Feudalism is often romanticized in modern pop culture. It was a system that people think back on only to remember mounted knights, regal lords, and the glory of a decentralized European continent ripe with adventure. In reality, it was a miserable system in which the few exploited the many in unfair and often brutal ways.
Feudalism is defined by the Canada History Project as:
“a system of political and social organization prevalent in western Europe during the Middle Ages (roughly 500–1450 AD). It was based on the relationship between a lord, who provided land and protection, and a vassal or serf, who pledged military and other services to his lord. The serf was tied to the same lord or piece of land for life.”
And that is exactly how most people remember it, as a system confined to Europe and the Middle Ages. However, feudalism reared its ugly head in the New World for centuries, even lingering into the 19th and 20th centuries. It is a piece of history often forgotten that ties Canada to New France and an outdated feudal past.
Seigneurs and habitants
In the tradition of Old Europe, all of the lands in North America claimed by France were, legally, in sole possession of the king. That meant that all of the lands of New France, which at the time claimed to stretch from the Arctic circle all the way down to Florida, were to be ruled and managed by the crown. Obviously, that was an absurd proposition for someone who already had a large number of duties on their plate.
Instead, the management of the king’s lands in North America was turned over to a colonial venture known as the Company of One Hundred Associates. Even for a colonial outfit and a dedicated overseer, management of the vast tracts of land of New France was an arduous task, a task that was handed over to Cardinal Richelieu.
The cardinal was a staunch monarchist as well as a powerful figure within the Catholic church. These two loves and loyalties were what inspired Cardinal Richelieu to implement a new system of land organization in the New World that had strong echoes of Medieval feudalism.
The system was known as the seigneurial — or manor — system and it divided the king’s lands into narrow plots of land along the banks of the Saint Lawrence River.
Each manor plot was overseen by a seigneur, akin to a feudal lord, who had “both onerous and honorary rights” to the land and its inhabitant. The renters of the manor plots in New France were known as habitants.
Like in the feudalism of old, the habitants owed to their seigneur a tithe that did not operate as a modern rent but rather an Old World relic. The seigneur “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” (Canadian Encyclopedia) and in return provided nothing other than the land, which had previously been provided to them.
Unlike traditional feudalism, the seigneur’s mandate was to fill the land with French-speaking settlers, either from nearby British colonies or from France itself. While the goal of each manor plot was still to produce agricultural output, the methods of management by the seigneur had to be softer than past feudal lords in order to attract and maintain habitants.
From 1628 onward, the lands of modern day Quebec were divided, distributed, and managed by a neo-feudal system.
In 1754, war broke out in North America between France and Britain. By this time, the feudal system around the Saint Lawrence River had been in effect for over a century and thousands of Roman Catholic Frenchmen had poured into the region. The war lasted for seven years and ended in 1763 with a complete British victory. All of the lands of New France that were still held by the French monarchy were ceded to the British.
That included Quebec and the antiquated manor system which now dominated the region.
The people of Quebec were staunchly opposed to the new British regime. The British were protestant, anti-French and required statements of faith from the French Canadians in order to join proper British colonial society, a statement which many in the territory refused to utter. This left the territory in political limbo and led to a simmering discontent from the locals.
The British, wary of a similar discontent brewing in their original Thirteen Colonies, did not want an upstart Quebec to fuel or be fueled by any political upheaval in the south. In order to combat the unrest, the British passed the Quebec Act of 1774.
This new law guaranteed that the French Canadians in Quebec could keep their Roman Catholic faith and it also “restored the use of the French civil law for matters of private law.” Since the management of tenants and lands fell under civil law, the feudal system of manoral management was allowed to continue unimpeded by the British.
The British takeover of Quebec should have ended the seigneurial system but it did not. The new rulers had passed a law in 1660 which abolished many of the old tenants of feudalism.
Size and scope
It is easy to try and think of this manor system as a small regional issue which did not affect a great number of people. The seigneurial system was much larger and widespread than most people realize.
By the mid-19th century, long after the British takeover of Canada and the French Revolution, up to 80% of people in Quebec were still living on seigneurial land.
Nearly every square kilometer of inhabitable land along the Saint Lawrence River was owned and managed by a seigneur who continued to collect feudal tithes from habitants.
Two hundred and twenty feudal charters divided up over thirty-six thousand square kilometers of land.
There was not an official attempt to ban the system until 1845, long after the rest of the world had decided to move on from feudalism.
The ideals and pillars of the Old World had been firmly established in New France and they continued to reside safely in Quebec.
“Early French Canadian leaders exemplified a continuation of the feudal spirit which had led the Western peoples out of barbarism. They led the way to New France not by king’s command but by virtue of an authority above kingly power. The king in their eyes was like a king of feudal days, and they considered his authority an ideal authority: to be real and to merit obedience, it had to be in harmony with a scheme of social relations whose rules were known to all, and it had to exemplify the concepts of Christianity as they were formulated by centuries of thought and experience.” — Burton Ledoux
It is important to point out that the habitant class was not brutalized and exploited as badly as serfs of old. In fact, there are no records of physical mistreatment of the tenant. Instead, it was a cementing of a hierarchical social order which placed the landowners firmly above the rural tenants.
“Whether they were of noble or common descent, the seigneurs were a privileged class, and their relationships with the censitaires were affected by the perception of the cens [feudal tithe].” — The Canadian Encyclopedia
An eventual end
Despite numerous pieces of legislation passed in the middle part of the 19th century, the collection of “rentcharges” by manorial lords from habitants continued well into the 20th century.
In 1928, a final push was made to end the manorial system with amendments made to the Seigniories Act. It put a hard limit on for how much longer rents and taxes could be collected from the old manorial estates at 41 years from signing.
There were lawsuits, court battles, and arguments over unpaid debts and fees that went on during the forty-one year period that the law stipulated. Finally, in 1970, the government mandated the final arbitration and end to the feudal system of Quebec which had lasted for three hundred and forty two years.
This manorial system proved almost impossible to kill. It had become so ingrained in the region and tied to a sense of unique national, regional, and religious pride that it survived the many attempts to alter or destroy it.
The semi-feudal seigneurial system had survived the fall of the French monarchy, the British conquest of Canada, Canadian independence, World War I, and World War II before finally being vanquished a mere fifty years ago. It shrewdly survived various legal attempts to disband it, in 1774, and again in 1845 and it even tried to shirk the modern world’s distaste for the system in 1928 by surviving another four decades beyond that.
Today, the vestiges of the neo-feudal land system that dominated Quebec for centuries can still be seen and felt. Plots of land along the Saint Lawrence River still hold their elongated shape from the manorial years. References to old manor deeds and titles are still dredged up in Canadian court from time to time.
Yet, many forget that the oldest of Old World systems stubbornly lived in Canada for centuries after it had been abolished nearly everywhere else.