There was no Seigneurial System

Allan Greer

From elementary school books to encyclopedia entries to scholarly treatises, no work on New France is complete without a section on the “seigneurial system,” a phenomenon that supposedly shaped the agrarian society of this colony and set it apart from other colonial settlements.[1] Imposed upon Canada by absolutist France, so the story goes, the system accorded various rights and obligations to seigneurs; these were counterbalanced by another set of rights and obligations granted to censitaires. Although it evolved over time, its essential nature and inner coherence lasted from 1627, when it was instituted by imperial fiat, until its “abolition” in the 1850s. Other colonies had their respective land tenure regimes, it is implied, but only New France and Lower Canada were in the grip of a “system.” The “seigneurial system” has proven a very resilient abstract construct, largely unaffected by half a century of rigorous research on the part of Louise Dechêne, Sylvie Dépatie, Thomas Wien and others on the actual workings of early Canadian seigneuries in all their diversity and complexity.[2]

Drawing on earlier empirical work, chapter 5 of my recent book, Property and Dispossession, also looks at colonial land tenure comparatively. From that vantage point it challenges the still-conventional view in every particular, beginning with the notion that there was something “systematic” about New France’s agrarian regime.[3] I’d like to take this opportunity to highlight, briefly and a little polemically, the book’s points of divergence with the orthodox interpretation (the latter signaled below by italics).

  1. A landlord-tenant regime prevailed in New France, whereas settlers enjoyed freehold tenure in the English colonies.

Actually Maryland and South Carolina were set up on a feudal basis and non-seigneurial landlordism prevailed in many parts of the 13 colonies, notably western Massachusetts and the Hudson Valley of New York. Modern forms of private property existed nowhere in the 17th century.

  1. Other colonial settlements merely had land tenures; New France had a System.

There were tenure regimes of various sorts in all colonies, but only in relation to New France have historians incorporated basic land tenure practices into an all-encompassing and totalizing concept. The “seigneurial system” is a scholarly contrivance rather than a found object.

  1. Absolutist France established seigneurialism in Canada through the 1627 Charter of the Company of the Hundred Associates and the legal code of the Coutûme de Paris.

The 1627 charter configured New France legally as a fief (like several other French and English colonial charters), but it allowed the company to sub-grant lands in whatever tenure it wished. It did not order that colonial land be sub-granted to seigneurs; that is an idea that arose in New, not Old France and the practice began to emerge before 1627. The Custom of Paris recognized three tenures: en fief, en censive and en alleu; the last of these (aka allodial tenure) carried no dues or obligations. The tenure clauses of the 1635 charter of the French West Indies were copied directly from the New France charter. In the early years of all these French colonies, grants were made in all three tenures, but allodial (ie. “free”) tenure came to prevail in the West Indies while grants en fief became the norm in Canada. Why this divergence? The short answer is that plantation owners soon dominated Caribbean society, while the first two orders, clergy and nobility, gained the ascendancy in New France. To keep New France’s privileged classes happy, governors and intendants blanketed the St Lawrence Valley with fiefs. The result was that habitants (settlers) could only procure land from a seigneur, in censive tenure and therefore burdened by rents and other exactions. The point is that decrees from France were permissive where land tenure is concerned; seigneurialism was largely constructed in Canada, by and for colonial elites. (Canada was indeed known across the French empire as the home of colonial seigneurialism: unsuccessful attempts to establish seigneuries in Guadeloupe and Louisiana were the work of Canadian elements.)

  1. Feudal tenure was bound by rules and regulated by the state.

Some aspects of the relation of seigneurs and habitants were prescribed in the Coutume de Paris – the cens, the lods et ventes (mutation fine), for example – but the economically most important parts of the seigneur/habitant relationship – rent above all – were contractual and unregulated. On the long run, seigneurs tended to raise rents and increase the number of exactions (fishing rights, pasturing charges, timber reserves, etc). Courts sometimes backed habitants in their resistance and some intendants tried to oppose gouging, but there was nothing resembling systematic oversight of tenure relations. Improvisation and the pursuit of interests shaped agrarian relations. There was never a blueprint.

  1. Long, narrow lots were characteristic of the seigneurial system.

Most of the lands in the St Lawrence Valley were surveyed as long lots for reasons that had nothing to do with seigneurial tenure. That configuration developed here organically, as it did in large parts of Texas, New England and Louisiana, places scarcely touched by seigneuries. I and other historians have been pointing out for years that the cadastral layout of long lots has nothing to do with the legal status of holdings as seigneuries and censives, but it sometimes seems that no one is listening. The continuing tendency to characterized long, narrow lots as “seigneurial” serves to remind us that the concept of the “seigneurial system” is only tenuously connected to land tenure.

Where do these notions about a seigneurial system come from and why are they so resistant to empirical research? Well, it seems that the idea that seigneurial tenure formed a coherent and well-regulated mechanism set up by French authorities to structure life in the Canadian colony was originally propounded by lawyers representing the seigneurs of Lower Canada at the time seigneurialism was being liquidated in the 1850s. These lawyers were very successful at fending off the radical view that seigneurial exactions were simply an organized rip-off. In so doing, they not only secured a handsome settlement for their clients, they also shaped historical discourse for a century and a half.[4]

The pro-seigneur legal argument of the 1850s found a ready audience among francophone nationalists over the following century, feeding into their tendency to idealize the French régime. A benevolent Catholic monarch established seigneuries to ensure that the settlers of Canada would be under the benign care of community leaders cum landlords in a relationship that was somehow hierarchical without being exploitive. Anglophone writers, for their part, incorporated the myth of the seigneurial system into their orientalist-style discourse on the French-Canadian Other: quaint, colourful but fundamentally retrograde. English practices of colonization and English land law formed the unquestioned norm in this view of the Canadian past, whereas New France appeared as a deviation. In this context, the “seigneurial system” has functioned as an enduring emblem of backwardness.

Allan Greer is a professor of history at McGill University and Canada Research Chair in Colonial North America. His latest book, Property and Dispossession: Natives, Empires and Land in Early Modern North America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), examines questions of property formation in New France, New Spain and New England.


[1] Perhaps the purest expression of this view is found in Marcel Trudel, The Seigneurial Regime (Ottawa: CHA, 1956), but the same basic image of a seigneurial system pervades the literature. There is no room here for a full historiographical discussion. In any case, my main target here is the reference works and textbooks that continue to propagate a deeply misleading image of rural New France under the “seigneurial system” rubric. See, for example, the online Canadian Encyclopedia: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/seigneurial-system/

[2] See, for example, Louise Dechêne, “L’évolution du régime seigneurial au Canada: le cas de Montréal aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles” Recherches sociographiques 12 (1971): 143–83; Sylvie Dépatie, Mario Lalancette and Christian Dessureault, Contributions á l’étude du régime seigneurial canadien (Montreal: Hurtubise HMH, 1987).

[3] Allan Greer, Property and Dispossession: Natives, Empires and Land in Early Modern North America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 145-88.

[4] See Louis-Philippe Lavallée’s PhD dissertation, “Les discours de l’amélioration dans la transformation des relations sociales de propriété au Bas-Canada, 1841-1867” (McGill University, in progress).

Featured image: Plan cadastral de Batiscan, 1725. Library and Archives Canada, via Wikimedia.

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