Reply to Benoît Grenier and Alain Laberge

Allan Greer

I am grateful to Benoît Grenier and Alain Laberge for having taken the trouble to read my book and comment on my short polemic, “There was no Seigneurial System.” Indeed, I’m doubly grateful since I relied heavily on the extensive and rigorous research of these two historians in preparing Property and Dispossession. Why then did I not cite their publications in my Borealia article? Because it was a very brief intervention intended to provoke and to make a point; it was in no way a historiographical study. I did cite some important works from the 1970s and 80s, but that was simply to underline the way so-called “popular” understandings of the past have not kept up with research. I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that there has been no significant work in the field over the past 30 years; that would have been unfair to me as well as to Grenier and Laberge!

As my colleagues observe, my piece was aimed primarily at a certain version of the history of New France found in textbooks, reference works and heritage sites. This is the idealized story of a “seigneurial system,” unique to French Canada and featuring seigneurs and censitaires living in harmony, each with their respective duties and benefits. I was really speaking to an anglophone phenomenon, an interpretation that is consistent with a long tradition of patronizing English-Canadian views of Quebec history and society. As Grenier and Laberge rightly point out, the phrase “système seigneurial” is rarely used in French and the more common “régime seigneurial” does not have quite the same connotations. [They originally read my piece in translation and I am now attempting to translate my own French reply, creating layer over layer of linguistic difficulty!]

We need to note another point of disconnection: my article (and book) are about the New France period, whereas Grenier and Laberge are interested in the Laurentian seigneurie over a longer time-frame. This long-term perspective, tracing “seigneurial history” from the seventeenth century to the twentieth, is one of the great strengths of their approach. Benoît Grenier’s research, and that of his students, has demonstrated that the fief continued to weigh heavily on the Quebec countryside long after the “abolition” of the 1850s, indeed right up until very recently. It is a fascinating story, but it is not the subject of my article.

Misunderstandings apart, is there really a debate here? To some extent, we simply have different approaches to this aspect of the past. Whereas I tried to understand colonial property making from a comparative perspective, bringing together indigenous, French, English and Spanish versions of landed property, Grenier and Laberge opted for a “national” framing (though they don’t ignore international comparisons). So far, this looks like the sort of multiplicity of analytical frames that we would all approve of rather than actual disagreement.

That said, I’ll just add a discordant word about the reification of concepts, because it is the basic problem underlying my objections to the notion of a “seigneurial system.” My target was a pedagogical discourse that assembles a variety of laws, agrarian customs, class relations, state practices and cadastral forms and pretends that they form a fully integrated whole, a stable and autonomous object usually called “the seigneurial system.” Instead of referring to feudal or seigneurial aspects of broader historical developments, it treats seigneurialism as a thing, rather than an intellectual construction. Grenier’s and Laberge’s critique is not entirely free of such reification. For example, when they write that, “this form of land tenure marked the society becoming established on the shores of the St. Lawrence River,” or when they speak of its “long-term influence on French-Canadian society,” they leave the impression that tenure is something external to this society, that it is something that acts upon French-Canadian society.

In my book, I use the term property formation in order to evoke a process rather than a structure. This concept directs attention to relations, first of all between Indigenous peoples and colonists and secondarily between different classes of colonial society. Since property is always under construction and never finally formed, it cannot be reduced to an institution or a system or a structure.

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.

[This translated essay is made available through a partnership with our friends at HistoireEngagée, where it can be found in French. Allan Greer’s original post as well as Benoît Grenier and Alain Laberge’ response can also be found, in French, on that site Eds.]

Featured Image: The Habitant Farm, oil on canvas painting by Cornelius Krieghoff, 1856, National Gallery of Canada, via Wikimedia.

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