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Seigneurial system

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This article is about the seigneurial system in New France. For the Medieval system see Manorialism.

The seigneurial system was the semi-feudal system of noble privilege in France and its colonies.

The seigneurial system was introduced to New France in 1627 by Cardinal Richelieu. Land was arranged in long strips, called seigneuries, along the banks of the St. Lawrence River. Each piece of land belonged to the lord, or seigneur. The seigneur divided the land further among his tenants, known as censiteurs or habitants, who cleared the land, built houses and other buildings, and farmed the land. The habitants paid taxes to the seigneur (the cens et rentes, or "cents and rents"), and were usually required to work for their seigneur for three days per year, often building roads (the corvée). Unlike Roman-based feudalism from which it was derived the lord of the manor was not granted the "haut" or "bas" jurisdiction to impose fines and penalties as in Europe, those powers were given to the intendant of the king.

Seigneuries were often divided into a number of areas. There was a common area on the shore of the St. Lawrence river, behind which was the best land and the seigneur's estate itself. There was also one or more sets of farmland, not adjacent to the river, immediately behind the first set.

Seigneurs were vassals to the king, who granted them the deeds to the seigneuries. The king was represented in New France by his intendant; the first intendant of New France was Jean Talon, who made it a requirement that seigneurs actually live on their estates.

The seigneurial system differed somewhat from its equivalent in France; while in France it was a remnant of the feudal system, in New France it was seen as an incentive for settlement and colonization. It also allowed for increased control over settlement by a central authority.

After the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the conquest of Quebec by the British during the Seven Years' War, the Quebec Act of 1774 retained the seigneurial system. It remained relatively intact for almost a century; some Englishmen purchased seigneuries; others were divided equally between male and female offspring; some were run by the widows of seigneurs as their children grew to adulthood. The system was formally abolished by the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada and assented to by Governor Lord Elgin on June 22nd 1854 in An Act for the Abolition of Feudal Rights and Duties in Lower Canada which was brought into effect on December 18 of that year. The act called for the creation of a special Seigneurial Court composed of all the justices of Lower Canada, which was presented a series of questions concerning the various economic and property rights that abolition would change. Some of the vestiges of this system of land-owning continued into the twentieth century as some of the feudal rents continued to be collected. The system was finally abolished when the last residual rents were repurchased through a system of provincial bonds.

A comparable seigneurial system was the patroon system of heritable land holdings in the Hudson River Valley that was established by the Dutch West India Company. The Company granted seigneurial powers to the "patrons" who paid for the transport of settlers in New Netherlands. The system was not abolished by the English when they took possession of the Dutch holdings. The heirs of the patroons— bearing names like Schuyler, van Rensselaer, Pell, van Cortlandt, Livingston and Morris— dominated the colonial period and played major political roles in New York even after the American Revolution.

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