- Brève histoire du régime seigneurial by Benoît Grenier
European feudalism grew out of European circumstances, and when transplanted across the Atlantic was recontextualized in settings quite unlike those in which it had flourished in Europe. The press of people on land was absent; the relative value of land fell dramatically, the value of labour rose, and in new circumstances the relationship with authority could not be what it had been. The seigneurial system, the feudal system implanted in Canada at the beginning of French settlement, was built around hierarchical relationships between people and with land. A basic question is how these relationships worked themselves out in the non-French circumstances they encountered along the lower St. Lawrence. The question is central: land in early Canada was granted and held in seigneuries, and different types of landholding entailed different socio-economic obligations, responsibilities, and powers.
In Brève histoire du régime seigneurial, Benoît Grenier offers a synopsis of the large literature on the seigneurial system in Canada and of his own writing and thinking about it. His analysis lies somewhere between the two most common interpretative poles. If he cannot accept Aubert de Gaspé’s (or, for that matter, Marcel Trudel’s) paternalistic vision of beneficent seigneurs and appreciative censitaires, he does not deny that, here and there, such relationships existed. If he is uneasy with a Marxist emphasis on the seigneurs’ exploitation of their censitaires catching the sum of Canadian seigneurialism, he is well aware that seigneurial charges could be burdensome. He knows too, and insists repeatedly on the point, that feudalism is fundamentally hierarchical and inegalitarian. More broadly and like most writers on the subject, he considers the seigneurial system central to the history of early Canada.
Everything is interesting and relevant and much is excellent in this short, well-informed and well-argued book. The chapter on the European origins of the seigneurie is as fine a short summary of this complex topic as one will find. The chapter on the [End Page 239] introduction of the seigneurial system to Canada, on the rhythm and geography of seigneurial concessions, and on seigneurial charges and privileges is a useful, accurate summary of these basic matters. A chapter on the seigneurs makes clear the great variety of circumstances in which seigneuries were held and the difficulty of generalizing about seigneurs as a class or about the nature of seigneurial management. The changing legal position of the seigneurial system after the conquest, as well as the changing ethnicity and social standing of the seigneurs and the growing profitability of seigneuries as their populations increased, are well, if briefly, considered. A chapter that asks whether seigneurial society was harmonious or conflictual finds evidence of both tendencies while noting that the parish was the primary locus of rural sociability. A final chapter treats the abolition in 1854, sixty years after the abolition of feudal tenures in France, of what had become an anachronistic system.
This is all good material. Where my knowledge overlaps with Grenier’s I am generally in agreement, and where it does not, I learn. If one is thinking, teaching or writing about the seigneurial system in Canada, this intelligent little book is now the place to begin. But since I wrote about the seigneurial system myself many years ago, and since Grenier has stimulated me, I cannot resist responding to his assumption that the seigneurial system is central to an understanding of early Canada.
The geographical impact of the seigneurial system seems large, but one needs be cautious. While the system’s toponymic imprint is apparent, the long lots that increasingly defined the seigneurial landscape had, in themselves, no necessary relationship with Canadian seigneurialism. They were, rather, the cadastral system that seemed best to fit a riverine colony; had land along the lower St. Lawrence been conceded in franc alleu roturier (approximately fee simple) and held directly from the crown, the pattern of long lots would have been much the same. At Red River, there were long lots but no seigneuries...