Peasant, Lord, and Merchant: Rural Society in Three Quebec Parishes 1740-1840
Contains Illustrations, Index
Terry A. Crowley is a professor of history at the University of Guelph,
and the author of Agnes Macphail and the Politics of Equality.
Detailed study of Quebec’s rural past is long overdue. For generations both French and English Canadians have been prone to pronounce pious sentiments ex cathedra about the life of the French Canadian habitant. More recent research has suggested grave deficiencies in French Canadian farming, which have been used to account for economic backwardness as well as to explain the reasons for social and political unrest.
In this important study, University of Toronto historian Allan Greer provides the first extensively researched study of Quebec rural society in the period prior to the British conquest and before the onslaught of industrialization. While his work lacks the sophistication of LeGoff’s Vannes (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1981) or the variety of topics discussed in Dechêne’s Habitants et marchands de Montréal (Plon, 1974), it provides valuable insights into the life of the French Canadian farmers in the traditional areas that were under seigneurial land tenure. No claims for “typicality” are made for the author’s choice of the parishes of Sorel, St. Denis, and St. Ours, which he has studied primarily for material culture, land use patterns, inheritance systems, commercial activity, and landlord/peasant relations. Rather, Greer has wisely chosen localities where there was sufficient documentation to provide at least partial answers to the questions that he poses.
Greer concludes that the century witnessed little fundamental structural change in peasant life apart from population growth and increasing commerce in the countryside. Such a view is supported by the first sociological analysis of rural Quebec, which was undertaken by the Frenchman Gauldrée-Boileau some two decades after the period when this study ends. Greer denies the existence of an “agricultural crisis” in early nineteenth century Quebec as has been much vaunted in the past 20 years.
While some of the author’s conclusions hang too tenuously on one or two examples, his account is sufficiently convincing to challenge some of our assumptions about habitant life. It is a pity that Greer chose to place his work solely within the context of peasant studies, as some aspects of life — notably the inheritance system which had evolved by the early nineteenth century — bore a marked resemblance to that in Ontario.