Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Seigneurial system and settlement

The seigneurial system was a form of land settlement modelled on the French feudal system. It began in New France in 1627 with the formation of the Compagnie des Cent-Associés that was initially responsible for handing out land grants and seigneurial rights. The land was divided into 5 by 15 kilometre plots, usually along major rivers like the St. Lawrence. They were then further subdivided into narrow, but long lots for settlement. These lots were usually long enough to be suitable for faming, and they provided everyone who lived on them with equal access to neighbouring farms and the river.

Around 1637, to encourage French immigrants to settle in the St. Lawrence Valley, then known as ‘Canada’, the king implemented the seigneurial system, by distributing large tracts of land to settlement agents called ‘seigneurs’. These agents had to subdivide the tracts of land into lots or censives each measuring approximately three arpents[1] of frontage by 30 arpents in depth (180 by 1,800 metres). These lots were granted at no cost to new arrivals. In return for this ‘free’ land, a habitant was required to pay certain annual fees that constituted a form of the income and consumption taxes. These included not only the cens[2], which ranged from two to six sols[3] per arpent, and the rente,[4] usually 20 sols per arpent of frontage, but also, goods in kind, such as a pig or bag of wheat. In addition, a habitant wanting to graze farm animals on the common had to pay a few sols. To have wheat ground at the mill, a habitant paid the seigneur banalités, every fourteenth bushel of grain to pay off the cost of the building and pay the miller’s wages.[5] Similarly, a habitant was required to give every fourteenth fish to the seigneur in exchange for permission to fish the waters bordering the habitant’s land grant.

Beginning in 1670, tenants under the seigneurial system were required to remit a tithe to the Church. The tithe, equal to a twenty-sixth of the wheat crop, was used to maintain the religious buildings and property that the tenants used, such as the chapel, the rectory and the cemetery. Finally, the obligation to provide days of unpaid labour or corvée, dating back to the medieval period, remained in effect. A habitant was required to provide three to five days of unpaid labour each year for the maintenance of bridges and roads and for the construction of various buildings or structures, such as the manor house, the mill, barns, stables and fences.[6] In return, the habitant had access to the seigneury’s services and benefited from the security it provided.[7] The seigneurial system was central to France’s colonisation policy and came to play a major role in traditional Québec society. Despite the attractions of city life and the fur trade, 75-80% of the population lived on seigneurial land until the mid-nineteenth century. The roughly 200 seigneuries granted during the French regime covered virtually all the inhabited areas on both banks of the St Lawrence River between Montréal and Québec and the Chaudière and Richelieu valleys and extended to the Gaspé. Seigneuries were granted to the nobility, to religious institutions in return for education and hospital services, to military officers and to civil administrators.

By the end of the seventeenth century, much of the land adjacent to the river was occupied and this led to the building of a road behind the first concessions parallel to the river: this was the ‘rang’. Further land was then granted in long strips from this first ‘rang’ and this continued until the limits of arable land were reached. This structure formed the basic unit of the rural community and established a network of community solidarity. More generally, people were identified with their parish or canton (township), but it was the village or market town where people met to discuss politics, farm prices or offers of employment.[8]

Initially, the village was little more than a collection of houses spread at regular intervals along a road. At crossroads, or where a waterfall allowed the building of a mill, settlement was more densely concentrated giving rise to hamlets and markets. This also led to the development of commercial, administrative and industrial activities. The number of large villages was small until after the Conquest of 1760, but, between 1815 and 1850, the number of villages in Lower Canada grew from 50 to 300 containing 86,000 people. This rapid growth can be explained by the parallel growth of the Lower Canadian population that rose from 355,000 in 1815 to a million inhabitants by 1855. The birth rate was exceptionally high: in 1865, women had an average of seven children. Population growth led to increasing demands for goods and services that were provided by villages and this led to an intensification of the domestic trade in Lower Canada.

Largely because of the initiative of more entrepreneurial seigneurs, landless labourers were employed to develop rural industries especially in the communities round Montreal. There had always been artisans in villages and towns but by 1800 commodities were produced in smaller centres; for example, in the village of Saint-Charles in the Richelieu Valley, hat-making and pottery became important occupations and Saint-Jean became a centre for earthenware production. The appearance of coopers, tailors and carriage makers in other small centres emphasised the growing diversification of the rural economy.[9] Despite diversification of the rural economy, more than 80% of French Canadians were employed in farming in 1850. Soon prosperous market towns appeared such as Sainte-Rose, Terrebonne, Saint-Jérôme and Joliette on the north bank of the Richelieu, Saint-Charles, Napierville and Saint-Hyacinthe on the south bank and Saint-Romuald to the south of Quebec. This expansion of villages represented an essential transitory stage between the countryside and the cities by giving people their first experience of urban life.[10]

Most villages were organised on similar lines. The various buildings of the village were generally made of superimposed beams of squared timber. In the centre there was the church and presbytery generally built or rebuilt in stone. These buildings were extremely expensive to build and the community devoted much time and resources to them as the cost of building and running a church and the maintenance of the priest was met by the village. Parochial structures dated back to the seventeenth century and the territory was already squared into parishes by 1760. However, the increase in the number of villages and the growing power of the Church after 1840 led to the creation of new parishes and the sub-division of some that already existed. Although parishes often included several villages, they tended to take their name from the most important village community. When villages were established as municipalities after Confederation in 1867, their boundaries tended to follow existing parishes. This explains why there are so many small municipalities in Quebec today and why they often named after a saint.

Opposite the village church and the school that was generally attached to it, was the main street of the village occupied by the professional middle-class: lawyers, notaries, doctors, land-surveyors and principal businessman and merchants, the post master and blacksmiths. Because of the slowness of transport, there was also at least one inn that provided shelter for travellers. Buildings were less concentrated as one moved away from the centre of the village. The commercial activities tended to be located at the edges of villages: quays, warehouses, grain markets and industrial activities, such as sawmill, shipyards, potash factories, distilleries, etc. These enterprises were directly responsible for the growth of villages in the first half of the nineteenth century. They only employed a few workers but were found in significant numbers along the main transport routes.

There was considerable similarity in the social structure of villages across Lower Canada. Villages were generally founded by a seigneur though by the early-nineteenth century their economic and social role was declining. The priest was an important figure providing for the spiritual needs of the parish. The major problem in the early nineteenth century was that their numbers were limited: in 1837, there were only 273 priests for Lower Canada. While the number of priests remained small, there was a significant increase in the number of professionals. Between 1791 and 1836, the number of notaries increased from 55 to 373, lawyers from 17 to 208 and doctors from 50 to 260. They occupied the newer houses close to the centre of the village and were regarded as its natural leaders leading to many being elected to the Legislative Assembly. Closely linked to the professionals were artisans and merchants. They had many different roles and often travelled in search of work.

Farmers and share-croppers played an important role in the community providing much of the work for day labourers. Their wealth depended on their access to the market and they were, as was the case just before the Rebellions, particularly vulnerable to economic depression. They tended to be conservative in their economic and political attitudes. Farmers and their families tended to live outside the village. Their prosperity depended on access to the major road and river communication routes but there were wide variations of wealth across Lower Canada. Seigneurial tenure prevented the concentration of land but, as one writer commented in 1832, had the immense merit of obtaining land cheaply since habitants did not have to pay cash to benefit from it. Most work was carried out by the family especially the sons who hoped to obtain the paternal land in the future and who were prepared to work for nothing in the present. Habitants were not well regarded by the British or townspeople in general. In the eighteenth century, Frances Brooke found them ignorant, lazy, dirty and stupid to an incredible degree.[11] However, others saw them as honest, hard working, hospitable but also docile and submissive. In 1836, Romuald Trudeau criticised their lack of education and their idleness and their liking for spending time in inns. Observers were critical of habitant farming methods though this often reflected a failure to understand the peculiarities of colonial agriculture.[12] Levels of illiteracy among the French-speaking people were about 73% in 1838 but reached 88% in the countryside. This reflected not only inconsistencies in the provision of schooling in Lower Canada and a lack of interest by government but also habitant resistance to education.

Habitants frequently earned their living as day labourers. This sort of work was manual labour and labourers needed to be mobile to benefit from it. This appealed especially to unmarried men who could find themselves within a few months working in the city, then on logging sites or working for farmers during the labour-intensive harvest. Often casualties of the crisis in farming in the first decades of the nineteenth century and the resultant surplus of labour, their number is difficult to assess. Constantly on the move, they tramped the province in search of often transitory work. French Canadians moved as lumbermen into new forest frontiers, under employers largely from Britain or the United States and Quebec City, the centre of the lumber trade, grew in economic importance, offsetting Montreal’s hold on the fur trade.[13] It was not until after 1850 that the expansion of the industrial economy that day labourers gravitated towards working in factories and on public projects such as railway construction.

Finally, at the edge of the rural world there were squatters who farmed less fertile land. They often lived in intense poverty and a great isolation. The missionary priest provided some comfort to these thinly spread people who often lived in the immense and undeveloped forests. Diversification was also present among this marginal farming population that became increasingly dependent on cash income from forest work, a feature of the agro-forest economy of the Ottawa, Saint-Maurice and Saguenay valleys. [14] Family survival depended on men supplementing farm production with winter work in the forests.

The nature of rural economy and society is exemplified by the community that developed at Saint-Eustache.[15] In 1683, Michel-Sidrac Du Gué, seigneur de Boisbriand and captain of the regiment de Carignan-Salières was granted the Seigneurie-des-Mille-Isles. Because he did not attempt to settle it, the Crown withdrew his grant and in 1714 gave it to Jean Petit, treasurer of the Navy and Charles Gaspard Piot de Langloiserie. In 1733, Charlotte-Louise Petit, daughter of Jean Petit married Eustache Lambert-Dumont and Langloiserie’s daughter married Jean-Baptiste Céloron de Blainville. The Seigneurie-des-Mille-Isles was divided into the Seigneurie de Blainville and the Seigneurie Dumont also called the Seigneurie de la Rivière-du-Chêne. From 1755 to 1762, Dumont granted land to settlers along the Rivière-du-Chêne and also during this period he had the seigneurie’s first flour mill built. The construction of the church from 1780 to 1783 combined with the mill favoured the development of the market town of Saint-Eustache. Between 1784 and 1790, population increased from 1,958 to 2,385 habitants and the number of grants reached 336 by 1800 by which time the land along the Rivière-du-Chêne was completely settled.[16] The population of the region of Saint-Eustache continued to rise reaching 4,830 habitants in 1831 though, probably as a result of the Rebellion, this fell back to 3,195 in 1840.[17]

Before 1800, wheat farming made up eighty% of agricultural production in the Seigneurie de la Rivière-du-Chêne. Competition from Upper Canada from the mid-1800s led to a dramatic fall in demand for Lower Canadian wheat that led to depression in agriculture in the Seigneurie de la Rivière-du-Chêne that lasted until the 1830s. In the seigneury, the major causes of depression were obsolete farming techniques and severe shortages of land caused by the dramatic increase in the population. Following bad harvests in 1826-1827, the growing of corn was replaced with potatoes and oats.[18] By the early 1830s, Saint-Eustache was the third most important town in the province in terms of population and an important political and cultural centre. Its population was largely made up of farmers and members of the professions. It was one of the first centres to mobilise against the government during the 1837 Rebellion, a consequence of the strength of the local Patriote organisation led by Doctor Jean-Olivier Chénier[19] and W. H. Scott[20] since 1834. [21] The parish of Saint-Eustache was founded in 1825 with a population of 4,343 habitants of whom 393 lived in the village and the remainder in the surrounding area. There were 61 houses in the village and 777 in the countryside. Saint- Eustache was a large agricultural parish with 26,000 arpents of land. From 1 July 1855, legislation gave the village of Saint-Eustache ‘municipal’ status but it was not until 1948 that the village obtained the status of ‘town’ and it was three years later that its population exceeded that of its surrounding countryside.


[1] An arpent is a unit of land measurement that equals 192 feet or 58.5 metres.

[2] The ‘cens’ was a nominal tax or land tax that replaced the ‘taille’, a direct tax levied on individuals in France. In New France settlers were also called ‘censitaires’, derived from this word that also relates to the word ‘census.’ The register in which the seigneur wrote the date and the amount paid each year by the censitaires was known as the ‘censier.’

[3] The ‘sol’ was the French money in the colony.

[4] The ‘rente’ was duty, royalty or tax paid in cash and, in many cases, with goods in kind.

[5] Under seigneurial tenure, grist mills (and, in many cases all mills), were seigneurial monopolies. This prevented a form of peasant rural accumulation common in freehold areas. It did not guarantee the existence of ‘service close to the producer’ since seigneurs commonly waited until there was a large enough pool of habitants before they would build a mill.

[6] The roads ‘provided’ by the seigneurs in Quebec were built by habitants on their own land or through communal labour, the ‘corvee’. The road system was actually governed by a colonial official, the ‘grand voyer’, not by the seigneurs.

[7] See, Desbarats, C., ‘Agriculture within the Seigneurial Régime of Eighteenth-Century Canada’, Canadian Historical Review, Vol. 73, (1992), pp. 1-29; Harris. R. C., The Seigneurial System in Early Canada: A Geographical Study, (McGill-Queen’s University Press), 1984.

[8] Courville, Serge, Entre ville et campagne: L’essor du village dans les seigneuries du Bas-Canada, (Éditions PUL), 1990 remains an important study. Laurin, Serge, Les régions du Québec: Les Laurentides, (Éditions de l’IQRC), 2000 provides greater geographical and historical breadth.

[9] Courville, S., Robert, J-C and Séguin, N., ‘The Spread of Rural Industry in Lower Canada, 1831-1851’, Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, n.s., Vol. 2, (1991), pp. 43-70.

[10] Hardy, Jean-Pierre, La Vie Quotidienne dans la Vallée du Saint-Laurent 1790-1835, (Septentrion), 2001 provides an excellent synposis of life in the early-nineteenth century.

[11] Frances Brooke, The History of Emily Montague by the Author of Lady Julia Mandeville, (J. Dodsley), 1769, pp. 146-147. Frances Brooke (1724-1789) lived in Canada between 1763 and 1768 when her husband was military chaplain at Quebec and History of Emily Montague was one of the first novels written in the new World and certainly the first in Canada. See, Hammill, Faye, Canadian Literature, (Edinburgh University Press), 2007, pp. 33-38.

[12] Lambert, John, Travels Through Lower Canada and the United States of North America in the Years 1806, 1807 and 1808, 3 Vols. (Richard Phillips), 1810, Vol. 1, pp. 133-145 and Laterrière, Pierre de Sales, and Taunton, Henry Labouchere, A Political and Historical Account of Lower Canada, (W. Marsh & A. Miller), 1830, pp. 123-125, gave a negative view of farming.

[13] Innis, Harold A., The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History, (Yale University Press), 1930, pp. 263-282 and Lower, Arthur R.M., Great Britain’s woodyard: Nritish America and the timber trade 1763-1876, (McGill-Queen’s University Press), 1973.

[14] Hardy, R., and Séguin, N., Forêt et societé en Mauricie, (Boréal Express), 1984.

[15] Grignon, Claude-Henri and Giroux, André, Le vécu à Saint-Eustache de 1683 à 1972: en hommage à nos patriotes, (Éditions Corporation des fêtes de Saint-Eustache), 1987.

[16] Giroux, André and Chapdelaine, Claude, Histoire du territoire de la municipalité régionale de comté de Deux-Montagnes, nd, pp. 15-17.

[17] Ouellet, Fernand, Le Bas-Canada de 1791 à 1840: Changements structuraux et crise, (Éditions de l’Université d’Ottawa), 1976, p. 243.

[18] Ibid, Giroux, André and Chapdelaine, Claude, Histoire du territoire de la municipalité régionale de comté de Deux-Montagnes, p. 19.

[19] Prévost, Robert, Chénier, l’opiniâtre, (Institut de la Nouvelle-France), 1940 is a short biography but see also Globensky, Maximilien, La Rébellion de 1837 à Saint-Eustache, pp. 220-224, passim. Messier, p. 109; Bernard, Jean-Paul, ‘Jean-Olivier Chénier’, DCB, Vol. 7, 1836-1850, pp. 171-174, is more recent. See also Laurin, Clément, ‘Bibliographie de Jean-Olivier Chénier’, Cahiers d’histoire de Deux-Montagnes, Vol. 5, (2), (1982), pp. 58-66.

[20] Globensky, Maximilien, La Rébellion de 1837 à Saint-Eustache, 1883, extended edition, 1889, reprinted (Éditions Du Jour), 1974, pp. 224-225, provided a brief, slanted biography. Messier, p. 441; Gouin, Jacques, ‘William Henry Scott’, DCB, Vol. 8, 1851-1860, pp. 791-792, is more balanced.

[21] Dubois, Abbé Émile, Le feu de la Rivière-du-Chêne, Étude historique sur le mouvement insurrectionnel de 1837 au nord de Montréal, (E.A. Deschamps), 1937; Paquin, Jacques, ‘La bataille de Saint-Eustache et le triste sort de Saint-Benoît’ in Boileau Gilles and Paquin, Jacques, Les Patriotes de Saint-Eustache, Cahier d’histoire de Deux-Montagnes, (Saint-Eustache: Société d’histoire de Deux-Montagnes), 1989.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

what was the MAIN importance in the seignorial system???

jimmcneill said...

What was its main importance?
Good question.
I'd suggest:
- important for local control of local people on behalf of the Regional or National ruling bodies.
- important system for the rule and exploitation of local people for the enrichment of the Seignors.
- a system of fudal repression
- a system based on chivalry ~ individual advancement and opportunities to prove valour
- important as it gave social standing, historical liniage and gravitas to the Seignors
What do others think?

Anonymous said...

so would every plot of land have it's own church?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your informative article. It really brighten up my day because I have to write a paper on this topic.

Anonymous said...

thx but how many seigneurial tenants immigrated to canada and what was their time period of movement? Why did they move?