come. The seigneurs threatened that their lands would be
confiscated; but even this did not move the habitants to
comply. A writer of the time narrates what happened in
one of the seigneuries, and it is doubtless typical of
what took place in others. 'M. Deschambaud went over to
his seigneury on the Richelieu,' he tells us, 'and summoned
his tenants to arms; they listened patiently to what he
had to say, and then peremptorily refused to accede to
his demands. At this the seigneur was foolish enough to
draw his sword; whereupon the habitants gave both him
and a few friends who accompanied him a severe thrashing,
and sent them off vowing vengeance. Fearing retaliation,
the habitants armed themselves, and to the number of
several hundred prepared to attack any regular forces
which might be sent against them. Through the discretion
of Governor Carleton, however, who hastened to send one
of his officers to disavow the action of the seigneur,
and to promise the habitants that if they returned quietly
to their homes they would not be molested, they were
persuaded to disperse.' [Footnote: Maseres, Additional
Papers concerning the Province of Quebec (1776), pp. 71
et seq.]

As the eighteenth century drew to a close it became
evident that the people were getting restive under the
restraints which the seigneurial system imposed. Lands
had risen in value so that the lods et ventes now amounted
to a considerable payment when lands changed owners. With
the growth of population the banal right became very
valuable to the seigneurs and an equally great inconvenience
to the habitants. Many seigneurs made no attempt to
provide adequate milling facilities. They gave the
habitants a choice between bringing their grain to the
half-broken-down windmill of the seigneury or paying the
seigneur a money fine for his permission to take their
grist elsewhere. New seigneurial demands, unheard of in
earlier days, were often put forth and enforced.

The grievances of the habitants were not mitigated,
moreover, by the way in which the authorities of the
province gave lands to the United Empire Loyalists. These
exiles from the revolted seaboard colonies came by
thousands during the years following the war, and they
were given generous grants of land. And these lands were
not made subject to any seigneurial dues. They were given
in freehold, in free and common socage. The new owners
of these lands paid no annual dues and rendered no regular
services to any superior authority. Their tenure seemed
to the habitants to be very attractive. Hence the influx
of the Loyalists gave strength to a movement for the
abolition of seigneurial tenure--a movement which may be
said to have had its first real beginning about 1790.

It was in that year that the solicitor-general of the
province, in response to a request of the legislative
council, presented a long report on the land-tenure
situation. The council, after due consideration of this
report and other data submitted to it, passed a series
of resolutions declaring that the seigneurial system was
retarding the agricultural progress of the province and
that, while its immediate abolition was not practicable,
steps should be taken to get rid of it gradually. But
nothing came of these resolutions. The Constitutional
Act of 1791 greatly complicated the situation by its
provisions relating to the so-termed 'clergy reserves,'
or reservations of lands for Church endowment, and it
was not until 1825 that the Canada Trade and Tenures Act
opened the way for a commutation of tenures whenever the
seigneur and his habitants could agree. This act was
permissive only. It did not apply any compulsion to the
seigneurs. Very few, accordingly, took advantage of its

This was the situation when the uprising of 1837-38 took
place. The seigneurial system was not a leading cause of
the rebellion, but it was one of the grievances included
by the habitants in their general bill of complaint.
Hence, when Lord Durham came to Quebec to investigate
the causes of colonial discontent, the system came in
for its share of study. In his masterly Report on the
Affairs of British North America he recognized that the
old system had outlived its day of usefulness, and that
its continuance was unwise. But Durham outlined no plan
for its abolition. He believed that if the province were
given a government responsible to the masses of its own
people, the problem of abolition would soon be solved.
One of Durham's secretaries, Charles Buller drafted a
scheme for commuting the tenures into freehold, but his
plan did not find acceptance.

For nearly twenty years after Durham's investigation the
question of abolishing the seigneurial tenures remained
a football of Canadian politics. Legislative commissions
were appointed; they made investigations; they presented
reports; but none succeeded in getting any comprehensive
plan of abolition on the statute-books. In 1854, however,
the question was made a leading issue at the general
election. A definite mandate from the people was the
result, and 'An Act for the Abolition of Feudal Rights
and Duties in Lower Canada' received its enactment during
the same year.

The provisions of this act for changing all seigneurial
tenures into freehold are long and somewhat technical.
They would not interest the reader. In brief, it was
arranged that the valid rights of each seigneur should
be translated by special commissioners into an annual
money rental, and that the habitants should pay this
annual sum. The seigneur was required to pay no quit-rent
to the public treasury. What he would have paid, by reason
of getting his own lands into freehold, was applied pro
rata to the reduction of the annual rentals payable by
the habitants. It was arranged, furthermore, that any
habitant might commute this yearly rental by paying his
seigneur a lump sum such as would represent his rent
capitalized at the rate of six per cent.

The whole undertaking was difficult and complicated. A
great many perplexing questions arose, and a special
court had to be created to deal with them. [Footnote:
This court was constituted of four judges of the Court
of the Queen's Bench and nine judges of the Superior
Court of Lower Canada, as follows: Sir Louis H. La
Fontaine, Chief Justice; Justices Duval, Aylwin, and
Caron of the Court of the Queen's Bench; the Hon. Edward
Bowen, Chief Justice; Justices Morin, Mondelet, Vanfelson,
Day, Smith, Meredith, Short, and Badgley of the Superior
Court.] On the whole however, the commissioners performed
their tasks carefully and without causing undue friction.
Class prejudice was strong, and by most of the seigneurs
the whole scheme was regarded as a high-handed piece of
legislative confiscation. They opposed it bitterly from
first to last. Among the habitants, however, the abolition
of the old tenure was popular, for it meant, in their
opinion, that every one would henceforth be a real
landowner. But in the long run it signified nothing of
the sort. Very few of the habitants took advantage of
the provision which enabled them to pay a lump sum in
lieu of an annual rental. Down to the present day the
great majority of them continue to pay their rente
constituee as did their fathers before them. With due
adherence to ancient custom they pay it each St Martin's
Day, and to the man whom they still call 'the seigneur.'
Seigneur he is no longer; for the act of 1854 abolished
not only the emoluments, but the honours attaching to
this rank. But traditions live long in isolated communities,
and the habitants of the St Lawrence valley still give,
along with their annual rent, a great deal of old-time
deference to the man who holds the lands upon which they

The twilight of European feudalism was more prolonged in
French Canada than in any other land. Its prolongation
was unfortunate. For several decades preceding 1854 it
had failed to adjust itself to the new environment, and
its continuance was an obstacle to the economic progress
of Canada. Its abolition was wise--a generation or two
earlier it would have been even wiser. All this is not
to say, however, that the seigneurial system did not
serve a highly useful purpose in its day. So long as it
fitted into the needs of the colony, so long as the
intendancy remained to guard the people against seigneurial
avarice, the system had a great deal to be said in its
behalf. It helped to make New France stronger in arms
than she could have become under any other plan of land
tenure; and with states as with men self-preservation is
the first law of nature.


In two larger books entitled 'The Selgniorial System in
Canada' (New York, Longmans, Green, and Co., 1907) and
'Documents relating to the Seigniorial Tenure in Canada'
(Toronto, The Champlain Society, 1908), the writer has
discussed Canadian feudalism in its technical phases.
The former volume contains a full bibliography of manuscript
and printed materials.

The reader who desires to know more about this interesting
side of early Canadian history may also be referred to
Professor George M. Wrong's 'Canadian Manor and its
Seigneurs' (Toronto, 1908); Philippe-Aubert De Gaspe's
'Les anciens Canadiens' (Quebec, 1863); Professor C. W.
Colby's 'Canadian Types of the Old Regime' (New York,
1908), especially chapter iv; W. P. Greenough's 'Canadian
Folk Life and Folk Lore' (New York, 1897); the Abbe H.
R. Casgrain's 'Paroisse Canadienne au XVIIe Siecle'
(Quebec, 1880); Benjamin Sulte's articles on 'La Tenure
Seigneuriale' in the 'Revue Canadienne', July-August,
1882; and Leon Gerin's paper on 'L'habitant de Saint-Justin'
in the 'Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society
of Canada', 1898, pp. 139-216. There is a short, but very
interesting chapter on 'Canadian Feudalism' in Francis
Parkman's 'Old Regime in Canada' (Boston, 1893), and
various phases of life in New France are admirably pictured
in every one of the same author's other volumes.

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