William Bennett Munro.

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provinces at the present day.

As for the other services which the habitant had to render
his seigneur, they were of little importance. When he
caught fish, one fish in every eleven belonged to his
chief. But the seigneur seldom claimed this share, and
received it even less often. The seigneur was entitled
to take stone, sand, and firewood from the land of any
one within his estate; but when he did this it was
customary to give the habitant something of equal value
in return. Few seigneurs of New France ever insisted on
their full pound of flesh in these matters; a generous
spirit of give and take marked most of their dealings
with the men who worked the land.

Then there was the maypole obligation, quaintest among
seigneurial claims. By the terms of their tenure the
habitants of the seigneury were required to appear each
May Day before the main door of the manor-house, and
there to plant a pole in the seigneur's honour.

Le premier jour de mai,
J'm'en fus planter un mai,
A la porte a ma mie.

Bright and early in the morning, as Gaspe tells us, the
whole neighbourhood appeared, decked out fantastically,
and greeted the manor-house with a salvo of blank musketry.
With them they bore a tall fir-tree, its branches cut
and its bark peeled to within a few feet of the top.
There the tuft of greenery remained. The pole, having
been gaudily embellished, was majestically reared aloft
and planted firmly in the ground. Round it the men and
maidens danced, while the seigneur and his family,
enthroned in chairs brought from the manor-house, looked
on with approval. Then came a rattling feu de joie with
shouts of 'Long live the King!' and 'Long live our
seigneur!' This over, the seigneur invited the whole
gathering to refreshments indoors. Brandy and cakes
disappeared with great celerity before appetites whetted
by an hour's exercise in the clear spring air. They drank
to the seigneur's health, and to the health of all his
kin. At intervals some guest would rush out and fire his
musket once again at the maypole, returning for more
hospitality with a sense of duty well performed. Before
noon the merry company, with the usual round of handshaking,
went away again, leaving the blackened pole behind. The
echoes of more musket-shots came back through the valleys
as they passed out of sight and hearing. The seigneur
was more than a mere landlord, as the occasion testified.



The seigneurs of New France were not a privileged order.
Between them and the habitants there was no great gulf
fixed, no social impasse such as existed between the two
classes in France. The seigneur often lived and worked
like a habitant; his home was not a great deal better
than theirs; his daily fare was much the same. The
habitant, on the other hand, might himself become a
seigneur by saving a little money, and this is what
frequently happened. By becoming a seigneur, however, he
did not change his mode of life, but continued to work
as he had done before. There were some, of course, who
took their social rank with great seriousness, and proved
ready to pay out good money for letters-patent giving
them minor titles of nobility. Thus Jacques Le Ber, a
bourgeois of Montreal who made a comfortable fortune out
of the fur trade, bought a seigneury and then acquired
the rank of gentilhomme by paying six thousand livres
for it. But the possession of an empty title, acquired
by purchase or through the influence of official friends
at Quebec, did not make much impression on the masses of
the people. The first citizens in the hearts of the
community were the men of personal courage, talent, and
worldly virtues.

Sur cette terre encor sauvage
Les vieux titres sont inconnus;
La noblesse est dans le courage,
Dans les talents, dans les vertus.

Nevertheless, to be a seigneur was always an honour, for
the manor-house was the recognized social centre of every

The manor-house was not a mansion. Built sometimes of
rough-hewn timber, but more commonly of stone, it was
roomy and comfortable, although not much more pretentious
than the homes of well-to-do habitants. Three or four
rooms on the ground floor with a spacious attic made up
the living quarters. The furniture often came from France,
and its quality gave the whole interior an air of
distinction. As for the habitants, their homes were also
of stone or timber - long and rather narrow structures,
heavily built, and low. They were whitewashed on the
outside with religious punctuality each spring. The eaves
projected over the walls, and high-peaked little dormer
windows thrust themselves from the roof here and there.
The houses stood very near the roadway, with scarcely
ever a grass plot or single shade tree before them. In
midsummer the sun beat furiously upon them; in winter
they stood in all their bleakness full-square to the
blasts that drove across the river.

Behind the house was a storeroom built in 'lean-to'
fashion, and not far away stood the barn and stable, made
usually of timbers laid one upon the other with chinks
securely mortared. Somewhat aloof was the root-house,
half dug in the ground, banked generously with earth
round about and overhead. Within convenient distance of
the house, likewise, was the bake-oven, built of boulders,
mortar, and earth, with the wood-pile near by. Here with
roaring fires once or twice each week the family baking
was done. Round the various buildings ran some sort of
fence, whether of piled stones or rails, and in a corner
of the enclosed plot was the habitant's garden. Viewed
by the traveller who passed along the river this straggling
line of whitewashed structures stood out in bold relief
against the towering background of green hills beyond. The
whole colony formed one long rambling village, each habitant
touching elbows with his neighbour on either side.

Within the habitant's abode there were usually not more
than three regular rooms. The front door opened into a
capacious living room with its great open fireplace and
hearth. This served as dining-room as well. A gaily
coloured woollen carpet or rug, made in the colony,
usually decked the floor. There was a table and a couch;
there were chairs made of pine with seats of woven
underbark, all more or less comfortable. Often a huge
side-board rose from the floor to the low, open-beamed
ceiling. Pictures of saints adorned the walls. A
spinning-wheel stood in the corner, sharing place perhaps
with a musket set on the floor stock downward, but primed
for ready use. Adjoining this room was the kitchen with
its fireplace for cooking, its array of pots and dishes,
its cupboards, shelves, and other furnishings. All of
these latter the habitant and his sons made for themselves.
The economic isolation of the parish made its people
versatile after their own crude fashion. The habitant
was a handy man, getting pretty good results from the
use of rough material and tools. Even at the present day
his descendants retain much of this facility. At the
opposite end of the house was a bedroom. Upstairs was
the attic, so low that one could scarcely stand upright
in any part of it, but running the full length and breadth
of the house. Here the children, often a round dozen of
them, were stowed at night. A shallow iron bowl of tallow
with a wick protruding gave its dingy light. Candles were
not unknown, but they were a luxury. Every one went to
bed when darkness came on, for there was nothing else to
do. Windows were few, and to keep out the cold they were
tightly battened down. The air within must have been
stifling; but, as one writer has suggested, the habitant
and his family got along without fresh air in his dwelling
just as his descendant of to-day manages to get along
without baths.

For the most part the people of Old Canada were comfortably
clothed and well fed. Warm cloth of drugget - etoffe du
pays, as it was called - came from the hand-looms of every
parish. It was all wool and stood unending wear. It was
cheap, and the women of the household fashioned it into
clothes. Men, women, and children alike wore it in everyday
use; but on occasions of festivity they liked to appear
in their brighter plumage of garments brought from France.
In the summer the children went nearly unclothed and
bare-footed always. A single garment without sleeves and
reaching to the knees was all that covered their nakedness.
In winter every one wore furs outdoors. Beaver skins were
nearly as cheap as cloth, and the wife of the poorest
habitant could have a winter wardrobe that it would
nowadays cost a small fortune to provide. Heavy clogs
made of hide - the bottes sauvages as they were called - or
moccasins of tanned and oiled skins, impervious to the
wet, were the popular footwear in winter and to some
extent in summer as well. They were laced high up above
the ankles, and with a liberal supply of coarse-knitted
woollen socks the people managed to trudge anywhere
without discomfort even in very cold weather. Plaited
straw hats were made by the women for ordinary summer
use, but hats of beaver, made in the fashion of the day,
were always worn on dress occasions. Every man wore one
to Mass each Sunday morning. In winter the knitted cap
or toque was the favourite. Made in double folds of
woollen yarn with all the colours of the rainbow, it
could be drawn down over the ears as a protection from
the cold; with its tassel swinging to and fro this toque
was worn by everybody, men, women, and children alike.
Attached to the coat was often a hood, known as a capuchin,
which might be pulled over the toque as an additional
head-covering on a journey through the storm. Knitted
woollen gloves were also made at home, likewise mitts of
sheepskin with the wool left inside. The apparel of the
people was thus adapted to their environment, and besides
being somewhat picturesque it was thoroughly comfortable.

The daily fare of New France was not of limitless variety,
but it was nourishing and adequate. Bread made from wheat
flour and cakes made from ground maize were plentiful.
Meat and fish were within the reach of all. Both were
cured by smoke after the Indian fashion and could be kept
through the winter without difficulty. Vegetables of
various kinds were grown, but peas were the great staple.
Peas were to the French what maize was to the redskin.
In every rural home soupe aux pois came daily to the
table. Whole families were reared to vigorous manhood on
it. Even to-day the French Canadian has not by any means
lost his liking for this nourishing and palatable food.
Beans, too, were a favourite vegetable in the old days;
not the tender haricots of the modern menu, but the feves
or large, tough-fibred beans that grew in Normandy and
were brought by its people to the New World. There were
potatoes, of course, and they were patates, not pommes
de terre. Cucumbers were plentiful, indeed they were
being grown by the Indians when the French first came to
the St Lawrence. As they were not indigenous to that
region it is for others than the student of history to
explain how they first came there. Fruits there were
also, such as apples, plums, cherries, and French
gooseberries, but not in abundance. Few habitants had
orchards, but most of them had one or two fruit-trees
grown from seedlings which came from France. Wild fruits,
especially raspberries, cranberries, and grapes, were to
be had for the picking, and the younger members of each
family gathered them all in season. Even in the humbler
homes of the land there was no need for any one to go
hungry. More than one visitor to the colony, indeed, was
impressed by the rude comfort in which the habitants
lived. 'The boors of these manours,' wrote the voluble
La Hontan, [Footnote: Louis Armand, Baron La Hontan, came
to Canada in 1683, and lived for some time among the
habitants of Beaupre, below Quebec, and afterwards in
the neighbourhood of Montreal. He also journeyed in the
Far West and wrote a fantastic account of his travels,
of which an English edition was published in 1703.] 'live
with greater comfort than an infinity of the gentry in
France.' And for once he was probably right.

As for drink, there were both tea and coffee to be had
from the traders; but they were costly and not in very
general use. Milk was cheap and plentiful. Brandy and
wine came from France in shiploads, but brandy was largely
used in the Indian trade, and wine appeared only on the
tables of the well-to-do; the ordinary habitant could
not afford it save on state occasions. Cheap beer, brewed
in the colony, was within easier range of his purse.
There were several breweries in the colony, although they
do not appear to have been very profitable to their
owners. Home-brewed ale was much in use. When duly aged
it made a fine beverage, although insidious in its effects
sometimes. But no guest ever came to any colonial home
without a proffer of something to drink. Hospitality
demanded it. The habitant, as a rule, was very fond of
the flagon. Very often, as the records of the day lead
us to believe, he drank not wisely but too well. Idleness
had a hand in the development of this trait, for in the
long winters the habitant had little to do but visit his

The men of New France smoked a great deal, and the women
sometimes followed their example. Children learned to
smoke before they learned to read or write. Tobacco was
grown in the colony, and every habitant had a patch of
it in his garden; and then as now this tabac canadien
was fierce stuff with an odour that scented the whole
seigneury. The art of smoking a pipe was one of the first
lessons which the Frenchman acquired from his Indian
friends, and this became the national solace through the
long spells of idleness. Such as it was, the tobacco of
the colony was no luxury, for every one could grow enough
and to spare to serve his wants. The leaves were set in
the sun to cure, and were then put away till needed.

As to the methods of farming, neither the contemporary
records nor the narratives of travel tell us much. But
it is beyond doubt that the habitant was not a very
scientific cultivator. Catalogne remarks in his valuable
report that if the fields of France were cultivated like
the farms of Canada three-fourths of the people would
starve. Fertilization of the land was rare. All that was
usually done in this direction was to burn the stubble
in the spring before the land went under the plough.
Rotation of crops was practically unknown. A portion of
each farm was allowed to lie fallow once in a while, but
as these fallow fields were rarely ploughed and weeds
might grow without restraint, the rest from cultivation
was of little value. Even the cultivated fields were
ploughed but once a year and rather poorly at that, for
the land was ploughed in ridges and there was a good deal
of waste between the furrows. When Peter Kalm, the famous
Scandinavian naturalist and traveller, paid his visit to
the colony in 1748 he found 'white wheat most commonly
in the fields.' But oats, rye, and barley were also grown.
Some of the habitants grew maize in great quantities,
while nearly all raised vegetables of various sorts,
chiefly cabbages, pumpkins, and coarse melons. Some gave
special attention to the cultivation of flax and hemp.
The meadows of the St Lawrence valley were very fertile,
and far superior, in Kalm's opinion, to those of the New
England colonies; they furnished fodder in abundance.
Wild hay could be had for the cutting, and every habitant
had his conical stack of it on the river marshes. Hence
the raising of cattle and horses became an important
branch of colonial husbandry. The cattle and sheep were
of inferior breed, undersized, and not very well cared
for. The horses were much better. The habitant had a
particular fondness for horses; even the poorest tried
to keep two or three. This, as Catalogne pointed out,
was a gross extravagance, for there was no work for the
horses to do during nearly half the year.

The implements of agriculture were as crude as the methods.
Most of them were made in the colony out of inferior
materials and with poor workmanship. Kalm saw no drains
in any part of the colony, although, as he naively
remarked, 'they seemed to be much needed in places.' The
fields were seldom fenced, and the cattle often made
their way among the growing grain. The women usually
worked with the men, especially at harvest time, for
extra labour was scarce. Even the wife and daughters of
the seigneur might be seen in the fields during the busy
season. Each habitant had a clumsy, wooden-wheeled cart
or wagon for workaday use. In this he trundled his produce
to town once or twice a year. For pleasure there was the
celeche and the carriole. The celeche was a quaint
two-wheeled vehicle with its seat set high in the air on
springs of generous girth; the carriole, a low-set sleigh
on solid wooden runners, with a high back to give protection
from the cold. Both are still used in various parts of
Quebec to-day. The habitant made his own harness, often
decorating it gaily and taking great pride in his

The feudal folk of New France did not spend all their
time or energies in toil. They had numerous holidays and
times of recreation. Loyal to his Church, the habitant
kept every jour de fete with religious precision. These
days came frequently, so much so, according to Catalogne's
report, that during the whole agricultural season from
May to October, only ninety clear days were left for
labour. On these numerous holidays were held the various
festivals, religious or secular. Sunday, also, was a day
of general rendezvous. Every one came to Mass, whatever
the weather. After the service various announcements were
made at the church door by the local capitaine de la
milice, who represented the civil government in the
parish. Then the rest of the day was given over to visiting
and recreation. There was plenty of time, moreover, for
hunting and fishing; and the average habitant did both
to his heart's content. In the winter there was a great
deal of visiting back and forth among neighbours, even
on week-days. Dancing was a favourite diversion and
card-playing also. Gambling at cards was more common
among the people than suited either the priests or the
civil authorities, as the records often attest. Less
objectionable amusements were afforded by the corvees
recreatives or gatherings at a habitant's home for some
combination of work and play. The corn-husking corvee,
for reasons which do not need elucidation, was of course
the most popular of these. Of study or reading there was
very little, for only a very small percentage of the
people could read. Save for a few manuals of devotion
there were no books in the home, and very few anywhere
in the colony.

Two or three chroniclers of the day have left us pen-
pictures of the French Canadians as they were before the
English came. As a race, Giles Hocquart says, they were
physically strong, well set-up, with plenty of stamina.
They impressed La Hontan also as vigorous and untiring
at anything that happened to gain their interest. They
were fond of honours and sensitive to the slightest
affront. This in part accounts for their tendency to
litigiousness, which various intendants mentioned with
regret. The habitant went to law with his neighbour at
every opportunity. His attitude toward questions of public
policy was one of rare self-control; but when anything
touched his own personal interests he always waxed warm
immediately. Pretexts for squabbling there were in plenty.
With lands unfenced and cattle wandering about, with most
deeds and other legal documents loosely drawn, with too
much time on their hands during the winter, it is not
surprising that the people were continually falling out
and rushing to the nearest royal court. The intendant
Raudot suggested that this propensity should be curbed,
otherwise there would soon be more lawsuits than settlers
in the colony.

On the whole, however, the habitant was well behaved and
gave the authorities very little trouble. To the Church
of his fathers he gave ungrudging devotion, attending
its services and paying its tithes with exemplary care.
The Church was a great deal to the habitant; it was his
school, his hospital, his newspaper, his philosopher
telling of things present and things to come. From a
religious point of view the whole colony was a unit.
'Thank God,' wrote one governor, 'there are no heretics
here.' The Church, needing to spend no time or thought
in crushing its enemies, could give all its attention to
its friends. As for offences against the laws of the land
these were conspicuously few. The banks of the St Lawrence,
when once the redskin danger was put out of the way, were
quite safe for men to live upon. The hand of justice was
swift and sure, but its intervention was not very often
needed. New France was as law-abiding as New England;
her people were quite as submissive to their leaders in
both Church and State.

The people were fond of music, and seem to have obtained
great enjoyment from their rasping, home-made violins.
Every parish had its fiddler. But the popular repertoire
was not very extensive. The Norman airs and folk-songs
of the day were easy to learn, simple and melodious. They
have remained in the hearts and on the lips of all French
Canada for over two centuries. The shantyman of Three
Rivers still goes off to the woods chanting the Malbrouck
s'en va-t-en guerre which his ancestors sang in the days
of Blenheim and Oudenarde. Many other traits of the race
have been borne to the present time with little change.
Then as now the habitant was a voluble talker, a teller
of great stories about his own feats and experiences.
Hocquart was impressed with the scant popular regard for
the truth in such things, and well he may have been. Even
to-day this trait has not wholly disappeared.

Unlike his prototype, the censitaire of Old France, the
habitant never became dispirited; even when things went
wrong he retained his bonhomie. Taking too little thought
for the morrow, he liked, as Charlevoix remarks, 'to get
the fun out of his money, and scarcely anybody amused
himself by hoarding it.' He was light-hearted even to
frivolousness, and this gave the austere Church fathers
many serious misgivings. He was courteous always, but
boastful, and regarded his race as the salt of the earth.
A Norman in every bone of his body, he used, as his
descendants still do, quaint Norman idioms and forms of
speech. He was proud of his ancestry. Stories that went
back to the days when 'twenty thousand thieves landed at
Hastings' were passed along from father to son, gaining
in terms of prodigious valour as they went. His versatility
gained him the friendship and confidence of the Indian,
an advantage which his English brother to the south was
rarely able to secure.

Much of the success which marked French diplomacy with
the tribes was due to this versatility. Beneath an ungainly
exterior the habitant often concealed a surprising ability
in certain lines of action. He was a master of blandishment
when he had an end thereby to gain. Dealings which required
duplicity, provided the outcome appeared to be desirable,
did not rudely shock his conscience. He had no Puritan
scruples in his dealings with men of another race and
religion. But in many things he had a high sense of
honour, and nothing roused his ire so readily as to
question it. Unstable as water, however, he did not excel
in tasks that took patience. He wanted to plough one day
and hunt the next, so that in the long run he rarely did
anything well. This spirit of independence was very
pronounced. The habitant felt himself to be a free man.
This is why he spurned the name 'censitaire.' As Charlevoix
puts it, 'he breathed from his birth the air of liberty,'
and showed it in the way he carried his head. A singular
type, when all is said, and worthy of more study than it
has received.



Church and State had a common aim in early Canada. Both
sought success, not for themselves, but for 'the greater
glory of God.' From beginning to end, therefore, the
Catholic Church was a staunch ally of the civil authorities
in all things which made for real and permanent colonial
progress. There were many occasions, of course, when
these two powers came almost to blows, for each had its
own interpretation of what constituted the colony's best
interests. But historians have given too much prominence

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Online LibraryWilliam Bennett MunroThe Seigneurs of Old Canada : A Chronicle of New World Feudalism → online text (page 6 of 8)