William Bennett Munro.

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favourable notice of the minister, with the suggestion
that it should receive suitable acknowledgment. Two years
later this recognition came in the form of a royal decree
which elevated the seigneury of Longueuil to the dignity
of a barony, and made its owner the Baron de Longueuil.
In recounting the services rendered to the colony by the
new baron the patent mentioned that 'he has already
erected at his own cost a fort supported by four strong
towers of stone and masonry, with a guard-house, several
large dwellings, a fine church bearing all the insignia
of nobility, a spacious farmyard in which there is a
barn, a stable, a sheep-pen, a dovecote, and other
buildings, all of which are within the area of the said
fort; next to which stands a banal mill, a fine brewery
of masonry, together with a large retinue of servants,
horses, and equipages, the cost of which buildings amount
to sixty thousand livres; so much so that this seigneury
is one of the most valuable in the whole country.' The
population of Longueuil, in the census returns of 1698,
is placed at two hundred and twenty-three.

The new honour spurred its recipient to even greater
efforts; he became one of the first gentlemen of the
colony, served a term as lieutenant-governor at Montreal,
and, going into battle once more, was killed in action
near Saratoga in the expedition of 1729. The barony
thereupon passed to his son, the third Charles Le Moyne,
born in 1687, who lived until 1755, and was for a time
administrator of the colony. His son, the third baron,
was killed during the Seven Years' War in the operations
round Lake George, and the title passed, in the absence
of direct male heirs, to his only daughter, Marie Le
Moyne de Longueuil who, in 1781, married Captain David
Alexander Grant of the 94th British regiment. Thus the
old dispensation linked itself with the new. The eldest
son of this marriage became fifth Baron de Longueuil in
1841. Since that date the title has been borne by
successive generations in the same family.

Of all the titles of honour, great and small, which the
French crown granted to the seigneurs of Old Canada, that
of the Baron de Longueuil is the only one now legally
recognized in the Dominion. After the conquest the
descendants of Charles Le Moyne maintained that, having
promised to respect the ancient land tenures, the new
British suzerains were under obligation to recognize
Longueuil as a barony. It was not, however, until 1880
that a formal request for recognition was made to Her
Majesty Queen Victoria. The matter was, of course,
submitted to the law officers of the crown, and their
decision ruled the claim to be well grounded. By royal
proclamation, accordingly, the rank and title of Charles
Colmore Grant, seventh Baron de Longueuil, were formally
recognized. [Footnote: The royal recognition was officially
promulgated as follows: 'The Queen has been graciously
pleased to recognize the right of Charles Colmore Grant,
Esquire, to the title of Baron de Longueuil, of Longueuil,
in the province of Quebec, Canada. This title was conferred
on his ancestor, Charles Le Moyne, by letters-patent of
nobility signed by King Louis XIV in the year 1700.'-
(London Gazette, December 7, 1880.)]

The barony of Longueuil at one time included an area of
about one hundred and fifty square miles, much of it
heavily timbered and almost all fit for cultivation. The
thriving towns of Longueuil and St Johns grew up within
its limits in the century following the conquest. As
population increased, much of the land was sold into
freehold; and when the seigneurial system was abolished
in 1854 what had not been sold was entailed. An entailed
estate, though not now of exceeding great value, it still

No family of New France maintained more steadily its
favourable place in the public view than the house of
Longueuil. The sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons of
the Dieppe innkeeper's boy were leaders of action in
their respective generations. Soldiers, administrators,
and captains of industry, they contributed their full
share to the sum of French achievement, alike in war and
peace. By intermarriage also the Le Moynes of Longueuil
connected themselves with other prominent families of
French Canada, notably those of Beaujeu, Lanaudiere, and
Gaspe. Unlike most of the colonial noblesse, they were
well-to-do from the start, and the barony of Longueuil
may be rightly regarded as a good illustration of what
the seigneurial system could accomplish at its best.

These three seigneurs, Hebert, La Durantaye, and Le Moyne,
represent three different, yet not so very dissimilar
types of landed pioneer. Hebert, the man of humble birth
and limited attainments, made his way to success by
unremitting personal labour under great discouragements.
He lived and died a plain citizen. He had less to show
for his life-work than the others, perhaps; but in those
swaddling days of the colony's history his task was
greater. Morel de la Durantaye, the man-at-arms, well
born and bred, took his seigneurial rank as a matter of
course, and his duties without much seriousness. His
seigneury had his attention only when opportunities for
some more exciting field of action failed to present
themselves. Interesting figure though he was - an excellent
type of a hundred others - it was well for the colony that
not all its seigneurs were like him in temperament and
ways. Le Moyne, the nearest Canadian approach to the
seigneur of Old France in the days before the Revolution,
combined the best qualities of the other two. There was
plenty of red blood in his veins, and to some of his
progeny went more of it than was good for them. He was
ready with his sword when the occasion called. An arm
shot off by an Iroquois flintlock in 1687 gave him through
life a grim reminder of his combative habits in early
days. But warfare was only an avocation; the first fruits
of the land absorbed his main interest throughout the
larger part of his days. Each of these men had others
like him, and the peculiar circumstances of the colony
found places for them all. The seigneurs of Old Canada
did not form a homogeneous class; men of widely differing
tastes and attainments were included among them. There
were workers and drones; there were men who made a signal
success as seigneurs, and others who made an utter failure.
But taken as a group there was nothing very commonplace
about them, and it is to her two hundred seigneurs or
thereabouts that New France owes much of the glamour that
marks her tragic history.



In its attitude toward the seigneurs the crown was always
generous. The seigneuries were large, and from the
seigneurs the king asked no more than that they should
help to colonize their grants with settlers. It was
expected, in turn, that the seigneurs would show a like
spirit in all dealings with their dependants. Many of
them did; but some did not. On the whole, however, the
habitants who took farms within the seigneuries fared
pretty well in the matter of the feudal dues and services
demanded from them. Compared with the seigneurial tenantry
of Old France their obligations were few in number, and
imposed almost no burden at all.

This is a matter upon which a great deal of nonsense has
been written by English writers on the early history of
Canada, most of whom have been able to see nothing but
the spectre of paternalism in every domain of colonial
life. It is quite true, as Tocqueville tells us, that
the physiognomy of a government can be best judged in
its colonies, for there its merits and faults appear as
through a microscope. But in Canada it was the merits
rather than the faults of French feudalism which came to
the front in bold relief. There it was that seigneurial
polity put its best foot forward. It showed that so long
as defence was of more importance than opulence the
institution could fully justify its existence. Against
the seigneurial system as such no element in the population
of New France ever raised, so far as the records attest,
one word of protest during the entire period of French
dominion. The habitants, as every shred of reliable
contemporary evidence goes to prove, were altogether
contented with the terms upon which they held their lands,
and thought only of the great measure of freedom from
burdens which they enjoyed as compared with their friends
at home. To speak of them as 'slaves to the corvees and
unpaid military service, debarred from education and
crammed with gross fictions as an aid to their docility
and their value as food for powder,' [Footnote: A. G.
Bradley, The fight with France for North America (London,
1905, p. 388).] is to display a rare combination of
hopeless bigotry and crass ignorance. The habitant of
the old regime in Canada was neither a slave nor a serf;
neither down-trodden nor maltreated; neither was he docile
and spineless when his own rights were at issue. So often
has all this been shown that it is high time an end were
made of these fictions concerning the woes of Canadian
folk-life in the days before the conquest.

We have ample testimony concerning the relations of
seigneur and habitant in early Canada, and it comes from
many quarters. First of all there are the title-deeds of
lands, thousands of which have been preserved in the
various notarial archives. It ought to be explained, in
passing, that when a seigneur wished to make a grant of
land the services of a notary were enlisted. Notaries
were plentiful; the census of 1681 enumerated twenty-four
of them in a population of less than ten thousand. The
notary made his documents in the presence of the parties,
had them signed, witnessed, and sealed with due formality.
The seigneur kept one copy, the habitant another, and
the notary kept the original. In the course of time,
therefore, each notary accumulated quite a collection or
cadastre of legal records which he kept carefully. At
his death they were passed over to the general registry,
or office of the greffier, at Quebec. In general the
notaries were men of rather meagre education; their work
on deeds and marriage settlements was too often very
poorly done, and lawsuits were all the more common in
consequence. But the colony managed to get along with
this system of conveyancing, crude and undependable as
it was.

In the title-deeds of lands granted by the seigneurs to
the habitants the situation and area are first set forth.
The grants were of all shapes and sizes. As a rule,
however, they were in the form of a parallelogram, with
the shorter end fronting the river and the longer side
extending inland. The usual river frontage was from five
to ten lineal arpents, and the depth ranged from ten to
eighty arpents. It should be explained that the arpen de
Paris, in terms of which colonial land measurements were
invariably expressed, served both as a unit of length
and as a unit of area. The lineal arpent was the equivalent
of one hundred and ninety-two English feet. The superficial
arpent, or arpent of area, contained about five-sixths
of an acre. The habitant's customary frontage on the
river was, accordingly, from about a thousand to two
thousand feet, while his farm extended rearwards a distance
of anywhere from under a half-mile to three miles.

This rather peculiar configuration of the farms arose
wholly from the way in which the colony was first settled.
For over a century after the French came to the St Lawrence
all the seigneuries were situated directly on the shores
of the river. This was only natural, for the great waterway
formed the colony's carotid artery, supplying the life-blood
of all New France so far as communications were concerned.
From seigneury to seigneury men traversed it in canoes
or bateaux in summer, and over its frozen surface they
drove by carriole during the long winters. Every one
wanted to be in contact with this main highway, so that
the demand for farms which should have some river frontage,
however small, was brisk from the outset. Near the river
the habitant began his clearing and built his house.
Farther inland, as the lands rose from the shore, was
the pasture; and behind this again lay the still uncleared
woodland. When the colony built its first road, this
thoroughfare skirted the north shore of the St Lawrence,
and so placed an even greater premium on farms contiguous
to the river. It was only after all the best lands with
river frontage had been taken up that settlers resorted
to what was called 'the second range' farther inland.

Now it happened that in thus adapting the shape of grants
to the immediate convenience and caprice of the habitants
a curious handicap was in the long run placed upon
agricultural progress. By the terms of the Custom of
Paris, which was the common law of the colony, all the
children of a habitant's family, male and female, inherited
equal shares of his lands. When, therefore, a farm was
to be divided at its owner's decease each participant in
the division wanted a share in the river frontage. With
large families the rule, it can easily be seen that this
demand could only be met by shredding the farm into mere
ribbons of land with a frontage of only fifty or a hundred
feet and a depth of a mile or more. That was the usual
course pursued; each child had his strip, and either
undertook to get a living out of it or sold his land to
an adjoining heir. In any case, the houses and barns of
the one who came into ownership of these thin oblongs
were always situated at or near the water-front, so that
the work of farming the land necessitated a great deal
of travelling back and forth. Too many of the habitants,
accordingly, got into the habit of spending all their
time on the fields nearest the house and letting the rear
grow wild. The situation militated against proper rotation
of crops, and in many ways proved an obstacle to progress.
The trouble was not that the farms were too small to
afford the family a living. In point of area they were
large enough; but their abnormal shape rendered it
difficult for the habitant to get from them their full
productive power with the rather short season of cultivation
that the climate allowed.

So important a handicap did this situation place upon
the progress of agriculture that in 1744 the governor
and the intendant drew the attention of the home authorities
to it, and urged that some remedy be provided. With simple
faith in the healing power of a royal edict, the king
promptly responded with a decree which ordered that no
habitant should thenceforth build his house and barn on
any plot of land which did not have at least one and
one-half lineal arpents of frontage (about three hundred
feet). Any buildings so erected were to be demolished.
What a crude method of dealing with a problem which had
its roots deep down in the very law and geography of the
colony! But this royal remedy for the ills of New France
went the way of many others. The authorities saw that it
would work no cure, and only one attempt was ever made
to punish those habitants who showed defiance. The
intendant Bigot, in 1748, ordered that some houses which
various habitants had erected at L'Ange-Gardien should
be pulled down, but there was a great hue and cry from
the owners, and the order remained unenforced. The practice
of parcelling lands in the old way continued, and in time
these cotes, as the habitants termed each line of houses
along the river, stretched all the way from Quebec to
Montreal. From the St Lawrence the whole colony looked
like one unending, straggling village-street.

But let us outline the dues and services which the
habitant, by the terms of his title-deed, must render to
his seigneur. First among these were the annual payments
commonly known as the cens et rentes. To the habitant
this was a sort of annual rental, although it was really
made up of two separate dues, each of which had a different
origin and nature. The cens was a money payment and merely
nominal in amount. Back in the early days of feudalism
it was very probably a greater burden; in Canada it never
exceeded a few sous for a whole farm. The rate of cens
was not uniform: each seigneur was entitled to what he
and the habitant might agree upon, but it never amounted
to more than the merest pittance, nor could it ever by
any stretch of the imagination be deemed a burden. With
the cens went the rentes, the latter being fixed in terms
of money, poultry, or produce, or all three combined.
'One fat fowl of the brood of the month of May or twenty
sols (sous) for each lineal arpent of frontage'; or 'one
minot of sound wheat or twenty sols for each arpent of
frontage' is the way in which the obligation finds record
in some title-deeds which are typical of all the rest.
The seigneur had the right to say whether he wanted his
rentes in money or in kind, and he naturally chose the
former when prices were low and the latter when prices
were high.

It is a little difficult to estimate just what the ordinary
habitant paid each year by way of cens et rentes to his
seigneur, but under ordinary conditions the rental would
amount to about ten or twelve sous and a half-dozen
chickens or a bushel of grain for the average farm. Not
a very onerous annual payment for fifty or sixty acres
of land! Yet this was the only annual emolument which
the seigneur of Old Canada drew each year from his
tenantry. With twenty-five allotments in his seigneury
the yearly income would be perhaps thirty or forty livres
if translated into money, that is to say, six or eight
dollars in our currency. Allowing for changes in the
purchasing power of money during the last two hundred
years, a fair idea of the burden placed on the habitant
by his payment of the cens et rentes may be given by
estimating it, in terms of present-day agricultural
rentals, at, say, fifty cents yearly per acre. This is,
of course, a rough estimate, but it conveys an idea that
is approximately correct and, indeed, about as near the
mark as one can come after a study of the seigneurial
system in all its phases. The payment constituted a
burden, and the habitants doubtless would have welcomed
its abolition; but it was not a heavy tax upon their
energies; it was less than the Church demanded from them;
and they made no serious complaints regarding its

The cens et rentes were paid each year on St Martin's
Day, early in November. By that time the harvest had been
flailed and safely stowed away; the poultry had fattened
among the fields of stubble. One and all, the habitants
came to the manor-house to give the seigneur his annual
tribute. Carrioles and celeches filled his yard. Women
and children were brought along, and the occasion became
a neighbourhood holiday. The manor-house was a lively
place throughout the day, the seigneur busily checking
off his lists as the habitants, one after another, drove
in with their grain, their poultry, and their wallets of
copper coins. The men smoked assiduously; so did the
women sometimes. Not infrequently, as the November air
was damp and chill, the seigneur passed his flagon of
brandy among the thirsty brotherhood, and few there were
who allowed this token of hospitality to pass them by.
With their tongues thus loosened, men and women glibly
retailed the neighbourhood gossip and the latest tidings
which had filtered through from Quebec or Montreal. There
was an incessant clatter all day long, to which the
captive fowls, with their feet bundled together but with
throats at full liberty, contributed their noisy share.
As dusk drew near there was a general handshaking, and
the carrioles scurried off along the highway. Every one
called his neighbour a friend, and the people of each
seigneury were as one great family.

The cens et rentes made up the only payment which the
seigneur received each year, but there was another which
became due at intervals. This was the payment known as
the lods et ventes, a mutation fine which the seigneur
had the right to demand whenever a farm changed hands by
sale or by descent, except to direct heirs. One-twelfth
of the value was the seigneur's share, but it was his
custom to rebate one-third of this amount. Lands changed
hands rather infrequently, and in any case the seigneur's
fine was very small. From this source he received but
little revenue and it came irregularly. Only in the days
after the conquest, when land rose in value and transfers
became more frequent, could the lods et ventes be counted
among real sources of seigneurial income.

Then there were the so-termed banalites. In France their
name was legion; no one but a seigneur could own a
grist-mill, wine-press, slaughter-house, or even a dovecot.
The peasant, when he wanted his grain made into flour or
his grapes made into wine, was required to use his
seigneur's mill, or press, and to pay the toll demanded.
This toll was often exorbitant and the service poor. In
Canada, however, there was only one droit de banalite - the
grist-mill right. The Canadian seigneur had the exclusive
milling privilege; his habitants were bound by their
title-deed to bring their grist to his mill, and his
legal toll was one-fourteenth of their grain. This
obligation did not bear heavily on the people of the
seigneuries; most of the complaints concerning it came
rather from the seigneurs, who claimed that the toll was
too small and did not suffice, in the average seigneury,
to pay the wages of the miller. Many seigneurs declined
to build mills until the royal authorities stepped in
with a decree commanding that those who did not do so
should lose their banal right for all time. Then they
bestirred themselves.

The seigneurial mills were not very efficient, from all
accounts. Crude, clumsy, poorly built affairs, they
sometimes did little more than crack the wheat into coarse
meal - it could hardly be called flour. The bakers of
Quebec complained that the product was often unfit to
use. The mills were commonly built in tower-like fashion,
and were at times loop-holed in order that they might be
used if necessary in the defence of seigneuries against
Indian attack. The mill of the Seminary of St Sulpice at
Montreal, for example, was a veritable stronghold, rightly
counted upon as a place of sure refuge for the settlers
in time of need. Racked and decayed by the ravages of
time, some of those old walls still stand in their
loneliness, bearing to an age of smoke-belching industry
their message of more modest achievement in earlier days.
Most of these banal mills were fitted with clumsy
wind-wheels, somewhat after the Dutch fashion. But nature
would not always hearken to the miller's command, and
often for days the habitants stood around with their
grist waiting in patience for the wind to come up and be

Some Canadian seigneurs laid claim to the oven right
(droit de four banal) as well. But the intendant, ever
the tribune of his people, sternly set his foot on this
pretension. In France the seigneur insisted that the
peasantry should bake their bread in the great oven of
the seigneury, paying the customary toll for its use.
But in Canada, as the intendant explained, this arrangement
was utterly impracticable. Through the long months of
winter some of the habitants would have to bring their
dough a half-dozen miles, and it would be frozen on the
way. Each was therefore permitted to have a bake-oven of
his own, and there was, of course, plenty of wood near
by to keep it blazing.

Many allusions have been made, in writings on the old
regime, to the habitant's corvee or obligation to give
his seigneur so many days of free labour in each year.
In France this incident of seigneurial tenure cloaked
some dire abuses. Peasants were harried from their farms
and forced to spend weeks on the lord's domain, while
their own grain rotted in the fields. But there was
nothing of this sort in Canada. Six days of corvee per
year was all that the seigneur could demand; and he
usually asked for only three, that is to say, one day
each in the seasons of ploughing, seedtime, and harvest.
And when the habitant worked for his seigneur in this
way the latter had to furnish him with both food and
tools, a requirement which greatly impaired the value of
corvee labour from the seigneur's point of view. So far
as a painstaking study of the records can disclose, the
corvee obligation was never looked upon as an imposition
of any moment. It was apparently no more generally resented
than is the so-termed statute-labour obligation which
exists among the farming communities of some Canadian

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Online LibraryWilliam Bennett MunroThe Seigneurs of Old Canada : A Chronicle of New World Feudalism → online text (page 5 of 8)