In the early days of the colony, the French transplanted the seigneurial system to the St. Lawrence Valley, which established a land ownership arrangement similar to the one existing in France at the time. Inherited from the Middle Ages, of which it retained the symbols, it enabled the King to secure the loyalty of new seigneurs, or lords, who in turn derived prestige and honour from their rank, while benefiting from the revenue produced by the land they were granted. The system was applied in New France without much planning. The King's representatives in Canada attributed territories of varying sizes as fief and seigneury to nobles and religious communities. In the 18th century, ecclesiastical seigneuries accounted for 25 percent of the seigneurial lands and were among the most populous fiefs. The nobility received quite a large proportion of the concessions, considering their small numbers. From the outset, the desire to make waterways accessible to as many people as possible determined the layout and shape of the land concessions. These were generally in the form of long rectangles fronting on the St. Lawrence River or another river. After the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the wealthier English and certain French-speaking bourgeois acquired several seigneuries belonging to descendants of the nobility; the Church continued to hold a large portion of the fiefs. The seigneurial system, although suppressed in France by the Revolution, survived in Canada until 1854.
The Inhabitants of Québec
The first seigneuries granted in the St. Lawrence Valley constitute the oldest nucleus of population. At the close of the 17th century, this region was densely populated compared to the rest of the colony. The layout of the farmland was determined by the desire to make waterways accessible to the greatest number of inhabitants. This parcelling of land into rectangular holdings fronting on the water resulted in a scattered settlement. The star-shaped villages of Charlesbourg and Bourg-Royal are rare examples in New France of grouped dwellings in a rural milieu.
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When a person or community was granted a seigneury, certain obligations had to be met: rendering fealty and homage; ceding land to those who requested it; maintaining and having tenants maintain "hearth and home;" reserving the oak wood for the building of royal ships; and acknowledging the King of France had ownership of the subsoil. The awarding of a fief had to be confirmed by the King. Seigneurs could sell the land they were granted. The price of a seigneury was generally proportional to its level of development: the more numerous the censitaires, the more was its selling price. The purchaser of a seigneury was required to pay the droit de quint, a tax collected by the state equal to one-fifth of the sale price. A seigneur could cede part of a seigneury as an arrière-fief [sub-fief]. The holder of this land had the same rights and obligations as the seigneur; however, he owed fealty and homage not to the King, but to the seigneur who ceded him his arrière-fief.
Concession of a seigneury
Concession of a piece of land in the seigneury of Vaudreuil
Certificate ratifying the concession of a seigneury to Joseph Perthuis
Sale of the land and seigneury of Kamouraska by Henri Hiché
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Report on the Seigneuries
By clicking on “Interactivity”, you can quickly find the description of a specific seigneury within the document.
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The Seigneury of Sorel
The officer Pierre de Saurel arrived in the colony in 1665 with the Carignan-Salières Regiment—troops dispatched from France meant to contain the Iroquois threat. He was immediately sent with his men to rebuild and command Fort Richelieu (soon after named Sorel) where the Iroquois (Richelieu) River flows into the St. Lawrence River. When the regiment was discharged in 1668, he married and settled on a tract of land he was granted in 1672 for "services rendered to His Majesty." Saurel then devoted himself to developing his seigneury. In 1682, shortly before his death, it included a manor, a communal mill, a well-developed property and more than 25 censives [land parcels]. However, his widow, harassed by her late husband's principal creditor, had to put the seigneury up for auction. Claude de Ramezay, Governor of Montréal, purchased it in 1713 for 9,200 livres. The fief's new holder made his land prosperous: in the aveu et dénombrement [inventory] of 1724, the year Ramezay died, the seigneury included 80 censives. In 1764, the seigneury of Sorel was sold for 24,000 livres to an English merchant from Québec, John Bondfield.
In rendering fealty and homage, the seigneur declared himself a vassal of the King, that is, his faithful servant, and acknowledged that he held his land through royal power. On the same occasion, he presented the deeds of ownership for the fief or fiefs in his possession. In France as in New France, certain symbolic acts survived from the Middle Ages: the hommage-lige marked the vassal's strongest bond of allegiance. It was rendered unarmed, on bended knee, with joined hands placed in those of the king's representative, and was accompanied by an oath on the Gospels.
The aveu et dénombrement provided a description of the status of a seigneury. It was to be presented to the authorities by the seigneur upon each change of ownership and at the Intendant's request. As well as a description of the seigneur's domain, it included information concerning each of the land parcels granted—the name of the tenant, the area of his land and the various buildings, the number of arpents under cultivation, and the dues payable in kind and in money for the cens and rentes.
At the time of the concession, the land was not usually surveyed. The tenant took his parcel of land without knowing its exact boundaries. In some seigneuries, however, the habitants were required to survey their land sometime after it was granted. An exact knowledge of the boundaries of the lot avoided potential conflicts between neighbours and with the seigneur.
Every title holder of a lot paid the cens and rentes to the seigneur annually. These dues were set according to the lot's frontage or width. In Canada, this generally varied from two to five arpents, although the majority of the lands granted had a frontage of three arpents. The rate of the cens and rentes varied within the same seigneury, as well as from one seigneury to another.
The seigneur kept part of his seigneury for his own use. This was known as the domaine direct. He could hire salaried workers to cultivate the land or "rent" it out, under a farming lease. The farmer then agreed to work and maintain the domain. Every year, the parties involved shared the produce of the harvest and the livestock.
Concession from Intendant Jean Talon to Pierre de Saurel
Declaration of fealty and homage rendered by Claude de Ramezay
Aveu et dénombrement of the seigneuries of Sorel, Monnoir and Ramezay
Official surveyor's report of the land of Noël Carpentier
List of the inhabitants of the seigneury of Sorel
Farming lease for the domain of the seigneury of Sorel
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The seigneury of Batiscan is the classic model of the division of territory within a fief in the St. Lawrence Valley. It displays an overall geometric regularity. The portions of land, or censives, allotted to each of the habitants were long contiguous rectangles, perpendicular to the water's edge. The dwellings were lined up along the shore. With this arrangement, each tenant had access to the water and could use the river as a means of transportation. When all river front land was granted, the seigneur began a second rang [row] of concessions.
The holder of a seigneury was obliged to concede a parcel of land (the censive) to individuals (the censitaires) who requested it. In many cases, the seigneur did not immediately provide an official certificate of concession, but instead first issued a deed of temporary ownership called a billet de concession. The two parties later signed a duly notarized contract. In possession of this final deed, the censitaire might "enjoy the use [of his land] in full ownership in perpetuity," sell it or bequeath it, as long as he fulfilled the obligations stipulated in the contract. One of these stated that he had to deliver the annual cens and rentes, fixed dues payable in perpetuity in money or in kind. The cens was minimal, and served above all as a symbol of the censitaire's dependence on the seigneur; however, the rente was a greater amount. The land parcel was subject to the right of lods et ventes, a tax equivalent to one-twelfth of the amount of the sale, which every land buyer had to pay the seigneur.
Deposit of a billet de concession in the seigneury of La Durantaye
Concession of a piece of land in Beauce
Sale of land situated in the seigneury of Demaure
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Concession in Québec
The towns of Québec and Trois-Rivières were part of the domain of the King, who was the seigneur of these two urban centres. His representatives—the Governor General and the Intendant of New France—were in charge of assigning lots within these towns, in exchange for dues and certain obligations. Montréal was different, as its territory had been ceded as a seigneury to the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice.
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The Edicts of Marly
Louis XIV and his ministers strove to limit the exploration of new territories, in favour of clearing the land. As a continuation of this policy, the edicts of Marly confirmed the King's desire to expand the population of New France by encouraging the cultivation of the land. A first edict stipulated that seigneuries that were not made productive would be withdrawn from their holders and returned to the royal domain. This measure, however, was seldom invoked. A second edict applied to the censitaires [tenants] and obliged them to make their land productive, or have it return to the seigneurial domain. In addition, the seigneurs were obligated to cede lots to those who asked for them. It was also forbidden for them to sell land that had not been ceded to a censitaire.
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Rights and Obligations
Abuses and irregularities in the contracts of concession between seigneurs and their censitaires, or tenants, were frequently denounced by the intendants. They proposed remedies: standardizing the rates of cens (a token payment to the seigneur) and rentes (a more substantial annual payment in kind or in money), and eliminating or modifying a number of rights, such as the corvée (unpaid manual labour), the right to remove wood from the habitants' land, the right to retake land into their own possession, and fishing rights.
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The Financial Administrator
Each seigneury held, but did not necessarily exercise, the right to administer justice. In cases where it was exercised, the seigneur named officials: a judge (called a seneschal, provost, bailiff or seigneurial judge, according to circumstance), a financial administrator and a clerk who often also served as a notary and bailiff. They were paid by the seigneur.
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The Communal Mill
The droit de banalité ensured the seigneur's monopoly on the building and operation of flour mills in his fief. Tenants were obliged to use them and pay their seigneur a fee of one minot in fourteen. The seigneur, for his part, was required to maintain the mills in good working order.
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