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 x 30 ARPENTS) 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.
Author JACQUES MATHIEU
Links to Other Sites
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
French Canada and the Early Decades of British Rule (1760 - 1791)
A digitized copy of a booklet that examines the issues and policies that defined Britian's administration of its North American colonies in the decades preceeding the implementation of the Quebec Act and the Constitutional Act. From the Canadian Historical Association and Library and Archives Canada.
This site documents the history of the Seigneurial system in Canada. From the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
Manoir-Papineau National Historic Site of Canada
This Parks Canada site features a detailed profile of Patriot leader, Louis-Joseph Papineau, and background notes about the seigneurial system of land tenure.
New France, New Horizons
An informative and entertaining multimedia website about the founding and development of New France. Features abundant illustrations, documents and multimedia clips. A Canada/France collaboration.
The Seigneurial System in Early Canada: A Geographical Study
A synopsis of a book about the seigneurial system of land tenure in New France. From McGill-Queen's University Press.