Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Debating seigneurialism -- UPDATED

Props to Borealia for hosting a debate, still ongoing, about the meaning or even the existence of a "seigneurial system" in New France -- because lively debate about anything in early Canadian history always seems all too scarce and rare. Allan Greer, who thrives on controversy (in the best way!) launched the exchange with his essay "There was no Seigneurial System" in late September, and various parties have been responding with Borealia posts since, including Greer.

But I fear this is a debate with almost no there there. Greer now clarifies
my piece was aimed primarily at a certain version of the history of New France found in textbooks, reference works and heritage sites. This is the idealized story of a “seigneurial system,” unique to French Canada and featuring seigneurs and censitaires living in harmony, each with their respective duties and benefits. I was really speaking to an anglophone phenomenon, an interpretation that is consistent with a long tradition of patronizing English-Canadian views of Quebec history and society.
I do not doubt remnants of this vision of New France can be found. But attacking amateurs and "heritage sites" seems a bit like taking on targets unworthy of his scholarly skills. Among students of New France, even anglophone ones, that vision of seigneurial land tenure was pretty thoroughly disposed of as long ago as the early 1960s by Cole Harris's The Seigneurial System in Early Canada. Harris established that seigneurial tenure did not determine the geography of settlement, did not much enrich the seigneurs and did not much control the life and work of censitaires. In his wake, it became pretty much de rigueur among scholars to declare that Canadian seigneurialism was hardly the determining factor in the society, geography, and economy of New France, and certainly was not a relic of European feudalism.

Greer himself  had a substantial role in restoring the importance of seigneurialism by demonstrating (in Peasant, Lord, Merchant) that while it may not have enriched the seigneurs much, seigneurial tenure definitely did help to impoverish the tenants, who had forever to pay substantial rents and charges from their meagre revenues. Greer, indeed, did not hesitate to associate seigneurialism with feudalism, in the sense of a landowning class exploiting a labouring agricultural class.  I suspect he would still stand by that, though indeed, in New France power did not flow from control of the land (a classic and useful definition of feudalism)  More the reverse.

Which leaves me wondering if the attack here is on something of a strawman: a complaint mostly that others, particularly non-scholarly others, make too much of a rigid and fully elaborated seigneurial "system." The latest contributions to the exchange seem limited to teasing out whether "system" is an appropriate term -- though indeed the more indeterminate "regime" is surely more common.

But the Borealia exchange will serve its purpose if it attracts interested readers to Greer's new book, the latest of a long line of powerful, and original scholarship:  Property and Dispossession: Natives, Empires and Land in Early Modern North America -- and to the work of the other commentators and critics at Borealia

Update, October 19:  Allan Greer responds:

Oh my Goodness, that was a severe misreading of my little piece on the “Seigneurial System.” You write as if what’s at issue is some sort of measure of economic impact (which is what historians argued about 30 years ago). My article was about the concept of a “system,” a distorted view that’s quite widespread in school textbooks and in scholarly writings in English. Cole Harris’s book is a prime case in point, even though you somehow have me in agreement with him. (I do agree with him on a lot of things, but not on this point.) The question is not whether it’s important or not: it’s whether or not there is an “it.”
I should note belatedly, that Allan and I became friends many years ago.  I trust that the above is further evidence that we both hold that writers and historians should be able to disagree without endangering their friendships.  Allan, I'm still not convinced that debating whether it is an "it" is worth such attention, but I appreciate your correction to my account of your position.

Image at top: from Borealia
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