CHAPTER VIII. SEIGNEURS OF OLD CANADA

From the beginning of the colony there ran in the minds of French officialdom the idea that the social order should rest upon a seigneurial basis. Historians have commonly attributed to Richelieu the genesis of New World feudalism, but without good reason, for its beginnings antedated the time of the great minister. The charter issued to the ill-starred La Roche in 1598 empowered him "to grant lands to gentlemen in the forms of fiefs and seigneuries," and the different viceroys who had titular charge of the colony before the Company of One Hundred Associates took charge in 1627 had similar powers. Several seigneurial grants in the region of Quebec had, in fact, been made before Richelieu first turned his attention to the colony.

Nor was the adoption of this policy at all unnatural. Despite its increasing obsolescence, the seigneurial system was still strong in France and dominated the greater part of the kingdom. The nobility and even the throne rested upon it. The Church, as suzerain of enormous landed estates, sanctioned and supported it. The masses of the French people were familiar with no other system of landholding. No prolonged quest need accordingly be made to explain why France transplanted feudalism to the shores of the great Canadian waterway; in fact, an explanation would have been demanded had any other policy been considered. No one asks why the Puritans took to Massachusetts Bay the English system of freehold tenure. They took the common law of England and the tenure that went with it. Along with the fleur-de-lis, likewise, went the Custom of Paris and the whole network of social relations based upon a hierarchy of seigneurs and dependents.

The seigneurial system of land tenure, as all students of history know, was feudalism in a somewhat modernized form. During the chaos which came upon Western Europe in the centuries following the collapse of Roman imperial supremacy, every local magnate found himself forced to depend for existence upon the strength of his own castle, under whose walls he gathered as many vassals as he could induce to come. To these he gave the surrounding lands free from all rents, but on condition of aid in time of war. The lord gave the land and promised to protect his vassals, who, on their part, took the land and promised to pay for it not in money or in kind, but in loyalty and service. Thus there was created a close personal relation, a bond of mutual wardship and fidelity which bound liegeman and lord with hoops of steel. The whole social order rested upon this bond and upon the gradations in privilege which it involved in a sequence which became stereotyped. In its day feudalism was a great institution and one which shared with the Christian Church the glory of having made mediaeval life at all worth living. It helped to keep civilization from perishing utterly in a whirl of anarchy, and it enabled Europe to recover inch by inch its former state of order, stability, and law.

But, having done its service to humanity, feudalism did not quietly make way for some other system more suited to the new conditions. It hung on grimly long after the forces which had brought it into being ceased to exist, long after the growth of a strong monarchy in France with a powerful standing army had removed the necessity of mutual guardianship and service. To meet the new conditions the system merely changed its incidents, never its general form. The ancient obligation of military service, no longer needed, gave place to dues and payments. The old personal bond relaxed; the feudal lord became the seigneur, a mere landlord. The vassal became the censitaire, a mere tenant, paying heavy dues each year in return for protection which, he no longer received nor required. In a word, before 1600 the feudal system had become the seigneurial system, and it was the latter which was established in the French colony of Canada.

In the new land there was reason to hope, however, that this system of social relations based upon landholding would soon work its way back to the vigor which it had displayed in mediaeval days. Here in the midst of an unfathomed wilderness was a small European settlement with hostile tribes on every hand. The royal arm, so strong in affording protection at home, could not strike hard and promptly in behalf of subjects a thousand leagues away. New France, accordingly must organize itself for defense and repel her enemies just as the earldoms and duchies of the crusading centuries had done. And that is just what the colony did, with the seigneurial system as the groundwork of defensive strength. Under stress of the new environment, which was not wholly unlike that of the former feudal days, the military aspects of the system revived and the personal bond regained much of its ancient vigor. The sordid phases of seigneurialism dropped into the background. It was this restored vitality that helped, more than all else, to turn New France into a huge armed camp which hordes of invaders, both white and red, strove vainly to pierce time after time during more than a full century.