Seigneurial system, an institutional form of land distribution and occupation established in New France in 1627 and officially abolished in 1854.
Seigneurial system, an institutional form of land distribution and occupation established in New France in 1627 and officially abolished in 1854. It was inspired by the feudal system, which involved the personal dependency of censitaires (tenants) on the seigneur; in New France the similarities ended with occupation of land and payment of certain dues, and the censitaire was normally referred to as a Habitant. The Compagnie des cent associés, which in 1627 was granted ownership and legal and seigneurial rights over New France, also obtained the rights to allocate the land to its best advantage. The land was therefore granted as fiefs and seigneuries to the most influential colonists who, in turn, granted tenancies.
This politically determined system of land distribution was regulated by law and had many advantages. Its purpose was to promote settlement in a systematic way. Seigneuries, which were usually 1 x 3 leagues (5 x 15 km) in size, were generally divided into river lots (rangs), a survey system based on the French experience in Normandy. The long, rectangular strips were particularly well adapted to the local terrain, since they facilitated interaction between neighbours and provided multiple points of access to the river, the principal communication route. Individual holdings were large enough (usually about 3 by 30 Arpent) to provide a reasonable living to farmers. Finally, the seigneurial system established between the seigneur and the tenant a well-defined individual relationship.
The state established regulations to govern the operation of this system and the relationship between the seigneurs and their tenants. The principal one was that the state granted to a person, who thus became seigneur, a parcel of land which he was to put into production, either directly or through concession to habitants who requested land; portions of the seigneur's land were usually leased on the basis of a duly notarized contract. These acts of concession set out the rights and obligations of each party.
The seigneur had both onerous and honorary rights. He could establish a court of law, operate a mill and organize a commune. He received from the habitants various forms of rent: the cens, a small tithe dating from the feudal period, which reaffirmed the tenant's theoretical subjection to the seigneur; the rente in cash or kind; and the banalités, taxes levied on grain, which the tenant had to grind at his seigneur's mill. He also usually granted hunting, fishing and woodcutting licences. In the early 18th century, seigneurs began to insist that their tenants work for them a certain number of days annually (see Corvée).
The seigneurial system was central to France's colonization policy and came to play a major role in traditional Québec society. Despite the attractions of city life and the fur trade, 75-80% of the population lived on seigneurial land until the mid-19th century. The roughly 200 seigneuries granted during the French regime covered virtually all the inhabited areas on both banks of the St Lawrence River between Montréal and Québec and the Chaudière and Richelieu valleys and they extended to the Gaspé. Seigneuries were granted to the nobility, to religious institutions (in return for education and hospital services), to military officers and to civil administrators. Other institutional organizations such as parishes, municipalities and the militia held land bordering on these seigneuries.
This method of land settlement left its mark on both the countryside and the Québec mentality. The land of the habitant was a kind of economic unit essential for survival. Everyone hoped to be the sole tenant, producing most of what he required in order to live. The system of land tenure, which placed rural inhabitants close to one another, and in the early 19th century the village, were the foundation upon which the family, neighbour relations and community spirit developed. The closeness of this agricultural society to the soil led naturally to a feeling that land was included in one's patrimony, to be passed from generation to generation.
Development of Town System
After Canada was ceded to Britain in 1763, new British laws respected the private agreements and the property rights of francophone society, and the seigneurial system was maintained. But as new land was opened for colonization, the township system developed. As time went on, the seigneural system increasingly appeared to favour the privileged and to hinder economic development. After much political agitation it was abolished in 1854 by a law that permitted tenants to claim rights to their land. The last vestiges of this institution, which many historians believe profoundly influenced traditional Québec society, did not disappear until a century later.
Harris, R. Cole. The Reluctant Land. Society, Space and Environnment in Canada before Confederation, (2008)
R.C. Harris, The Seigneurial System in Early Canada (1968)
Marcel Trudel, The Seigneurial Regime (1956)