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Seigneur and Habitant

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 defense 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,'1 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 meager 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 conveyance, 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 traveling 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 parceling 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 imposition.

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 neighborhood 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 neighborhood 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 neighbor 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 defense 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 harnessed.

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 labor 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 labor 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-labor 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 honor.

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

Bright and early in the morning, as Gaspe tells us, the whole neighborhood 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.

1 A. G. Bradley, The fight with France for North America (London, 1905, p. 388).

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Chronicles of Canada, The Seigneurs of Old Canada, A Chronicle of New World Feudalism, 1915


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