Notes on 12th Text for Reading Field: Greer

Canadian History, Week Two

Allan Greer. Peasant, lord, and merchant: Rural society in three Quebec parishes, 1740-1840. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985. [Online preview:]

In this local history Allan Greer examines economic and social development patterns in rural French Canada. He utilizes quantitative data generated in three neighbouring parishes of the Lower Richelieu region in Canada — Sorel, St. Ours, and St. Denis — between 1740 and 1840. He makes use of a variety of documents, principally parish registers, census records, and inventories of merchant and estate holdings. Because comprehensive records for each parish are not available, Greer fills in the gaps by adapting general conclusions drawn from one parish and applying them to the others.

The period Greer surveys is significant because it covers the transition from French to English rule. He refers to the historiographical debate on whether an agricultural crisis occurred in early nineteenth-century French Canada. Although he concludes that no crisis occurred, he does not elaborate on the wider significance of the debate. Rather, his interest is in supplying a view of rural life in the region which illuminates the workings of the seigneurial system over the period, to make the argument that the tenant farmers were peasants in a feudal system. He then establishes, through class analysis, that political economic struggle was largely absent from the peasant class.

In Greer’s estimation, the feudal relation was quite burdensome. Yet, he does not find pronounced deterioration of the socio economic condition of tenant farmers: their farms did not get overly fragmented, overall yields did not fall off (excepting an expected, initial drop consistent with virgin soil fertility giving way to a long term normal level in subsequent years); there was a modest rise in individual and family levels of wealth as measured by reported possessions. However, the habitants did not experience upward mobility indicative of the emergence of a nascent, indigenous middle class. Greer does not find evidence of peasant class fragmentation into proletariat and bourgeoisie. His explanation, arrived at through analysing demographic patterns of the peasant household and patterns of ownership, is that the ‘feudal burden’ (the cens et rentes, miscellaneous levies, and tithes that were paid out to the seigneurs and ecclesiastical representatives), effectively precluded peasant accumulation of capital. By his reckoning it cumulatively amounted to over one half of any surplus production on a tenant’s farm.

Interestingly, over the period surveyed, apparently the peasant class did not find this circumstance objectionable. Greer finds that under the feudal system, relations and lifestyles exhibited remarkable stability. Whatever the impact of the Conquest at higher levels of society, the habitants continued in a fairly predictable round. Change, in inheritance patterns for example, though it did happen, happened slowly and was not necessarily dictated from above but rather indicated ongoing negotiation between members of the local communities. On the part of peasant households, Greer’s study  suggests, the chief concern (beyond immediate survival) was ensuring that offspring were positioned to lead family lives at about the same level of comfort and in or about the same region, as their parents had led.

Greer provides some information on the local aristocracy — the seigneurs and the clergy — but not in the same detail. Information about members of that class serves to round out the description of communities, primarily to provide context for, and contrast to, peasant behaviours and lifestyles. The role of merchant capital within this feudal context is examined through a study of the business dealings of one itinerant merchant who turned settler and a discussion of fur trade company hiring practices. While short term successes seem to outweigh instances of financial loss on the part of merchant concerns, by Greer’s description, the long term trends in the location he examines do not seem to have held promise for increased diversification of investment opportunities.

Ultimately seigneurial land-holding and the laws which upheld it, supported a stable set of feudal relations that were self-supporting (apparently quite admirably so), and resistant to capitalist innovation. All classes of the rural society of French Canada appear to have been constrained, by structural arrangements, from engaging in the types of speculation typical in societies which experience rapid or pronounced shifts towards capitalist patterns of development.

Other Commentaries:

See ‘logos.hfd’, customer review, “Interesting but narrow in scope,” (19 December 2008), for a pithy review.


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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