Nouveaux regards en histoire seigneuriale au Québec ed. by Benoît Grenier, Michel Morissette (review)
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Grenier, Benoît et Michel Morissette (eds) – Nouveaux regards en histoire seigneuriale au Québec. Québec: Septentrion, 2015. Pp. 483.

What images of the seigneurial regime, Jean-René Thuot asks in this volume, should we wish to preserve today? For many people outside Québec, and particularly non-historians, seigneurial tenure probably evokes an antiquated image from the distant past. If English-speakers have much notion of it, they likely conjure up the long lots spreading back from the banks of the St. Lawrence [End Page 202] and its tributaries but may fail to realize that the shapes of lots were not a required component of seigneurial tenure. Following the important works of Fernand Ouellet, Louise Dechêne, and Allan Greer, among others, historians are apt to associate the property regime with the exploitative relations of seigneurs and their tenants or censitaires. Some historians use the word “feudal” to typify the property regime, though they acknowledge the differences between practices in Québec and classic medieval systems.

After the British takeover of Québec, English-speaking merchants decried seigneurial tenure, comparing it unfavourably with freehold title where in theory individuals owned their land outright with no obligations to superiors. The seigneurial requirements to pay annual dues (often including a capon), take wheat to the seigneur’s gristmill, turn over one-twelfth of the purchase price after selling the property, maybe even supply specific days of labour to the seigneur, undoubtedly appeared foreign to the archetypical British yeoman farmer. Nonetheless, some British settlers believed they could benefit from seigneurial tenure, and many British merchants and colonial officials purchased seigneuries. As Alex Tremblay Lamarche notes, by the turn of the nineteenth century, the group of seigneurs of British origin had become more diverse than previously, reflecting their “creole” identities of having been born in the colony. (With the desire to shift the focus to individual seigneurs, this collection downplays the on-going significance of religious orders, although Jessica Barthe discusses the cloistered Ursuline order’s active administration of its seigneurie of Sainte-Croix.)

Despite British views concerning the backward nature of the system of tenure, it took an incredibly long time to eliminate it. In theory, the seigneurial history of Québec drew to a close in 1854. No longer did peasants have to make annual trips to the seigneur’s manor to pay their dues. But they did. Many tenants chose not to commute their obligations, as the costs of paying a notary appeared higher than the on-going need to pay the small annual sum, an amount that inflation would slowly eat away. Not until 1940 did the annual obligations to the local seigneur end, and, as Benoît Grenier shows, the prestige of former seigneurs could linger much longer. Edmond Joly de Lotbinière, who died in 2014, continued to occupy his seigneurial pew in the church of Saint-Louis de Lotbinière during his summer visits. Although the authors do not develop this theme, some features of seigneurial tenure survive: some agrarian commons near Berthierville still are used for grazing livestock today.

This collection of articles provides important reflections on the persistence of the seigneurial tenure. It originates from two key sites of production, Benoît Grenier’s seminars at the Université de Sherbrooke and Alain Laberge’s students at the Université Laval. The chapters in this volume explore a number of key topics that advance our understanding of seigneurial tenure in Québec and bordering territories. The collection is divided into three sections focusing on seigneurial property, the seigneurs themselves, and the memory and persistence of seigneurialism. By complicating any facile views of the meaning and longevity of seigneurial tenure, this collection fully reaches its goal. One of its key features is the shift in focus away from the French regime to the period after the British [End Page 203] Conquest. In some ways, British control, with the legal complications involved in the change in regime, may have extended some seigneurial practices and indeed opened up new opportunities.

Two chapters by David Gilles and Isabelle Bouchard discuss the ad hoc ways in which Abenaki and Haudenosaunee acted as tenants...