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How the Habitant Lived

The seigneurs of New France were not a privileged order. Between them and the habitants there was no great gulf fixed, no social impasse such as existed between the two classes in France. The seigneur often lived and worked like a habitant; his home was not a great deal better than theirs; his daily fare was much the same. The habitant, on the other hand, might himself become a seigneur by saving a little money, and this is what frequently happened. By becoming a seigneur, however, he did not change his mode of life, but continued to work as he had done before. There were some, of course, who took their social rank with great seriousness, and proved ready to pay out good money for letters-patent giving them minor titles of nobility. Thus Jacques Le Ber, a bourgeois of Montreal who made a comfortable fortune out of the fur trade, bought a seigneury and then acquired the rank of gentilhomme by paying six thousand livres for it. But the possession of an empty title, acquired by purchase or through the influence of official friends at Quebec, did not make much impression on the masses of the people. The first citizens in the hearts of the community were the men of personal courage, talent, and worldly virtues.

Sur cette terre encor sauvage Les vieux titres sont inconnus; La noblesse est dans le courage, Dans les talents, dans les vertus.

Nevertheless, to be a seigneur was always an honor, for the manor-house was the recognized social centre of every neighborhood.

The manor-house was not a mansion. Built sometimes of rough-hewn timber, but more commonly of stone, it was roomy and comfortable, although not much more pretentious than the homes of well-to-do habitants. Three or four rooms on the ground floor with a spacious attic made up the living quarters. The furniture often came from France, and its quality gave the whole interior an air of distinction. As for the habitants, their homes were also of stone or timber--long and rather narrow structures, heavily built, and low. They were whitewashed on the outside with religious punctuality each spring. The eaves projected over the walls, and high-peaked little dormer windows thrust themselves from the roof here and there. The houses stood very near the roadway, with scarcely ever a grass plot or single shade tree before them. In midsummer the sun beat furiously upon them; in winter they stood in all their bleakness full-square to the blasts that drove across the river.

Behind the house was a storeroom built in 'lean-to' fashion, and not far away stood the barn and stable, made usually of timbers laid one upon the other with chinks securely mortared. Somewhat aloof was the root-house, half dug in the ground, banked generously with earth round about and overhead. Within convenient distance of the house, likewise, was the bake-oven, built of boulders, mortar, and earth, with the wood-pile near by. Here with roaring fires once or twice each week the family baking was done. Round the various buildings ran some sort of fence, whether of piled stones or rails, and in a corner of the enclosed plot was the habitant's garden. Viewed by the traveler who passed along the river this straggling line of whitewashed structures stood out in bold relief against the towering background of green hills beyond. The whole colony formed one long rambling village, each habitant touching elbows with his neighbor on either side.

Within the habitant's abode there were usually not more than three regular rooms. The front door opened into a capacious living room with its great open fireplace and hearth. This served as dining-room as well. A gaily colored woolen carpet or rug, made in the colony, usually decked the floor. There was a table and a couch; there were chairs made of pine with seats of woven underbark, all more or less comfortable. Often a huge side-board rose from the floor to the low, open-beamed ceiling. Pictures of saints adorned the walls. A spinning-wheel stood in the corner, sharing place perhaps with a musket set on the floor stock downward, but primed for ready use. Adjoining this room was the kitchen with its fireplace for cooking, its array of pots and dishes, its cupboards, shelves, and other furnishings. All of these latter the habitant and his sons made for themselves. The economic isolation of the parish made its people versatile after their own crude fashion. The habitant was a handy man, getting pretty good results from the use of rough material and tools. Even at the present day his descendants retain much of this facility. At the opposite end of the house was a bedroom. Upstairs was the attic, so low that one could scarcely stand upright in any part of it, but running the full length and breadth of the house. Here the children, often a round dozen of them, were stowed at night. A shallow iron bowl of tallow with a wick protruding gave its dingy light. Candles were not unknown, but they were a luxury. Every one went to bed when darkness came on, for there was nothing else to do. Windows were few, and to keep out the cold they were tightly battened down. The air within must have been stifling; but, as one writer has suggested, the habitant and his family got along without fresh air in his dwelling just as his descendant of to-day manages to get along without baths.

For the most part the people of Old Canada were comfortably clothed and well fed. Warm cloth of drugget--etoffe du pays, as it was called--came from the hand-looms of every parish. It was all wool and stood unending wear. It was cheap, and the women of the household fashioned it into clothes. Men, women, and children alike wore it in everyday use; but on occasions of festivity they liked to appear in their brighter plumage of garments brought from France. In the summer the children went nearly unclothed and bare-footed always. A single garment without sleeves and reaching to the knees was all that covered their nakedness. In winter every one wore furs outdoors. Beaver skins were nearly as cheap as cloth, and the wife of the poorest habitant could have a winter wardrobe that it would nowadays cost a small fortune to provide. Heavy clogs made of hide--the bottes sauvages as they were called--or moccasins of tanned and oiled skins, impervious to the wet, were the popular footwear in winter and to some extent in summer as well. They were laced high up above the ankles, and with a liberal supply of coarse-knitted woolen socks the people managed to trudge anywhere without discomfort even in very cold weather. Plaited straw hats were made by the women for ordinary summer use, but hats of beaver, made in the fashion of the day, were always worn on dress occasions. Every man wore one to Mass each Sunday morning. In winter the knitted cap or toque was the favorite. Made in double folds of woolen yarn with all the colors of the rainbow, it could be drawn down over the ears as a protection from the cold; with its tassel swinging to and fro this toque was worn by everybody, men, women, and children alike. Attached to the coat was often a hood, known as a capuchin, which might be pulled over the toque as an additional head-covering on a journey through the storm. Knitted woolen gloves were also made at home, likewise mitts of sheepskin with the wool left inside. The apparel of the people was thus adapted to their environment, and besides being somewhat picturesque it was thoroughly comfortable.

The daily fare of New France was not of limitless variety, but it was nourishing and adequate. Bread made from wheat flour and cakes made from ground maize were plentiful. Meat and fish were within the reach of all. Both were cured by smoke after the Indian fashion and could be kept through the winter without difficulty. Vegetables of various kinds were grown, but peas were the great staple. Peas were to the French what maize was to the redskin. In every rural home soupe aux pois came daily to the table. Whole families were reared to vigorous manhood on it. Even to-day the French Canadian has not by any means lost his liking for this nourishing and palatable food. Beans, too, were a favorite vegetable in the old days; not the tender haricots of the modern menu, but the feves or large, tough-fibred beans that grew in Normandy and were brought by its people to the New World. There were potatoes, of course, and they were patates, not pommes de terre. Cucumbers were plentiful, indeed they were being grown by the Indians when the French first came to the St Lawrence. As they were not indigenous to that region it is for others than the student of history to explain how they first came there. Fruits there were also, such as apples, plums, cherries, and French gooseberries, but not in abundance. Few habitants had orchards, but most of them had one or two fruit-trees grown from seedlings which came from France. Wild fruits, especially raspberries, cranberries, and grapes, were to be had for the picking, and the younger members of each family gathered them all in season. Even in the humbler homes of the land there was no need for any one to go hungry. More than one visitor to the colony, indeed, was impressed by the rude comfort in which the habitants lived. 'The boors of these manors,' wrote the voluble La Hontan,1 'live with greater comfort than an infinity of the gentry in France.' And for once he was probably right.

As for drink, there were both tea and coffee to be had from the traders; but they were costly and not in very general use. Milk was cheap and plentiful. Brandy and wine came from France in shiploads, but brandy was largely used in the Indian trade, and wine appeared only on the tables of the well-to-do; the ordinary habitant could not afford it save on state occasions. Cheap beer, brewed in the colony, was within easier range of his purse. There were several breweries in the colony, although they do not appear to have been very profitable to their owners. Home-brewed ale was much in use. When duly aged it made a fine beverage, although insidious in its effects sometimes. But no guest ever came to any colonial home without a proffer of something to drink. Hospitality demanded it. The habitant, as a rule, was very fond of the flagon. Very often, as the records of the day lead us to believe, he drank not wisely but too well. Idleness had a hand in the development of this trait, for in the long winters the habitant had little to do but visit his neighbors.

The men of New France smoked a great deal, and the women sometimes followed their example. Children learned to smoke before they learned to read or write. Tobacco was grown in the colony, and every habitant had a patch of it in his garden; and then as now this tabac canadien was fierce stuff with an odor that scented the whole seigneury. The art of smoking a pipe was one of the first lessons which the Frenchman acquired from his Indian friends, and this became the national solace through the long spells of idleness. Such as it was, the tobacco of the colony was no luxury, for every one could grow enough and to spare to serve his wants. The leaves were set in the sun to cure, and were then put away till needed.

As to the methods of farming, neither the contemporary records nor the narratives of travel tell us much. But it is beyond doubt that the habitant was not a very scientific cultivator. Catalogne remarks in his valuable report that if the fields of France were cultivated like the farms of Canada three-fourths of the people would starve. Fertilization of the land was rare. All that was usually done in this direction was to burn the stubble in the spring before the land went under the plough. Rotation of crops was practically unknown. A portion of each farm was allowed to lie fallow once in a while, but as these fallow fields were rarely ploughed and weeds might grow without restraint, the rest from cultivation was of little value. Even the cultivated fields were ploughed but once a year and rather poorly at that, for the land was ploughed in ridges and there was a good deal of waste between the furrows. When Peter Kalm, the famous Scandinavian naturalist and traveler, paid his visit to the colony in 1748 he found 'white wheat most commonly in the fields.' But oats, rye, and barley were also grown. Some of the habitants grew maize in great quantities, while nearly all raised vegetables of various sorts, chiefly cabbages, pumpkins, and coarse melons. Some gave special attention to the cultivation of flax and hemp. The meadows of the St Lawrence valley were very fertile, and far superior, in Kalm's opinion, to those of the New England colonies; they furnished fodder in abundance. Wild hay could be had for the cutting, and every habitant had his conical stack of it on the river marshes. Hence the raising of cattle and horses became an important branch of colonial husbandry. The cattle and sheep were of inferior breed, undersized, and not very well cared for. The horses were much better. The habitant had a particular fondness for horses; even the poorest tried to keep two or three. This, as Catalogne pointed out, was a gross extravagance, for there was no work for the horses to do during nearly half the year.

The implements of agriculture were as crude as the methods. Most of them were made in the colony out of inferior materials and with poor workmanship. Kalm saw no drains in any part of the colony, although, as he naively remarked, 'they seemed to be much needed in places.' The fields were seldom fenced, and the cattle often made their way among the growing grain. The women usually worked with the men, especially at harvest time, for extra labor was scarce. Even the wife and daughters of the seigneur might be seen in the fields during the busy season. Each habitant had a clumsy, wooden-wheeled cart or wagon for workaday use. In this he trundled his produce to town once or twice a year. For pleasure there was the celeche and the carriole. The celeche was a quaint two-wheeled vehicle with its seat set high in the air on springs of generous girth; the carriole, a low-set sleigh on solid wooden runners, with a high back to give protection from the cold. Both are still used in various parts of Quebec today. The habitant made his own harness, often decorating it gaily and taking great pride in his workmanship.

The feudal folk of New France did not spend all their time or energies in toil. They had numerous holidays and times of recreation. Loyal to his Church, the habitant kept every jour de fete with religious precision. These days came frequently, so much so, according to Catalogne's report, that during the whole agricultural season from May to October, only ninety clear days were left for labor. On these numerous holidays were held the various festivals, religious or secular. Sunday, also, was a day of general rendezvous. Every one came to Mass, whatever the weather. After the service various announcements were made at the church door by the local capitaine de la milice, who represented the civil government in the parish. Then the rest of the day was given over to visiting and recreation. There was plenty of time, moreover, for hunting and fishing; and the average habitant did both to his heart's content. In the winter there was a great deal of visiting back and forth among neighbors, even on week-days. Dancing was a favorite diversion and card-playing also. Gambling at cards was more common among the people than suited either the priests or the civil authorities, as the records often attest. Less objectionable amusements were afforded by the corvees recreatives or gatherings at a habitant's home for some combination of work and play. The corn-husking corvee, for reasons which do not need elucidation, was of course the most popular of these. Of study or reading there was very little, for only a very small percentage of the people could read. Save for a few manuals of devotion there were no books in the home, and very few anywhere in the colony.

Two or three chroniclers of the day have left us pen-pictures of the French Canadians as they were before the English came. As a race, Giles Hocquart says, they were physically strong, well set-up, with plenty of stamina. They impressed La Hontan also as vigorous and untiring at anything that happened to gain their interest. They were fond of honors and sensitive to the slightest affront. This in part accounts for their tendency to litigiousness, which various intendant mentioned with regret. The habitant went to law with his neighbor at every opportunity. His attitude toward questions of public policy was one of rare self-control; but when anything touched his own personal interests he always waxed warm immediately. Pretexts for squabbling there were in plenty. With lands unfenced and cattle wandering about, with most deeds and other legal documents loosely drawn, with too much time on their hands during the winter, it is not surprising that the people were continually falling out and rushing to the nearest royal court. The intendant Raudot suggested that this propensity should be curbed, otherwise there would soon be more lawsuits than settlers in the colony.

On the whole, however, the habitant was well behaved and gave the authorities very little trouble. To the Church of his fathers he gave ungrudging devotion, attending its services and paying its tithes with exemplary care. The Church was a great deal to the habitant; it was his school, his hospital, his newspaper, his philosopher telling of things present and things to come. From a religious point of view the whole colony was a unit. 'Thank God,' wrote one governor, 'there are no heretics here.' The Church, needing to spend no time or thought in crushing its enemies, could give all its attention to its friends. As for offences against the laws of the land these were conspicuously few. The banks of the St Lawrence, when once the redskin danger was put out of the way, were quite safe for men to live upon. The hand of justice was swift and sure, but its intervention was not very often needed. New France was as law-abiding as New England; her people were quite as submissive to their leaders in both Church and State.

The people were fond of music, and seem to have obtained great enjoyment from their rasping, home-made violins. Every parish had its fiddler. But the popular repertoire was not very extensive. The Norman airs and folk-songs of the day were easy to learn, simple and melodious. They have remained in the hearts and on the lips of all French Canada for over two centuries. The shantyman of Three Rivers still goes off to the woods chanting the Malbrouck s'en va-t-en guerre which his ancestors sang in the days of Blenheim and Oudenarde. Many other traits of the race have been borne to the present time with little change. Then as now the habitant was a voluble talker, a teller of great stories about his own feats and experiences. Hocquart was impressed with the scant popular regard for the truth in such things, and well he may have been. Even to-day this trait has not wholly disappeared.

Unlike his prototype, the censitaire of Old France, the habitant never became dispirited; even when things went wrong he retained his bonhomie. Taking too little thought for the morrow, he liked, as Charlevoix remarks, 'to get the fun out of his money, and scarcely anybody amused himself by hoarding it.' He was light-hearted even to frivolousness, and this gave the austere Church fathers many serious misgivings. He was courteous always, but boastful, and regarded his race as the salt of the earth. A Norman in every bone of his body, he used, as his descendants still do, quaint Norman idioms and forms of speech. He was proud of his ancestry. Stories that went back to the days when 'twenty thousand thieves landed at Hastings' were passed along from father to son, gaining in terms of prodigious velour as they went. His versatility gained him the friendship and confidence of the Indian, an advantage which his English brother to the south was rarely able to secure.

Much of the success which marked French diplomacy with the tribes was due to this versatility. Beneath an ungainly exterior the habitant often concealed a surprising ability in certain lines of action. He was a master of blandishment when he had an end thereby to gain. Dealings which required duplicity, provided the outcome appeared to be desirable, did not rudely shock his conscience. He had no Puritan scruples in his dealings with men of another race and religion. But in many things he had a high sense of honor, and nothing roused his ire so readily as to question it. Unstable as water, however, he did not excel in tasks that took patience. He wanted to plough one day and hunt the next, so that in the long run he rarely did anything well. This spirit of independence was very pronounced. The habitant felt himself to be a free man. This is why he spurned the name 'censitaire.' As Charlevoix puts it, 'he breathed from his birth the air of liberty,' and showed it in the way he carried his head. A singular type, when all is said, and worthy of more study than it has received.


1 Louis Armand, Baron La Hontan, came to Canada in 1683, and lived for some time among the habitants of Beaupre, below Quebec, and afterwards in the neighborhood of Montreal. He also journeyed in the Far West and wrote a fantastic account of his travels, of which an English edition was published in 1703.


This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Chronicles of Canada, The Seigneurs of Old Canada, A Chronicle of New World Feudalism, 1915

 

Chronicles of Canada


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