Was New France a society of the “long Middle Ages”? Part 2

Arnaud Montreuil

 Could it be interesting for historians of New France and early Canada to compare New French society to medieval society? In the first part of this post, I suggested that this might be the case, and that this avenue deserves to be explored.[1]

The point of this comparison is not to diminish New France in relation to New England, as a historiographical tradition dating back to Francis Parkman has done. It is neither aimed at praising the dubious merits of an ideal Ancien Régime society, formed of benevolent lords and devoted censitaires, such as that described by Philippe-Aubert de Gaspé in Les Anciens Canadiens. The sole purpose of this comparative perspective is to contribute to a better understanding of how medieval and New French societies changed over time.

But back to New France. It is obvious that the society that flourished along the St. Lawrence River was very different from the France of Philippe Auguste in many respects, not only in terms of material culture and techniques, but mainly because of the dynamic contacts and exchanges between French settlers and First Nations. This post does not constitute an appeal to just placate the description of Old France on New France.

However, the structural similarities that I have evoked in my previous post justify a historical comparison in terms of the dynamics of the two societies.[2] They allow us to ask the following set of questions: were the dominium relationship and the central position of the Church transposed to New France? If so, to what extent? What were the notable variations from Europe? More broadly, can these two concepts improve our understanding of Laurentian society?

My lack of knowledge about New France does not allow me to offer answers to these questions. These questions are in fact addressed to those who make the history of French settlements in America and early Canada. Therefore, I will rather insist on specific elements directly related to these questions.

1) It seems to me that the use of the concept of dominium (as understood by medievalists) would allow us to approach the question of the seigniorial system in a new light. It is indeed possible that what the colonial administration and the religious communities tried to reproduce in New France was less the seigneurie or a seigneurial system – i.e. an object, a legal construction – than the relation of dominium, understood as a form of localized personal domination, regularly reified by seigniorial practices and based on reciprocal obligations tending to fix men and women to the lands on which they toiled? From this perspective, we could consider attempts to fix native peoples on land or to create European-style burgs, such as the Trait-carré of Charlesbourg, as experiments aimed precisely at reproducing the dominium relationship in New France? The notion of dominium might also constitute some sort of “third way” regarding the historiographical debate opposing a conception of seigneuries as a legal object to a conception of seigneuries as a continuous process.

2) The hypothesis that the Church was the keystone of New France, both as a real colonizing institution and as a structuring pillar of colonial society, has in some ways already been discussed.[3] After all, the Church was a major landowner and it played a fundamental role in social control through preaching, confession, and penance, in addition to taking charge of education and social assistance. It was also a privileged intermediary between the French and the First Nations, especially in the first half of the 17th century.

I propose to test this hypothesis again with two things in mind: the first, which is consensual among historians of New France, is to ignore the praises or condemnations of the Catholic Church and its historical influence on New French society, the objective being to understand and not to judge;[4] the second is to not only focus on elements that clearly made the Church a dominant institution, particularly through its seigneurial role and its effective taxation of peasant labor,[5] but also to take into account its driving role in the construction of the spatial and temporal structures and mental representations that shaped Laurentian society.

There were obviously great differences between the French church and its Laurentian off-shoot, but it is likely that it contributed, as in Europe, to the establishment of a spatial organization based on the cohabitation of the living and the dead within the framework of the parish, as well as by the fabrication of a sacred space in New France through the establishment of a hierarchical network of sacred places. The fundamental question is in fact to determine whether the Church, understood in this way, was consubstantial with the Laurentian variant of feudalism.

“La France apportant la foi aux Hurons de la Nouvelle-France” (France bringing faith to the Hurons), Michel Elie, Centre de conservation du Québec. This painting, which today belongs to the Ursulines of Quebec, was offered by the Hurons to the Jesuits in 1666 on the feast of the Holy Trinity. It shows a female figure (an allegory of France, or Anne of Austria, mother of Louis XIV) holding a painted representation of the Holy Family to a Huron with her left hand, while indicating with her right hand that the painting refers to celestial realities: the Holy Trinity, which dominates the image from its upper part. The Huron, kneeling before France, holds the painting in his right hand. Huts topped by a cross populate the forest behind the Huron. Behind France floats a ship at anchor. A body of water, probably the St. Lawrence River, occupies the center of the image: it divides the two worlds at the same time as it connects them.


3) The third element is not new per se, but it remains important to me to say a few words about it because of its close relations with the others. As I wrote before, the feudalism of New France was not that of thirteenth-century France, and it is appropriate to point this out by speaking of a “late feudalism.”[6] This name serves on the one hand to underline the links between a colony and its metropolis, whose structural characteristics are those of the long European Middle Ages, although one is in a peripheral position and the other in a central one. On the other hand, it invites us to take into account the fact that the feudalism of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries – the one that was implanted in New France – was still the dominant social logic, but that it was already on the defensive against other social forces that complemented and competed with it (such as capitalism, rationalism, etc.).

The peripheral location of the colony in relation to the center resulted in less “rigidity,” which made it possible to develop specific original forms of organization and exploitation, bending but not breaking the feudal-ecclesial logic. In a complementary way, this invites us to consider that capitalism existed in New France, but in a form subordinate to feudal logic, characterized by the export of raw materials to the center, without the profits and resources exported to the metropolis being used to feed productive activities. This would be tantamount to (re)testing the hypothesis that neo-French mercantile activity had a socio-political (glory of the Church and the monarchy, sumptuary competition between European states) rather than an economic purpose (centered on the accumulation of capital and its investment in production).

4) The study of dominium and the Church in New France could also be observed at varying scales, especially if one admits with Allan Greer that New France was not a clearly delimited political territory, but a dynamic zone of contacts and colonization. The question would then be to determine to what extent and with what strength the feudal-ecclesial logic could be deployed by European actors outside the narrow, densely settled zone of the St. Lawrence Lowlands. It would in turn be necessary to identify the concessions and compromises that the French had to make with respect to the feudal-ecclesial logic has they had to nurture and maintain various diplomatic and military relations with the dozens of native nations that also constituted New France.

These theoretical propositions certainly remain somewhat liminal. Nevertheless, I hope that readers specializing in the history of Laurentian society will be able to forgive any omissions or errors, and first and foremost that the subject matter of this article will encourage exchanges between medievalism and the history of New France and early Canada.


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 text has benefited from the precious comments and critical remarks of Kouky Fianu, Olivier Guimond, Benoît Grenier, Jean-François Lozier, and Keith Grant, and I thank them here warmheartedly.

[2] My observation matches that of Annie Antoine, who highlights the differences between the seigneuries of the Old and New Worlds, while acknowledging that the comparison can be fruitful. Annie Antoine, « L’institution seigneuriale vue de l’Europe : Bilan et perspectives de recherches », Le régime seigneurial au Québec 150 ans après, dirigé par Alain Laberge et Benoît Grenier (Québec, CIEQ, 2009), 9-22.

[3] Cornelius Jaenen, The Role of the Church in New France (Ottawa, CHA, 1985).

[4] Obviously, the vast majority of contemporary historians, if not all, adopt this perspective, but it is not useless, for strict logical purposes, to make this postulate explicit given the preponderance of certain ideas inherited from the 19th century.

[5] This is clearly highlighted by the work on the archives of ecclesiastical institutions, such as that of Louise Dechêne in Habitants et marchands, knowing that ecclesiastical levies are also carried out within lay seigneuries (see Allan Greer, Peasant, lord, and merchant rural society in three Quebec parishes, 1740-1840, [Toronto, Toronto University Press, 1985], 133-139).

[6] Jérôme Baschet, La civilisation féodale : de l’an mil à la colonisation de l’Amérique (Paris, Gallimard, 2009), 409.

Featured image: “La France apportant la foi aux Hurons de la Nouvelle-France,” (detail), Michel Elie, Centre de conservation du Québec (CCQ).

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