Was New France a society of the “long Middle Ages”?

Arnaud Montreuil

With the arrival of the first explorers, then as settlers began to claim land, medieval West burgeoned in the Americas.[1] This is the idea put forward by historian Jérôme Baschet in a series of works, including his book La civilisation féodale: de l’an mil à la colonisation de l’Amérique and his article “Un Moyen Âge mondialisé.” The Middle Ages, he argues, became globalized by crossing the Atlantic, in the sense that the dynamics of medieval civilization extended to the shores of the Americas, a phenomenon that he calls “feudal-ecclesial globalization.”

To my knowledge, J. Baschet’s theories have not been echoed in studies on New France. This is explained on the one hand by the fact that, despite the calls of certain historians such as Benoît Grenier,[2] there are few bridges between the history of New France and medievalism, and on the other hand because Baschet himself was mainly interested in the process of colonization of Latin America.

The objective of this post is to present to historians of New France the key dynamics of Baschet’s concept of feudal-ecclesial globalization, to initiate a critical dialogue between two historiographies. At a time when seigniorial history is experiencing a marked revival of interest,[3] I hope that this synthetic and theoretical proposal could be put to the service of the history of New France and the Laurentian seigniories. More specifically, it seems to me that it could contribute to two current historiographical trends: the first concerns the modes of appropriation of the Laurentian space before the development of property, as in Allan Greer’s Property and Dispossession;[4] the second, following in the footsteps of Benoît Grenier, is interested in the persistence of seigniories over the long term, beyond the important political dates of 1763 and especially 1854.[5]

New France, feudalism, and the “long Moyen Âge”

This approach is based on premise that it may be interesting, heuristically speaking, to approach the 16th and 17th centuries from the point of view of systemic continuities with the Middle Ages rather than starting from the idea of a radical break with previous centuries. From this perspective, the first two centuries of the history of New France belong to a “long Middle Ages,” a notion conceptualized by Alain Guerreau and popularized by Jacques Le Goff. According to the idea of the long Middle Ages, which in places joins the broader idea of “pre-industrial societies,” feudalism entered into crisis around the middle of the 17th century, when a phase of transition from the weakening feudal system to the capitalist system began, a process that did not really come to an end until the 19th century.

The adoption of such a chronological and conceptual framework makes sense if we admit, following numerous works since Louise Dechêne’s Habitants et Marchands de Montréal, that the logic guiding the settlement of the French in the St. Lawrence Valley was feudal, because the society of New France was one of the American branches of the medieval West. Indeed, far from making a tabula rasa of French institutions, the colonial administration and the religious communities resorted to typically medieval modes of appropriation of space. But to say that New France was a society of the long Middle Ages does not mean that it was backward, as a whole series of disparaging speeches, especially during the 19th century, have asserted. Rather, the idea is to highlight emphatically the fact that the dominant logic of Laurentian society was not capitalist, but feudal-ecclesial, in a manner similar to that which prevailed in medieval society.[6] But once such assertions have been made, it is still necessary to explain what is meant by medieval society and by feudal-ecclesial logic.

Medieval society and feudal-ecclesial dynamics

Medieval society was structurally formed by the entanglement of several social relations of unequal importance. Certain relationships were primordial, such as those that united and opposed lords to dependents, clerics to laity, nobles to commoners, men to women. Others were preponderant but not of the same importance as the previous ones, such as the relations of complementarity and competition between the monarchy and the aristocracy, between the clergy and the aristocracy, between the Church and the monarchy, and between urban and rural spaces. Finally, a third level of relations was clearly subordinated and conditioned by the previous ones: these were the internal structuring strategies of the aristocracy, alliances and rivalries between different powers or political factions, tensions between the upper and lower clergy, community identities that gave rise to rivalries between villages or urban groups, etc.

These fundamental characteristics also structured the society of New France, just as they might have structured, albeit in a different form, that of the Laurentian society of Lower Canada and the Union. It is in this regard that we are authorized to consider it as “medieval.” This does not, of course, exempt us from taking into account the existence of other relations specific to the Laurentian reality, strongly conditioned by the dominant presence of the Native people and the major impact of their influence on the society of New France, in which they participated, with which they often negotiated and dealt, and against which they occasionally struggled.

The portrait I have just painted of medieval society in its European and New French variants is static. Yet for over a thousand years this society functioned (id est endured the passage of time), reproduced and transformed itself over time until it was overthrown and replaced by liberal and capitalist civilization. According to Baschet, two key elements—the dominium relationship and the power of the Church—help explain not only the longevity of medieval society, but above all its undeniable dynamism, which took it as far as the distant shores of the Americas. Taken together, they constitute the mainspring of the feudal-ecclesial mode of production.

The dominium relationship

The term dominium has a long history. Inherited from the classical Latin of ancient Rome, where it referred indiscriminately to domination over men and things, it was the object of a series of reappropriations and reinterpretations by jurists between the 12th and 18th centuries, each time according to specific problems and social developments.[7]

In the context of this theoretical proposition inspired by the work of Baschet, the notion of dominium takes on the following specific meaning: dominium is a concept designating the relationship between lords and dependent producers. This relationship refers not to the notion of right but to that of power, and more precisely to the fact that in medieval society, the dominant exercised power over men and power over land simultaneously and jointly.

The advantage of this concept is to unite in a single word the categories of “political domination,” “economic domination,” and “social domination,” which are somewhat unsatisfying reflections of the particular and undivided power that was in the hands of the lords, in addition to getting around the theoretical problem posed by the notion of property for societies that did not know it, at least in the sense that Western democracies have understood it since the 19th century. Indeed, the lords levied the work of peasants by means of a set of localized and spatially defined obligations, in a context where the dependents themselves held the means of production. Feudal dependence is not caused by the fact that the producers do not possess the means of production, but by the fact that it involves a bundle of reciprocal economic, political, social and legal obligations so inseparable from each other that the whole—the dominium—is greater than the sum of its parts. Effective at the local level at the level of tenure as well as at the level of society as a whole, dominium is moreover flexible enough to allow for an increase in the standard of living of producers because they have access to the means of production, thus allowing for social mobility. Finally, because it has power over people and land, dominium tends to favour the sedentary installation of lords and dependents in dwellings that are also places of production, knowing that it is on these homes that domination is exerted.

The Church, backbone of medieval society

The other key element of the feudal-ecclesial dynamic is the unavoidable character of the Church as the dominant institution of feudal society. It was both the backbone and the driving force of feudal society. It should be noted, moreover, that the word “church” refers at the same time to the assembly of all Christians (Catholics after the Protestant Reformation), to the superior tier of this assembly, that is, to the clergy and the ecclesial institution, as well as to the buildings in which Christian society is spiritually produced.

Vierge de miséricorde de la famille, painted by Enguerrand Quarton, 1452. In this image, the Virgin protects, under her mantle, faithful believers coming from every social strata of medieval society. The virgin is an allegory of the institutional Church, which preserves and dominates all believers, from the pope to the peasant.


The clergy was the dominant order of feudalism because of its immense material wealth and of the spiritual power it wielded. More broadly, the ecclesiastical institution had a quasi-monopoly in defining the structures essential to the functioning and reproduction of medieval society. It was the institution that controlled the relationships of kinship, while subordinating blood ties to spiritual kinship founded in baptism. It was the institution that elaborated the temporal frameworks of Christianity according to the temporal and sanctoral calendars. Above all, it was the institution that contributed definitively to the proper functioning of the dominium—the Church is also a landlord!—by enclosing lords and producers in a parish network (the dependents are thus enshrined, “encellulés” in French, in a lordly, parish, and community network). The construction of parish churches and above all the installation of cemeteries in the heart of communities (and thus of the dead in the center of social space) helped to fix people to the ground and to make village and urban communities not only places of habitation doubled by places of production, but also communities of salvation united by attachment to this or that patron saint.

However, the medieval Church was much more than an institution, for it was also a true system of representation turned towards the ideal of individual salvation and the victory of the heavenly Church. This system of representation proposed a reading of the world based on the fundamental superiority of spirit over flesh (thus of the soul over the body, of heaven over the earth, of God over the Devil and of the institutional Church over the local assembly of the faithful, but also of man over woman, of clerics over laity, of nobles over commoners, etc.), without, however, ever separating them or rejecting the existence of either term. Paradoxically, this phenomenon made it possible to value the elements classified on the side of the flesh in the name of their subordination to the elements classified on the side of the spirit. Thus, in the eyes of the people of the middle ages as well as colonizing figures such as Christopher Columbus, conquest and material gain were condemnable when pursued out of mere vanity, but they were praiseworthy when carried out from the perspective of salvation.

But let’s return to our main question: how can the concepts of dominium and the idea of the Church as being the backbone of medieval society build bridges between the history of the Middle Ages and that of New France? How can the notion of feudal-ecclesial dynamics be put at the service of the history of New France? To find out more, I invite you to read the second part of this essay.


Arnaud Montreuil is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Ottawa and at Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. His research and publications focus on medieval history, New France history, and the sociology of communication in 21st century Quebec. He is writing a thesis on the knighting ritual in 13th century France, England, and Northern Italy. He blogs at Punctum visus, and you can find him on Twitter at @Ar_Montreuil.


[1] This essay is the first of a series of two. It has benefited from the valuable comments and critical remarks of Kouky Fianu, Olivier Guimond, Benoît Grenier, Jean-François Lozier, and Keith Grant, whom I would like to thank here. I have chosen to keep the number of notes to a minimum, which does not allow me to do justice to all the books and articles consulted and amicably recommended by my reviewers. I would be happy to benefit from the readers’ recommendations and to answer their bibliographical questions, if any.

[2] In his Ph.D. thesis, Benoît Grenier invited scholars to compare medieval seignories in regions of land clearing with the seignories of the Saint-Laurence valley. See Seigneurs campagnards de la Nouvelle-France : présence seigneuriale et sociabilité rurale dans la vallée du Saint-Laurent à l’époque préindustrielle (Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2007).

[3] E.g. Benoît Grenier, Brève histoire du régime seigneurial (Montréal, Boréal, 2012); Nouveaux regards en histoire seigneuriale, edited by Benoît Grenier and Michel Morissette (Québec, Septentrion, 2016); Isabelle Bouchard, Des systèmes politiques en quête de légitimité : terres « seigneuriales », pouvoirs et enjeux locaux dans les communautés autochtones de la vallée du Saint-Laurent (1760-1860), July 2017; Allan Greer, Property and Dispossession: Natives, Empires and Land in Early Modern North America (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2018).

[4] One of the many merits of Allan Greer’s Property and Dispossession is its transnational scope: the author underlines here and there the similarities between French colonies on the one hand and Spanish and Portuguese settlements on the other hand, and this allows us to put forward the hypothesis that there was a European colonial logic with an English exception.

[5] Research on seigniorial persistence is carried out by a group of researchers led by Benoît Grenier. The latter has shown that the last seigniorial rent in Quebec was paid on St. Martin’s Day in 1940 (!), and that despite the real persistence of seigniory over time – and therefore, to some extent, of the feudal-ecclesial logic – Quebec’s collective memory casts shadows on this subject. See Benoît Grenier, « Les paradoxes de la mémoire seigneuriale au Québec : entre la mythologie et l’oubli », Mémoires canadiennes. Actes du colloque de l’Association française d’études canadiennes (Rennes 2013), edited by Marc Bergère and al. (Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2018), 155-166.

[6] A certain number of studies has addressed this question, for instance Robert Sweeny, « Paysan et ouvrier : du féodalisme laurentien au capitalisme québécois », Sociologie et sociétés, vol. 22 no 1 (1990), p. 143-161.

[7] In the section “The Problem of Property in Land” of his introduction to Property and Dispossession, Allan Greer has already pointed out the importance of the notion of dominium as a mode of land appropriation in the European kingdoms and their colonies, with the hasty exception of England.

Featured image: A composite of: “March: Château de Lusignan” in Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry by the Limbourgh brothers, 1412-1416 (via Wikipedia); « Abitation de Quebecq, by Samuel de Champlain, 1608 (via Wikipedia); and “Early Acadia” by Claude T. Picard (via Acadians.org).

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