CHAPTER XI. HOW THE PEOPLE LIVED
In New France there were no privileged orders. This, indeed, was the most marked difference between the social organization of the home land and that of the colony. There were social distinctions in Canada, to be sure, but the boundaries between different elements of the population were not rigid; there were no privileges based upon the laws of the land, and no impenetrable barrier separated one class from another. Men could rise by their own efforts or come down through their own defaults; their places in the community were not determined for them by the accident of birth as was the case in the older land. Some of the most successful figures in the public and business affairs of New France, some of the social leaders, some of those who attained the highest rank in the noblesse, came of relatively humble parentage.
In France of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the chief officials of state, the seigneurs, the higher ecclesiastics, even the officers of the army and the marine, were always drawn from the nobility. In the colony this was very far from being the case. Some colonial officials and a few of the seigneurs were among the numerous noblesse of France before they came, and they of course retained their social rank in the new environment. Others were raised to this rank by the King, usually for distinguished services in the colony and on the recommendation of the governor or the intendant. But, even if taken all together, these men constituted a very small proportion of the people in New France. Even among the seigneurs the great majority of these landed gentlemen came from the ranks of the people, and not one in ten was a member of the noblesse. There was, therefore, a social solidarity, a spirit of fraternity, and a feeling of universal comradeship among them which was altogether lacking at home.
The pivot of social life in New France was the settlement at Quebec. This was the colonial capital, the seat of the governor and of the council, the only town in the colony large enough to have all the trappings and tinsel of a well-rounded social set. Here, too, came some of the seigneurs to spend the winter months. The royal officials, the officers of the garrison, the leading merchants, the judges, the notaries and a few other professional men - these with their families made up an elite which managed to echo, even if somewhat faintly, the pomp and glamor of Versailles. Quebec, from all accounts, was lively in the long winters. Its people, who were shut off from all intercourse with Europe for many months at a time, soon learned the art of providing for their own recreation and amusement. The knight-errant La Hontan speaks enthusiastically of the events in the life of this miniature society, of the dinners and dances, the salons and receptions, the intrigues, rivalries, and flirtations, all of which were well suited to his Bohemian tastes. But the clergy frowned upon this levity, of which they believed there was far too much. On one or two occasions they even laid a rigorous and restraining hand upon activities of which they disapproved, notably when the young officers of the Quebec garrison undertook an amateur performance of Moliere's Tartuffe in 1694. At Montreal and Three Rivers, the two smaller towns of the colony, the social circle was more contracted and correspondingly less brilliant. The capital, indeed, had no rival.
Only a small part of the population, however, lived in the towns. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the census (1706) showed a total of 16,417, of whom less than 3000 were in the three chief settlements. The others were scattered along both banks of the St. Lawrence, but chiefly on the northern shore, with the houses grouped into cotes or little villages which almost touched elbows along the banks of the stream. In each of these hamlets the manor-house or home of the seigneur, although not a mansion by any means, was the focus of social life. Sometimes built of timber but more often of stone, with dimensions rarely exceeding twenty feet by forty, it was not much more pretentious than the homes of the more prosperous and thrifty among the seigneur's dependents. Its three or four spacious rooms were, however, more comfortably equipped with furniture which in many cases had been brought from France. Socially, the seigneur and his family did not stand apart from his neighbors. All went to the same church, took part in the same amusements upon days of festival, and not infrequently worked together at the common task of clearing the lands. Sons and daughters of the seigneurs often intermarried with those of habitants in the seigneury or of traders in the towns. There was no social impasse such as existed in France among the various elements in a community.