The Seigneurial system in Early Canada: A Geographical Study


247 pages
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7735-0431-1




Reviewed by Terry A. Crowley

Terry A. Crowley is a professor of history at the University of Guelph,
and the author of Agnes Macphail and the Politics of Equality.


Rural life and agricultural development have not been the object of much serious study in Canada because this country’s greatest period of prosperity was derived from industrialization and urbanization. A marked exception to the dearth of solid works was this book by University of British Columbia geographer, Richard Colebrook Harris, which first appeared in 1966. As a geographical study of the seigneurial system in Quebec prior to the Conquest of 1760, it provided a fresh outlook on a well-worn subject.

The contents of this book are larger than the title implies. The foremost concern of Harris is naturally with the land, but through working in traditional historical sources, which he interpreted in an original manner, the author came to draw a more general portrait of rural life. His interest is not only with the effect of the seigneurial system on the topography of the St. Lawrence River Valley and its tributaries, but also on the relations between seigneurs and their habitants, the seigneurs’ revenues, the habitants’ agricultural practice, and the seigneury as a social and economic unit. Only after we have learned much about life in early rural French Canada does the author come to the startling conclusion that the seigneurial system was largely irrelevant to the geography of the time and place. The long, narrow fields that stretch back from the river in such a dramatic manner stem not from the seigneurial system but result from the imperatives of transportation and the dynamics of human reproduction.

Now, nearly twenty years later, this study is being reprinted with a new preface. Professor Harris admirably discusses the book’s shortcomings and those areas where his research has been superseded by others. The book has stood up remarkably well over two decades, and if there is a market for a reprint, its appearance is welcomed.


Harris, Richard Colebrook, “The Seigneurial system in Early Canada: A Geographical Study,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 23, 2024,