Seigneurial system of New France
The seigneurial system was introduced to New France in 1627 by Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu granted the newly formed Company of New France all lands between the Arctic Circle to the north, Florida to the south, Lake Superior in the west, and the Atlantic in the east. In exchange for this vast land grant and the exclusive trading rights tied to it, the Company was expected to bring two to three hundred settlers to New France in 1628, and a subsequent four thousand during the next fifteen years. To achieve this, the Company subgranted almost all of the land awarded to it by Cardinal Richelieu. Despite the official arrangement reached between Cardinal Richelieu and the Company of New France, levels of immigration to French colonies in North America remained extremely low. The resulting scarcity of labor had a profound effect on the system of land distribution. In practice, the lands were arranged in long, narrow strips called, seigneuries, along the banks of the St. Lawrence River, its estuaries, and other key transit features. Both in nominal and legal terms, all French territorial claims in North America belonged to the King of France. French monarchs did not impose the seigneurial system on New France, and the king’s actual attachment to these lands was virtually non-existent. Instead, Seigneurs were allotted land holdings and presided over the French colonial agricultural system in North America.
This physical layout of seigneurial property developed as a means of maximizing ease of transit, commerce, and communication by exploiting naturally occurring riparian networks (most notably, the St. Lawrence river) and the relatively sparse man-made infrastructure. A desirable plot had to be directly bordering or in very close proximity to a river system, which plot-expansion was limited to one of two directions—left or right.
Seigneuries were the most macro-level of land division in New France but, within them, there existed several subdivisions of landholdings. Immediately below the level of seigneurie was that of the roture. Throughout New France, there came to exist several thousand rotures. Furthermore, these rotures were remarkably uniform in terms of size. Barring extreme cases, it is estimated that around 95% of all rotures were between 40 and 200 square Arpents in size, though most were likely 120 arpents or less. Rotures of less than 40 square arpents were considered to be of little value by habitants. To maximize simplicity when surveying, rotures were almost invariably distributed in rectangular plots following a ranged system wherein the first range bordered the river, and was the first to be filled, followed by the second behind it and so on. Typically, the proportions of such rectangles coincided with the ratio of 1:10 for width and length, respectively.However, extremes all the way up to 1:100 are known to have occurred. This method of land division confers obvious advantages in terms of easy access to transportation and cheap surveying, but also allowed habitants to live remarkably close to families on neighboring plots—often within a few hundred yards—creating something of a proto-neighborhood.
Although legislation and enforcement varied depending on the period and administration, a Habitant’s rights of entitlement to their roture could not be revoked as long as they paid their dues to the seigneur and satisfied the requirements of tenir feu et lieu which stipulated that they were obliged to improve their landholdings or they would be confiscated. By ordinance of the Intendant in 1682, a habitant could not hold more than two rotures.
In response to these increasingly subdivided agricultural plots and the issues of diminishing agricultural productivity associated with them, the Governor and the Intendant of New France petitioned the King in 1744 to issue a new ordinance rectifying the matter. The King responded by requiring the minimum plot size which a habitant might cultivate or reside to be one Arpent and a half of frontage by 30-40 arpents in depth. A final characteristic of landholdings en roture is that the size of the plot typically varied in direct proportion with its distance from the nearest town, while its population density varied inversely.
A Feudal Mode of Tenure
The seigneur rented most of the land to tenants, known as censitaires or habitants, who cleared the land, built a house and other buildings, and farmed the land. A smaller portion of the land was kept as a demense (land owned by the seigneur and farmed by his family or by hired labour) which was economically significant in the early days of settlement though less thereafter. The seigneurial mode of land tenure differed somewhat from its counterpart in France; the seigneurs of New France were not always nobles, though many were. Seigneuries in North America were granted to military officers, and as in France many were owned by the Catholic clergy. However, the system was feudal in the sense that there was a clear displacement of wealth happening from censitaires to their seigneurs which was not at all based on market forces (as land was plentiful and labor was not) but rather a system institutionalized by the crown. The censitaires paid several fees to the seigneur that were generally paid in wheat, the largest and best known one was called cens et rentes and was a yearly fee for the use of the land. Others included a sale tax called lods and ventes, a grist mill banalité, the tithe as well as other minor charges. These fees were most often demanded in kind (in wheat or livestock etc.) and could be arguably manipulated to the point that while the fee nominally remained the same, in real terms it may have risen throughout the period.
The habitants were able to divide their land for their children according to the The Custom of Paris in New France once they had families of their own, meaning that in the event of the death of a spouse, half the estate went to the surviving spouse, with the other half divided among the children (both male and female). This could lead to an unusual (for the time period) number of women, generally widows who were in charge of large amounts of property. However, it is also worth noting that most widows remarried within a short time of their spouse’s death and often the meticulous splitting of estates demanded by the Custom of Paris was disregarded in favor of quickly solidifying the new union.
Elsewhere this kind of property inheritance law often led to fragmentation of estates. However, the subsistence level farming of many of the habitants in New France made fragmentation impossible and so it was common practice for one heir to buy out the others’ land, keeping estates in more or less one piece. It is also worth noting that anything but direct inheritance the property might be subject to the lods and ventes fee of 1/12th of the value of the property due to the seignior.
New France in Economic Theory
Some historians suggest that the structure of the seigneurial system itself might have caused delays in economic growth for New France. Morris Altman, for example argued that by shifting disposable wealth and therefore spending power from the censitaires to the seigneurs the system deeply altered the economy of New France. Furthermore, since the seignieurs rarely had their estates as their chief source of income, the relatively insignificant sums of money from the cens et rentes were used largely in the purchase of luxury items which were almost always imported from France. Altman theorizes that since the censitaires would have either re-invested this money or bought goods produced locally, this was damaging to the economy of New France and limited growth. Though Altman later altered the precise estimates he made (based on annual outputs) of how much disposable income the censitaire might have been deprived of (and therefore the amount of local investment lost) he confirmed his original thesis that the seigneurial fees reduced growth through wealth transfer. Other historians such as Allan Greer have also argued that the wealth transfer limited the growth of the censitaires’ farms as well as other local enterprises, which in the long run might limit general economic growth.
After the British conquest
After the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the conquest of Quebec by the British during the Seven Years' War, the system became an obstacle to colonization by British settlers. The Quebec Act of 1774 retained French civil law and therefore the seigneurial system.
It remained relatively intact for almost a century. This was the prime land; also many Englishmen and Scotsmen purchased seigneuries; others were divided equally between male and female offspring; some were run by the widows of seigneurs as their children grew to adulthood. Over time land became subdivided among the owners' offspring and descendants, resulting in increasingly narrow plots of land.
When Quebec was divided in December 1791 between Lower Canada (today's Quebec) and Upper Canada (today's Ontario), a 45.7 km (28.4 mi) segment of the colonial boundary was drawn at the west edge of the westernmost contiguous seigneuries along the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers, accounting for the small triangle of land at Vaudreuil-Soulanges that belongs to Quebec rather than Ontario. Only two outlying seigneuries were ever established in the area that became Upper Canada, being located at L'Orignal on the Ottawa River and Frontenac at the eastern end of Lake Ontario at what is now Kingston and Wolfe Island.
The seigneurial system was formally abolished by the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada and assented to by Governor Lord Elgin on 18 December 1854 in An Act for the Abolition of Feudal Rights and Duties in Lower Canada.
The act called for the creation of a special Seigneurial Court composed of all the justices of Lower Canada, which was presented a series of questions concerning the various economic and property rights that abolition would change.
Some of the vestiges of this system of landowning continued into the 20th century as some of the feudal rents continued to be collected. The system was finally abolished when the last residual rents were repurchased through a system of Quebec provincial bonds. In 1935, the Quebec Parliament voted a law repealing seigneurial tenure and setting up a commission in charge of ensuring that the lords, before November 11, 1936, receive payment of the capital represented by the rents to be perceived. This system was known as the "Syndicat national du rachat des rentes seigneuriales" (SNRRS) (loosely translated as the "National Union for the redemption of seigneurial rents"). Many censitaires continued to pay the annual rent even after the passage of the 1854 law repealling the system, and the SNRRS was founded to finally roll-up the system.
The stated roll of the SNRRS was "facilitate the release of all lands or lots of land annuities who replaced manorial rights". The system was promoted by Télesphore-Damien Bouchard, the Liberal deputy and mayor of Saint-Hyacinthe, who stated that "a very large number of censitaires have not yet redeemed [bought back] for over the seventy years that they have been able to do so [since the passage of the 1854 law]" and they must " make an annual pilgrimage to pay [the annuities], very often, to a stranger who has acquired rights originally belonging to our ancestral families". These former censitaires were however not entirely finished with these annuities as it would fall upon the municipalities to take over the process by levying a new tax (called special or seigneurial tax) equivalent to what was still owed to the creditors/lords. The Act of 1935 transformed the amount due under the 1854 Act, in an amount equal to the capital. This amount could be paid in a lump sum or in up to 41 annual installments of the same amount as that of the old annuity. The annual payment would then serve to reduce the total amount owing, without further expenditures for either the censitaire or the government. Some examples of the situation: For a land of four and a half acres (1.5 hectare) in size, located in Courville on the territory of the lordship of Beauport, Bernard Philemon owes a capital of $5.00 or an annual rente of 0.30 cents. For neighboring land, totaling 10 acres (3.4 hectares), Edmond-François Grenier pays 0.60 cents annually on a capital of $10.00.
The work of the SNRRS was briefly on hiatus from 1936-1940 during the government of the Union Nationale. Taken up again in 1940, the work of the SNRRS was taken up again the provincial Liberal government in 1940; the SNRRS was to determine what remains of the lord / censitaire relationship in the province, and to answer two questions "Who owns what?" and "Who gets what?". This was to be a complex issue because, since 1854, many lords and their descendants were relieved of their rights to accrued benefits to the profit of third parties. This task was given to a team of two notaries to determine which were claims were legitimate, and the actual amount to be paid under the 1935 law. Seigneurs were to provide proof of ownership or transfer of their rights under the 1854 Act. Compared to the situation of the short cadastre (survey) of 1854, it was determined that annuities owed amount to no more than 25% of the original amount owed by the censitaires overall. Some had not been paid since the 19th Century. To rectify the situation for once and all, the SNRRS issued an edict dated September 15, 1940 stating that whatever was due no later than November 11 of that year was to be paid directly to the Lord as before. Any amount owing after that date would be paid to the municipality.
The amounts paid to the various municipalities were unequal as they did not directly correspond with the boundaries of the former seigneuries. Many municipalities allowed a lump sum payment of the amount owing, rather than impose a small annual tax over the 41 years as permitted. The final installment paid to the SNRRS by the municipalities was made eleven years earlier than planned, on November 11, 1970 instead of November 11, 1981, due to an apparently effective management of the system.
Remnants of the seigneurial system can be seen today in maps and satellite imagery (also changes can be seen) of Quebec, with the characteristic "long lot" land system still forming the basic shape of current farm fields and clearings, as well as being reflected in the historic county boundaries along the St. Lawrence River. This form of land use can also be seen in such images of Louisiana, which also was founded as a French colony with somewhat similar agricultural patterns. Also, this form of land use can be seen along the Red River in southern Manitoba, where the Metis settled before Manitoba became a Canadian province.
The work of the SNRRS can be evaluated by reviewing the fonds given in 1975 by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs (which looked after the SNRRS) to the Quebec National Archives. These documents constitute an amount equal to 20.5 meters of textual records.
A comparable seigneurial system was the patroon system of heritable land established by the Dutch West India Company. The company granted seigneurial powers to the "patrons", who paid for the transport of settlers in New Netherland. The system was not abolished by the British when they took possession of the Dutch holdings.
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