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The seigneurial system - a little bit of feudalism

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The seigneurial system - a little bit of feudalism

Feudalism as you may know the term emerged in the Middle Ages and became the dominant social structure throughout Europe: the feudal hierarchy determined the relationship between monarch and nobles, set in place an economic system and enabled Europeans to co-habit and survive in small communities. By the 1700s there were still aspects of feudal practice in French society but feudalism as a system had lost its importance, at least to the national government and the broader economy, which by then was largely capitalist in nature. What remained in rural areas was the seigneurial system, a form of feudalism that while not nationally significant still impacted on the lives of the peasantry.

In this watered-down form of feudalism, the seigneur ('lord', in practice the land owner) generally rented out certain sections of his estate in small plots to individuals or small groups. Those who lived and worked on the seigneur's land were subject to a range of quasi-feudal taxes or requirements. The land-owner could hold a seigneurial court within his estate and could therefore pass legal judgement on peasants who lived there; there were over 70,000 of these courts in place. The seigneur could extend a monopoly over the flour mill, the baker's oven and the grape press (all critical infrastructure in a village) and demand taxes for their use. He could demand seigneurial dues such as the quitrent or the champart (requisitioning of a certain amount of produce). The seigneur could also demand the much-loathed corvee, which required each peasant to complete labour on projects belonging to the seigneur, such as building or repairing his house, fences or bridges (the corvee was unpaid and often demanded at short notice).

It was not just the nobility who could be seigneurs: in fact many members of the clergy and the bourgeoisie purchased seigneuries through the 17th and early 18th centuries. Many were attracted by the status symbols and the trappings of being a seigneur: exclusive hunting rights, an individual pew in the local church and so forth. The seigneurial system came under attack throughout the 1700s though, many of the philosophe intelligentsia commenting that many peasants existed as virtual slaves. Some radical economists suggested that the seigneurial system held back production and that a more open labour market would aid progress. The legislation and paperwork involved in maintaining such a system was also extensive and complex. Despite these criticisms, the seigneurial system and its semi-feudal practises did not undergo reform until the peasants took matters into their own hands in 1789.

All text © Steve Thompson 2006

To reference this page: Thompson, S. vcehistory info (Internet) at Today's date (last access)

Key points:

  • The seigneurial system was a derivation of the old medieval feudal system and remained in place by the 1780s

  • Seigneurs were land-owners who retained extensive rights and privileges over those who lived on their estates

  • This system was unfair and exploitative, and was much criticised by both the philosophes and the peasantry

Voltaire - a thorn in the ancien regime

Voltaire was the pen-name of the French writer François-Marie Arouet, who lived between 1694 and 1778. Born into a moderately wealthy family, the son of a government official, Voltaire received an education in Greek, Latin and law from the Jesuits. He was a free-spirited character even when young: at age 20, while working in Holland, he attempted to elope with a young French emigre (their plot was discovered by Voltaire's father, who ordered him back to France). After arriving back in Paris he spent a year imprisoned in the Bastille for writing satirical poems about members of the aristocracy. After his release Voltaire continued to write undaunted; in 1726 he was forced into exile after a lettre de cachet was issued against him. During Voltaire's three years in England he engaged in study of the English political and judicial systems, considering it to be more advanced and respectful of human rights than those of France. In 1729 he published Philosophical Letters on the English which caused considerable controversy in France.

One of Voltaire's strongest beliefs was also the need for religious tolerance. Throughout his life he was a fierce critic of the endemic corruption present in the Catholic church, particularly among high-ranking clergymen such as canons, bishops and archbishops. He wrote plenty about the disproportionate land-ownership of the church and the large tithes it imposed on the peasantry. He commented on how wealthy aristocrats bought positions in the upper clergy and of the interference of Rome in local and regional church affairs. He was not anti-religious however; though often accused of being an atheist (an insulting slur at the time) Voltaire often proclaimed belief in a higher being; he was, more correctly, a deist: one who believes in a non-interfering God.


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