- Le monde rural québécois aux XVIIIe et XIXe siècles : Cultures, hiérarchies, pouvoirs by Christian Dessureault
As a social historian of rural eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Quebec, Christian Dessureault has consistently applied quantitative research methods at a localized scale to address broad historical questions. The mostly prepublished articles in this collection are preceded by a useful survey of his career written by four of his contemporaries. The book is divided into three sections, with the first one being generally socioeconomic in theme, the second more strictly social, and the third largely political. Dessureault takes a basically materialist approach to history, and his focus is on the class he refers to as the peasantry, but his main aim is to demonstrate that its members were economically and socially divided rather than being the homogeneous mass that historians of all ideological persuasions have depicted. The ramifications are significant, and one of the main strengths of the twelve chapters in this collection is their clear description and methodical critique of nationalist as well as antinationalist interpretations of a number of key themes in pre-industrial Quebec history.
Chapter one examines not the peasantry, however, but the seigneurial system they lived within. Focussing on the Sulpician-owned Lac-des-Deux-Montagnes seigneurie at the turn of the nineteenth century, Dessureault argues that the seigneurial system played a crucial role, not because the seigneurs were active agents of colonization but because they were vigilant in collecting rents. In a similar vein, chapter 4 challenges the now-prevailing theory that the seigneurial system adapted to the rise of industrial capitalism. Relevant to the question of the "rationalité capitaliste" of the seigneurial class, Dessureault might have added, is what its members did with the substantial monetary compensation they received from the state as a result of the abolition of their feudal rights in 1854.
The second chapter, based largely on an exhaustive analysis of the 1831 and 1861 manuscript census reports for the seigneurie of Saint-Hyacinthe, puts paid to Serge Courville's influential thesis that village expansion in the seigneurial zone was "modernizing" Lower Canada's economy. In words that apply equally to the work of other Quebec rural historians, Dessureault states that "cette nouvelle vision entrepreneuriale des campagnes présente une société québécoise trop rapidement gagnée par le progrès économique." The increase in the number of grist mills, for example, simply reflected the expansion of the rural population. The capital invested in such industries was very limited, and between 1831 and 1861 the ratio of Saint-Hyacinthe household heads involved in various forms of manufacturing increased only from 6.0% to 6.8%.
That said, Dessureault does not accept Fernand Ouellet's argument that the rural economy was in crisis during the early nineteenth century. In fact, chapter 7, coauthored by John Dickinson and based on postmortem inventories as well as the standard-of-living index devised by Micheline Baulant, concludes that the peasant standard of living in the Montreal region actually increased between 1740 and 1834. But that improvement was not shared equally, and chapters 5 and 6 focus on Dessureault's main thesis, namely that historians have been wrong in [End Page 224] assuming that peasant society in Quebec was once socially homogenous and that whatever social differentiation took place in the early industrial era was essentially the product of Malthusian pressures and increased integration into the market economy. Dessureault's counter-argument is based on a convincingly detailed analysis of farm sizes and values, agricultural production, livestock numbers, and value of movable goods as well as cash in hand and debts and credits, all gleaned from postmortem inventories for Saint-Hyacinthe. The conclusion is that by 1834, as in the Montreal district examined in chapter 7, the peasant farmers in the older areas of the Saint-Hyacinthe seigneurie had generally become more prosperous as a result of market forces. All the arable land had been settled by 1825, however, with...