William Bennett Munro.

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to these rather brief intervals of antagonism, and have
thereby created a misleading impression. The civil and
religious authorities of New France were not normally at
variance. They clashed fiercely now and then, it is quite
true; but during the far greater portion of two centuries
they supported each other firmly and worked hand in hand.

Now the root of all trouble, when these two interests
came into ill-tempered controversy, was the conduct of
the coureurs de bois. These roving traders taught the
savages all the vices of French civilization in its most
degenerate days. They debauched the Indian with brandy,
swindled him out of his furs, and entered into illicit
relations with the women of the tribes. They managed in
general to convince the aborigines that all Frenchmen
were dishonest and licentious. That the representatives
of the Most Christian King should tolerate such conduct
could not be regarded by the Church as anything other
than plain malfeasance in office.

The Church in New France was militant, and in its vanguard
of warriors was the Jesuit missionary. Members of the
Society of Jesus first came to Quebec in 1625; others
followed year by year and were sent off to establish
their outposts of religion in the wilderness. They were
men of great physical endurance and unconquerable will.
The Jesuit went where no others dared to go; he often
went alone, and always without armed protection.

Behold him on his way; his breviary
Which from his girdle hangs, his only shield.
That well-known habit is his panoply,
That Cross the only weapon he will wield;
By day he bears it for his staff afield,
By night it is the pillow of his bed.
No other lodging these wild woods can yield
Than Earth's hard lap, and rustling overhead
A canopy of deep and tangled boughs far spread.

It is not strange that the Jesuit father should have
disliked the traders. A single visit from these rough
and lawless men would undo the spiritual labour of years.
How could the missionary enforce his lessons of
righteousness when men of his own race so readily gave
the lie to all his teachings? The missionaries accordingly
complained to their superiors in poignant terms, and
these in turn hurled their thunderbolts of excommunication
against all who offended. But the trade was profitable,
and Mammon continued, as in all ages, to retain his corps
of ardent disciples. Religion and trade never became
friendly in New France, nor could they ever become friendly
so long as the Church stood firmly by its ancient tradition
as a friend of law and order.

With agriculture, however, religion was on better terms.
Men who stayed on their farms and tilled the soil might
be grouped into parishes, their lands could be made to
yield the tithe, their spiritual needs might readily be
ministered unto. Hence it became the policy of the Church
to support the civil authorities in getting lands cleared
for settlement, in improving the methods of cultivation,
and in strengthening the seigneurial system at every
point. This support the hierarchy gave in various ways,
by providing cures for outlying seigneuries, by helping
to bring peasant farmers from France, by using its
influence to promote early marriages, and above all by
setting an example before the people in having progressive
agriculture on Church lands.

Both directly and through its dependent organizations
the Catholic Church became the largest single landholder
of New France. As early as 1626 the Jesuits received
their first grant of land, the concession of Notre-Dame
des Anges, near Quebec; and from that date forward the
order received at intervals large tracts in various parts
of the colony. Before the close of French dominion in
Canada it had acquired a dozen estates, comprising almost
a million arpents of land. This was about one-eighth of
the entire area given out in seigneuries. Its two largest
seigneurial estates were Batiscan and Cap de la Magdelaine;
but Notre-Dame des Anges and Sillery, though smaller in
area, were from their closeness to Quebec of much greater
value. The king appreciated the work of the Jesuits in
Canada, and would gladly have contributed from the royal
funds to its furtherance. But as the civil projects of
the colony took a great deal of money, he was constrained,
for the most part, to show his appreciation of religious
enterprise by grants of land. As land was plentiful his
bounty was lavish - sometimes a hundred thousand arpents
at a time.

Next to the Jesuits as sharers of the royal generosity
came the bishop and the Quebec seminary, with a patrimony
of nearly seven hundred thousand arpents, an accumulation
which was largely the work of Francois de Laval, first
bishop of Quebec and founder of the seminary. The Sulpicians
had, at the time the colony passed into English hands,
an estate of about a quarter of a million arpents,
including the most valuable seigneury of New France, on
the island of Montreal. The Ursulines of Quebec and of
Three Rivers possessed about seventy-five thousand arpents,
while other orders and institutions, a half-dozen in all,
had estates of varying acreage. Directly under its control
the Church had thus acquired in mortmain over two million
arpents, while the lay landowners of the colony had
secured only about three times as much. It held about
one-quarter of all the granted lands, so that its position
in Canada was relatively much stronger than in France.

These lands came from the king or his colonial
representatives by royal patent. They were given sometimes
in frankalmoigne or sometimes as ordinary seigneuries.
The distinction was of little account however, for when
land once went into the 'dead hand' it was likely to stay
there for all time. The Church and its institutions, as
seigneurs of the land, granted farms to habitants on the
usual terms, gave them their deeds duly executed by a
notary, received their annual dues, and assumed all the
responsibilities of a lay seigneur. And as a rule the
Church made a good seigneur. Settlers were brought out
from France, and a great deal of care was taken in
selecting them. They were aided, encouraged, and supported
through the trying years of pioneering. As early as 1667
Laval was able to point with pride to the fact that his
seigneuries of Beaupre and Isle d'Orleans contained over
eleven hundred persons - more than one-quarter of the
colony's entire population. These ecclesiastical
seigneuries, moreover, were among the best in point of
intelligent cultivation. With funds and knowledge at its
disposal, the Church was better able than the ordinary
lay seigneur to provide banal mills and means of
communication. These seigneuries were therefore kept in
the front rank of agricultural progress, and the example
which they set before the eyes of the people must have
been of great value.

The seigneurial system was also strengthened by the fact
that the boundaries of seigneuries and parishes were
usually the same. The chief reason for this is that the
parish system was not created until most of the seigneuries
had been settled. There were parishes, so-termed, in the
colony from the very first; but not until 1722 was the
entire colony set off into parish divisions. Forty-one
parishes were created in the Quebec district; thirteen
in the district of Three Rivers; and twenty-eight in the
region round Montreal. These eighty-two parishes were
roughly coterminous with the existing seigneuries, but
not always so. Some few seigneuries had six or eight
parishes within their bounds. In other cases, two or
three seigneuries were merged into a single great parish.
In the main, however, the two units of civil and spiritual
power were alike.

From this identification of the parish and seigneury came
some interesting results. The seigneurial church became
the parish church; where no church had been provided the
manor-house was commonly used as a place of worship. Not
infrequently the parish cure took up his abode in the
seigneur's home and the two grew to be firm friends, each
aiding the other with the weight of his own special
authority and influence. The whole system of neighbourhood
government, as the late Abbe Casgrain once pointed out,
was based upon the authority of two men, the cure and
the seigneur, 'who walked side by side and extended mutual
help to each other. The censitaire, who was at the same
time parishioner, had his two rallying-points - the church
and the manor-house. The interests of the two were
identical.' From this close alliance with the parish the
seigneurial system naturally derived a great deal of its
strong hold upon the people, for their fidelity to the
priest was reflected in loyalty to the seigneur who ranked
as his chief local patron and protector.

The people of the seigneuries paid a tithe or ecclesiastical
tax for the support of their parish church. In origin,
as its name implies, this payment amounted to one-tenth
of the land's annual produce; but in New France the tithe
was first fixed in 1663 at one-thirteenth, but in 1679
this was reduced to one twenty-sixth. At this figure it
has remained to the present day. Tithes were at the outset
levied on every product of the soil or of the handiwork
of man; but in practice they were collected on grain
crops only. When the habitants of New France began to
raise flax, hemp, and tobacco some of the priests insisted
that these products should yield tithes also; but the
Superior Council at Quebec ruled against this claim, and
the king, on appeal, confirmed the council's decision.
The Church collected its dues with strictness; the cures
frequently went into the fields and estimated the total
crop of each farm, so that they might later judge whether
any habitant had held back the Church's due portion.
Tithes were usually paid at Michaelmas, everything being
delivered to the cure at his own place of abode. When he
lived with the seigneur the tithes and seigneurial dues
were paid together. But the total of the tithes collected
during any year of the old regime was not large. In 1700
they amounted in value to about five thousand livres, a
sum which did not support one-tenth of the colony's body
of priests. By far the larger part of the necessary funds
had to be provided by generous friends of the Church in

Churches were erected in the different seigneuries by
funds and labour secured in various ways. Sometimes the
bishop obtained money from France, sometimes the seigneur
provided it, sometimes the habitants collected it among
themselves. More often a part of what was necessary came
from each of these three sources. Except in the towns,
however, the churches were not pretentious in their
architecture, and rarely cost much money. Stone, timber,
and other building materials were taken freely from the
lands of the seigneury, and the work of construction was
usually performed by the parishioners themselves. As a
result the edifices were rather ungainly as a rule, being
built of rough-hewn timber. In 1681 there were only seven
stone churches in all the seigneuries, and the royal
officers deplored the fact that the people did not display
greater pride or taste in the architecture of their
sanctuaries. Bishop Laval felt strongly that this was
discreditable, and steadfastly refused to perform the
ceremony of consecration in any church which had not been
substantially built of stone.

Where a seigneur erected a church at his own expense it
was customary to let him have the patronage, or right of
naming the priest. This was an honour which the seigneurs
seem to have valued highly. 'Every one here is puffed up
with the greatest vanity,' wrote the intendant Duchesneau
in 1681; 'there is not one but pretends to be a patron
and wants the privilege of naming a cure for his lands,
yet they are heavily in debt and in extreme poverty.'
None of the great bishops of New France - Laval, St Vallier,
or Pontbriand - had much sympathy with this seigneurial
right of patronage or advowson, and each did what he
could to break down the custom. In the end they succeeded;
the bishop named the priest of every parish, although in
many cases he sought the seigneur's counsel on such

In the church of his seigneury the lord of the manor
continued, however, to have various other prerogatives.
For his use a special pew was always provided, and an
elaborate decree, issued in 1709, set forth precisely
where this pew should be. In religious processions the
seigneur was entitled to precedence over all other laymen
of the parish, taking his place directly behind the cure.
He was the first to receive the tokens of the day on
occasions of religious festival, as for example the palms
on Palm Sunday. And when he died, the seigneur was entitled
to interment beneath the floor of the church, a privilege
accorded only to men of worldly distinction and unblemished
lives. All this recognition impressed the habitants, and
they in turn gave their seigneur polite deference. Along
the line of travel his carriage or carriole had the right
of way, and the habitant doffed his cap in salute as the
seigneur drove by. Catalogne mentioned that, despite all
this, the Canadian seigneurs were not as ostentatiously
given tokens of the habitants' respect as were the
seigneurs in France. But this did not mean that the
relations between the two classes were any less cordial.
It meant only that the clear social atmosphere of the
colony had not yet become dimmed by the mists of court
duplicity. The habitants of New France respected the
horny-handed man in homespun whom they called their
seigneur: the depth of this loyalty and respect could
not fairly be measured by old-world standards.

As a seigneur of lands the Church had the right to hold
courts and administer justice within the bounds of its
great estates. Like most lay seigneurs it received its
lands with full rights of high, middle, and low jurisdiction
(haute, moyenne, et basse justice). In its seigneurial
courts fines might be imposed or terms of imprisonment
meted out. Even the death penalty might be exacted. Here
was a great opportunity for abuse. A very inquisition
would have been possible under the broad terms in which
the king gave his grant of jurisdiction. Yet the Church
in New France never to the slightest degree used its
powers of civil jurisdiction to work oppression. As a
matter of fact it rarely, if ever, made use of these
powers at all. Troubles which arose among the habitants
in the Church seigneuries were settled amicably, if
possible, by the parish priest. Where the good offices
of the priest did not suffice, the disputants were sent
off to the nearest royal court. All this is worth comment,
for in the earlier days of European feudalism the bishops
and abbots held regular courts within the fiefs of the
Church. And students of jurisprudence will recall that
they succeeded in tincturing the old feudal customs with
those principles of the canon law which all churchmen
had learned and knew. While ostensibly applying crude
mediaeval customs, many of these courts of the Church
fiefs were virtually administering a highly developed
system of jurisprudence based on the Roman law. Laval
might have made history repeat itself in Canada; but he
had too many other things engaging his attention.

Lay seigneurs, on the other hand, held their courts
regularly. And the fact that they did so is of great
historical significance, for the right of court-holding
rather than the obligation of military service is the
earmark which distinguishes feudalism from all other
systems of land tenure. Practically every Canadian seigneur
had the judicial prerogative; he could establish a court
in his seigneury, appoint its judge or judges, impose
penalties upon the habitants, and put the fees or costs
in his own pocket. In France this was a great source of
emolument, and too many seigneurs used their courts to
yield income rather than to dispense even-handed justice.
But in Canada, owing to the relatively small number of
suitors in the seigneuries, the system could not be made
to pay its way. Some seigneurs appointed judges who held
court once or twice a week. Others tried to save this
expense by doing the work themselves. Behind the big
table in the main room of his manor-house the seigneur
sat in state and meted out justice in rough-and-ready
fashion. He was supposed to administer it in true accord
with the Custom of Paris; he might as well have been
asked to apply the Code of Hammurabi or the Capitularies
of Charlemagne. But if the seigneur did not know the law,
he at least knew the disputants, and his decisions were
not often wide of the eternal equities. At any rate, if
a suitor was not satisfied he could appeal to the royal
courts. Only minor cases were dealt with in the seigneurial
courts, and the appeals were not numerous.

On the whole, despite its crudeness, the administration
of seigneurial justice in New France was satisfactory
enough. The habitants, as far as the records show, made
no complaint. Justice was prompt and inexpensive. It
discouraged chicane and common barratry. Even the sarcastic
La Hontan, who had little to say in general praise of
the colony and its institutions, accords the judicial
system a modest tribute. 'I will not say,' he writes,
'that the Goddess of Justice is more chaste here than in
France, but at any rate, if she is sold, she is sold more
cheaply. In Canada we do not pass through the clutches
of advocates, the talons of attorneys, and the claws of
clerks. These vermin do not as yet infest the land. Every
one here pleads his own cause. Our Themis is prompt, and
she does not bristle with fees, costs, and charges.' The
testimony of others, though not so rhetorically expressed,
is enough to prove that both royal and seigneurial courts
did their work in fairly acceptable fashion.

The Norman habitant, as has already been pointed out,
was by nature restive, impulsive, and quarrelsome. That
he did not make every seigneury a hotbed of petty strife
was due largely to the stern hand held over him by priest
and seigneur alike, but by his priest particularly. The
Church in the colony never lost, as in France, the full
confidence of the masses; the higher dignitaries never
lost touch with the priest, nor the latter with the
people. The clergy of New France did not form a privileged
order, living on the fruits of other men's labour. On
the contrary, they gave the colony far more than they
took from it. Although paid a mere pittance, they never
complained of the great physical drudgery that their work
too often required. Indeed, if labourers were ever worthy
of their hire, such toilers were the spiritual pioneers
of France beyond the seas. No one who does not approach
their aims and achievements with sympathy can ever fully
understand the history of these earlier days. No one who
does not appreciate the dominating place which the Church
occupied in every walk of colonial life can fully realize
the great help which it gave, both by its active interest
and by its example, to the agricultural policy of the
civil power. The Church owed much to the seigneurial
system, but not more than the system owed to it.



When the fleurs-de-lis of the Bourbons fluttered down
from the ramparts of Quebec on September 18, 1759, a new
era in the history of Canadian feudalism began. The new
British government promptly allayed the fears of the
conquered people by promising that all vested rights
should be respected and that 'the lords of manors' should
continue in possession of all their ancient privileges.
This meant that they intended to recognize and retain
the entire fabric of seigneurial tenure.

Now this step has been commonly regarded as a cardinal
error on the part of the new suzerains, and on the whole
the critics of British policy have had the testimony of
succeeding events on their side. By 1760 the seigneurial
system had fully performed for the colony all the good
service it was ever likely to perform. It could easily
have been abolished then and there. Had that action been
taken, a great many subsequent troubles would have been
avoided. But in their desire to be generous the English
authorities failed to do what was prudent, and the
seigneurial system remained.

Many of the seigneurs, when Canada passed under British
control, sold their seigneuries and went home to France.
How great this hegira was can scarcely be estimated with
exactness, but it is certain that the emigres included
all the military and most of the civil officials, together
with a great many merchants, traders, and landowners.
The colony lost those who could best afford to go; in
other words, those whom it could least afford to let go.
The priests, true to their traditions, stood by the colony
in its hours of trial. But whatever the extent and
character of the out-going, it is true that many seigneuries
changed hands during the years 1763-64. Englishmen bought
these lands at very low figures. Between them and the
habitants there were no bonds of race, religion, language,
or social sympathy. The new English seigneur looked upon
his estate as an investment, and proceeded to deal with
the habitants as though they were his tenantry. All this
gave the seigneurial system a rude shock.

There was still another feature which caused the system
to work much less smoothly after 1760 than before. The
English did not retain the office of intendant. Their
frame of government had no place for such an official.
Yet the intendant had been the balance-wheel of the whole
feudal machine in the days before the conquest. He it
was who kept the seigneurial system from developing
abuses; it was his praetorian power 'to order all things
as may seem just and proper' that kept the seigneur's
exactions within rigid bounds. The administration of New
France was a government of men; that of the new regime
was a government of laws. Hence it was that the British
officials, although altogether well-intentioned, allowed
grave wrongs to arise.

The new English judges, not unnaturally, misunderstood
the seigneurial system. They stumbled readily into the
error that tenure en censive was simply the old English
tenure in copyhold under another name. Now the English
copyholder held his land subject to the customs of the
manor; his dues and services were fixed by local custom
both as regards their nature and amount. What more easy,
then, than to seek the local custom in Canada, and apply
its rules to the decision of all controversies respecting
seigneurial claims?

Unfortunately for this simple solution, there was a great
and fundamental difference between these two tenures.
The Canadian censitaire had a written title-deed which
stated explicitly the dues and services he was bound to
give his seigneur; the copyholder had nothing of the
kind. The habitant, moreover, had various rights guaranteed
to him by royal decrees. No custom of the manor or
seigneury could prevail against written contracts and
statute-law. But the judges do not seem to have grasped
this distinction; when cases involving disputed obligations
came before them they called in notaries to establish
what the local customs were, and rendered judgment
accordingly. This gave the seigneur a great advantage,
for the notaries usually took their side. Moreover, the
new judicial system was more expensive than the old, so
that when a seigneur chose to take his claims into court
the habitants often let him have judgment by default
rather than incur heavy costs.

During the twenty years following the conquest the
externals of the seigneurial system remained unaltered;
but its spirit underwent a great change. This was amply
shown during the American War of Independence, when the
province was invaded by the Arnold-Montgomery expeditions.
In all the years that the colony had been under French
dominion a single word from any seigneur was enough to
summon every one of his able-bodied habitants to arms.
But now, only a dozen years after the English had assumed
control, the answer made by the habitant to such appeals
was of a very different nature. The authorities at Quebec,
having only a small body of regular troops available for
the defence of Canada against the invaders, called on
the seigneurs to rally the old feudal array. The
proclamation was issued on June 9, 1775. Most seigneurs
responded promptly and called their habitants to armed
service. But the latter, for the most part, refused to
come. The seigneurs threatened that their lands would be
confiscated; but even this did not move the habitants to

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Online LibraryWilliam Bennett MunroThe Seigneurs of Old Canada : A Chronicle of New World Feudalism → online text (page 7 of 8)