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Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

Church and State had a common aim in early Canada. Both sought success, not for themselves, but for 'the greater glory of God.' From beginning to end, therefore, the Catholic Church was a staunch ally of the civil authorities in all things which made for real and permanent colonial progress. There were many occasions, of course, when these two powers came almost to blows, for each had its own interpretation of what constituted the colony's best interests. But historians have given too much prominence to these rather brief intervals of antagonism, and have thereby created a misleading impression. The civil and religious authorities of New France were not normally at variance. They clashed fiercely now and then, it is quite true; but during the far greater portion of two centuries they supported each other firmly and worked hand in hand.

Now the root of all trouble, when these two interests came into ill-tempered controversy, was the conduct of the coureurs de bois. These roving traders taught the savages all the vices of French civilization in its most degenerate days. They debauched the Indian with brandy, swindled him out of his furs, and entered into illicit relations with the women of the tribes. They managed in general to convince the aborigines that all Frenchmen were dishonest and licentious. That the representatives of the Most Christian King should tolerate such conduct could not be regarded by the Church as anything other than plain malfeasance in office.

The Church in New France was militant, and in its vanguard of warriors was the Jesuit missionary. Members of the Society of Jesus first came to Quebec in 1625; others followed year by year and were sent off to establish their outposts of religion in the wilderness. They were men of great physical endurance and unconquerable will. The Jesuit went where no others dared to go; he often went alone, and always without armed protection.

Behold him on his way; his breviary Which from his girdle hangs, his only shield. That well-known habit is his panoply, That Cross the only weapon he will wield; By day he bears it for his staff afield, By night it is the pillow of his bed. No other lodging these wild woods can yield Than Earth's hard lap, and rustling overhead A canopy of deep and tangled boughs far spread.

It is not strange that the Jesuit father should have disliked the traders. A single visit from these rough and lawless men would undo the spiritual labor of years. How could the missionary enforce his lessons of righteousness when men of his own race so readily gave the lie to all his teachings? The missionaries accordingly complained to their superiors in poignant terms, and these in turn hurled their thunderbolts of excommunication against all who offended. But the trade was profitable, and Mammon continued, as in all ages, to retain his corps of ardent disciples. Religion and trade never became friendly in New France, nor could they ever become friendly so long as the Church stood firmly by its ancient tradition as a friend of law and order.

With agriculture, however, religion was on better terms. Men who stayed on their farms and tilled the soil might be grouped into parishes, their lands could be made to yield the tithe, their spiritual needs might readily be ministered unto. Hence it became the policy of the Church to support the civil authorities in getting lands cleared for settlement, in improving the methods of cultivation, and in strengthening the seigneurial system at every point. This support the hierarchy gave in various ways, by providing cures for outlying seigneuries, by helping to bring peasant farmers from France, by using its influence to promote early marriages, and above all by setting an example before the people in having progressive agriculture on Church lands.

Both directly and through its dependent organizations the Catholic Church became the largest single landholder of New France. As early as 1626 the Jesuits received their first grant of land, the concession of Notre-Dame des Anges, near Quebec; and from that date forward the order received at intervals large tracts in various parts of the colony. Before the close of French dominion in Canada it had acquired a dozen estates, comprising almost a million arpents of land. This was about one-eighth of the entire area given out in seigneuries. Its two largest seigneurial estates were Batiscan and Cap de la Magdelaine; but Notre-Dame des Anges and Sillery, though smaller in area, were from their closeness to Quebec of much greater value. The king appreciated the work of the Jesuits in Canada, and would gladly have contributed from the royal funds to its furtherance. But as the civil projects of the colony took a great deal of money, he was constrained, for the most part, to show his appreciation of religious enterprise by grants of land. As land was plentiful his bounty was lavish--sometimes a hundred thousand arpents at a time.

Next to the Jesuits as sharers of the royal generosity came the bishop and the Quebec seminary, with a patrimony of nearly seven hundred thousand arpents, an accumulation which was largely the work of Francois de Laval, first bishop of Quebec and founder of the seminary. The Sulpicians had, at the time the colony passed into English hands, an estate of about a quarter of a million arpents, including the most valuable seigneury of New France, on the island of Montreal. The Ursulines of Quebec and of Three Rivers possessed about seventy-five thousand arpents, while other orders and institutions, a half-dozen in all, had estates of varying acreage. Directly under its control the Church had thus acquired in mortmain over two million arpents, while the lay landowners of the colony had secured only about three times as much. It held about one-quarter of all the granted lands, so that its position in Canada was relatively much stronger than in France.

These lands came from the king or his colonial representatives by royal patent. They were given sometimes in frankalmoigne or sometimes as ordinary seigneuries. The distinction was of little account however, for when land once went into the 'dead hand' it was likely to stay there for all time. The Church and its institutions, as seigneurs of the land, granted farms to habitants on the usual terms, gave them their deeds duly executed by a notary, received their annual dues, and assumed all the responsibilities of a lay seigneur. And as a rule the Church made a good seigneur. Settlers were brought out from France, and a great deal of care was taken in selecting them. They were aided, encouraged, and supported through the trying years of pioneering. As early as 1667 Laval was able to point with pride to the fact that his seigneuries of Beaupre and Isle d'Orleans contained over eleven hundred persons--more than one-quarter of the colony's entire population. These ecclesiastical seigneuries, moreover, were among the best in point of intelligent cultivation. With funds and knowledge at its disposal, the Church was better able than the ordinary lay seigneur to provide banal mills and means of communication. These seigneuries were therefore kept in the front rank of agricultural progress, and the example which they set before the eyes of the people must have been of great value.

The seigneurial system was also strengthened by the fact that the boundaries of seigneuries and parishes were usually the same. The chief reason for this is that the parish system was not created until most of the seigneuries had been settled. There were parishes, so-termed, in the colony from the very first; but not until 1722 was the entire colony set off into parish divisions. Forty-one parishes were created in the Quebec district; thirteen in the district of Three Rivers; and twenty-eight in the region round Montreal. These eighty-two parishes were roughly coterminous with the existing seigneuries, but not always so. Some few seigneuries had six or eight parishes within their bounds. In other cases, two or three seigneuries were merged into a single great parish. In the main, however, the two units of civil and spiritual power were alike.

From this identification of the parish and seigneury came some interesting results. The seigneurial church became the parish church; where no church had been provided the manor-house was commonly used as a place of worship. Not infrequently the parish cure took up his abode in the seigneur's home and the two grew to be firm friends, each aiding the other with the weight of his own special authority and influence. The whole system of neighborhood government, as the late Abbe Casgrain once pointed out, was based upon the authority of two men, the cure and the seigneur, 'who walked side by side and extended mutual help to each other. The censitaire, who was at the same time parishioner, had his two rallying-points--the church and the manor-house. The interests of the two were identical.' From this close alliance with the parish the seigneurial system naturally derived a great deal of its strong hold upon the people, for their fidelity to the priest was reflected in loyalty to the seigneur who ranked as his chief local patron and protector.

The people of the seigneuries paid a tithe or ecclesiastical tax for the support of their parish church. In origin, as its name implies, this payment amounted to one-tenth of the land's annual produce; but in New France the tithe was first fixed in 1663 at one-thirteenth, but in 1679 this was reduced to one twenty-sixth. At this figure it has remained to the present day. Tithes were at the outset levied on every product of the soil or of the handiwork of man; but in practice they were collected on grain crops only. When the habitants of New France began to raise flax, hemp, and tobacco some of the priests insisted that these products should yield tithes also; but the Superior Council at Quebec ruled against this claim, and the king, on appeal, confirmed the council's decision. The Church collected its dues with strictness; the cures frequently went into the fields and estimated the total crop of each farm, so that they might later judge whether any habitant had held back the Church's due portion. Tithes were usually paid at Michaelmas, everything being delivered to the cure at his own place of abode. When he lived with the seigneur the tithes and seigneurial dues were paid together. But the total of the tithes collected during any year of the old regime was not large. In 1700 they amounted in value to about five thousand livres, a sum which did not support one-tenth of the colony's body of priests. By far the larger part of the necessary funds had to be provided by generous friends of the Church in France.

Churches were erected in the different seigneuries by funds and labor secured in various ways. Sometimes the bishop obtained money from France, sometimes the seigneur provided it, sometimes the habitants collected it among themselves. More often a part of what was necessary came from each of these three sources. Except in the towns, however, the churches were not pretentious in their architecture, and rarely cost much money. Stone, timber, and other building materials were taken freely from the lands of the seigneury, and the work of construction was usually performed by the parishioners themselves. As a result the edifices were rather ungainly as a rule, being built of rough-hewn timber. In 1681 there were only seven stone churches in all the seigneuries, and the royal officers deplored the fact that the people did not display greater pride or taste in the architecture of their sanctuaries. Bishop Laval felt strongly that this was discreditable, and steadfastly refused to perform the ceremony of consecration in any church which had not been substantially built of stone.

Where a seigneur erected a church at his own expense it was customary to let him have the patronage, or right of naming the priest. This was an honor which the seigneurs seem to have valued highly. 'Every one here is puffed up with the greatest vanity,' wrote the intendant Duchesneau in 1681; 'there is not one but pretends to be a patron and wants the privilege of naming a cure for his lands, yet they are heavily in debt and in extreme poverty.' None of the great bishops of New France--Laval, St Vallier, or Pontbriand--had much sympathy with this seigneurial right of patronage or advowson, and each did what he could to break down the custom. In the end they succeeded; the bishop named the priest of every parish, although in many cases he sought the seigneur's counsel on such matters.

In the church of his seigneury the lord of the manor continued, however, to have various other prerogatives. For his use a special pew was always provided, and an elaborate decree, issued in 1709, set forth precisely where this pew should be. In religious processions the seigneur was entitled to precedence over all other laymen of the parish, taking his place directly behind the cure. He was the first to receive the tokens of the day on occasions of religious festival, as for example the palms on Palm Sunday. And when he died, the seigneur was entitled to interment beneath the floor of the church, a privilege accorded only to men of worldly distinction and unblemished lives. All this recognition impressed the habitants, and they in turn gave their seigneur polite deference. Along the line of travel his carriage or carriole had the right of way, and the habitant doffed his cap in salute as the seigneur drove by. Catalogne mentioned that, despite all this, the Canadian seigneurs were not as ostentatiously given tokens of the habitants' respect as were the seigneurs in France. But this did not mean that the relations between the two classes were any less cordial. It meant only that the clear social atmosphere of the colony had not yet become dimmed by the mists of court duplicity. The habitants of New France respected the horny-handed man in homespun whom they called their seigneur: the depth of this loyalty and respect could not fairly be measured by old-world standards.

As a seigneur of lands the Church had the right to hold courts and administer justice within the bounds of its great estates. Like most lay seigneurs it received its lands with full rights of high, middle, and low jurisdiction (haute, moyenne, et basse justice). In its seigneurial courts fines might be imposed or terms of imprisonment meted out. Even the death penalty might be exacted. Here was a great opportunity for abuse. A very inquisition would have been possible under the broad terms in which the king gave his grant of jurisdiction. Yet the Church in New France never to the slightest degree used its powers of civil jurisdiction to work oppression. As a matter of fact it rarely, if ever, made use of these powers at all. Troubles which arose among the habitants in the Church seigneuries were settled amicably, if possible, by the parish priest. Where the good offices of the priest did not suffice, the disputants were sent off to the nearest royal court. All this is worth comment, for in the earlier days of European feudalism the bishops and abbots held regular courts within the fiefs of the Church. And students of jurisprudence will recall that they succeeded in tincturing the old feudal customs with those principles of the canon law which all churchmen had learned and knew. While ostensibly applying crude mediaeval customs, many of these courts of the Church fiefs were virtually administering a highly developed system of jurisprudence based on the Roman law. Laval might have made history repeat itself in Canada; but he had too many other things engaging his attention.

Lay seigneurs, on the other hand, held their courts regularly. And the fact that they did so is of great historical significance, for the right of court-holding rather than the obligation of military service is the earmark which distinguishes feudalism from all other systems of land tenure. Practically every Canadian seigneur had the judicial prerogative; he could establish a court in his seigneury, appoint its judge or judges, impose penalties upon the habitants, and put the fees or costs in his own pocket. In France this was a great source of emolument, and too many seigneurs used their courts to yield income rather than to dispense even-handed justice. But in Canada, owing to the relatively small number of suitors in the seigneuries, the system could not be made to pay its way. Some seigneurs appointed judges who held court once or twice a week. Others tried to save this expense by doing the work themselves. Behind the big table in the main room of his manor-house the seigneur sat in state and meted out justice in rough-and-ready fashion. He was supposed to administer it in true accord with the Custom of Paris; he might as well have been asked to apply the Code of Hammurabi or the Capitularies of Charlemagne. But if the seigneur did not know the law, he at least knew the disputants, and his decisions were not often wide of the eternal equities. At any rate, if a suitor was not satisfied he could appeal to the royal courts. Only minor cases were dealt with in the seigneurial courts, and the appeals were not numerous.

On the whole, despite its crudeness, the administration of seigneurial justice in New France was satisfactory enough. The habitants, as far as the records show, made no complaint. Justice was prompt and inexpensive. It discouraged chicane and common barratry. Even the sarcastic La Hontan, who had little to say in general praise of the colony and its institutions, accords the judicial system a modest tribute. 'I will not say,' he writes, 'that the Goddess of Justice is more chaste here than in France, but at any rate, if she is sold, she is sold more cheaply. In Canada we do not pass through the clutches of advocates, the talons of attorneys, and the claws of clerks. These vermin do not as yet infest the land. Every one here pleads his own cause. Our Themis is prompt, and she does not bristle with fees, costs, and charges.' The testimony of others, though not so rhetorically expressed, is enough to prove that both royal and seigneurial courts did their work in fairly acceptable fashion.

The Norman habitant, as has already been pointed out, was by nature restive, impulsive, and quarrelsome. That he did not make every seigneury a hotbed of petty strife was due largely to the stern hand held over him by priest and seigneur alike, but by his priest particularly. The Church in the colony never lost, as in France, the full confidence of the masses; the higher dignitaries never lost touch with the priest, nor the latter with the people. The clergy of New France did not form a privileged order, living on the fruits of other men's labor. On the contrary, they gave the colony far more than they took from it. Although paid a mere pittance, they never complained of the great physical drudgery that their work too often required. Indeed, if laborers were ever worthy of their hire, such toilers were the spiritual pioneers of France beyond the seas. No one who does not approach their aims and achievements with sympathy can ever fully understand the history of these earlier days. No one who does not appreciate the dominating place which the Church occupied in every walk of colonial life can fully realize the great help which it gave, both by its active interest and by its example, to the agricultural policy of the civil power. The Church owed much to the seigneurial system, but not more than the system owed to it.


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

 

Chronicles of Canada


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