The Limitations of Feudalism in New France

France’s feudal society was all encompassing. The context of the metropolitan affected not only the lives of those living in France’s European territories, but particularly its North American colonies. The nature of French feudal society prevented its development of a strong and stable New France in North America.

The political, social and economic contexts of feudal France were all closely intertwined. Those with power in the seigneurial system relied on the surplus of the peasantry, who made up the vast majority of the population. This low-level farming provided the basis of France’s economy. Predominantly composed of subsistence agriculture, there was a fear that increased production or improved standards would result in higher taxation. As a result of this taxation, alongside other factors, it was seen as unwise by the peasantry to increase their output. Surplus that was produced was taken by tax collectors, and was dispersed amongst the monarchy, church and nobility.

Adding to a lack of surplus was the ability to purchase noble titles and land to solidify power and status. Merchants who were able to build up enough capital often chose to improve their social standing, rather than invest in the market. This desire for nobility meant that there was little chance to develop into a capitalist economy. The wealthy wasted resources on extravagance instead of developing production methods. Once titles were gained, those with land gained much of their income from what little surplus the peasantry produced. In France, this economic hierarchy left insufficient demand for the development of capitalist economies. While most had enough to survive, there was little push for change. This focus on short-term benefits would hinder the development of France’s economy, and have devastating effects on its North American colonies.

Comparison to the English

Unlike the English, France had not made significant steps towards a capitalist economy. Capitalist England had access to surplus resources and a large urban workforce that could be sent to its colonies. France, however, was still predominantly reliant on its peasant population and this showed in its development. Unlike England, the monarchy was wary of sending men and women across the Atlantic, fearing it would affect its own strength. With the wealthy in England having taken control of much of the land from its peasantry, it had produced its own labour market, one of which France was severely lacking. Any excess population in France was quickly swallowed up by its military, or what little urban workforce had developed. It did not have the same numbers as England that could be sent to the New World, regardless of overall population sizes.

New France

Life in the colonies was difficult. Those that travelled to New France faced a variety of hardships. Practices by the feudal French government, which favoured protectionist strategies and legislation, meant that the wrong mix of people was making the journey. Those developing New France’s agriculture were often not from the peasantry. Instead, soldiers and labourers, used to working under the guidance of others, were left to farm themselves. This made the production of enough food difficult in the newer colonies.

Fur traders in canada 1777

There was also a reluctance to send necessary resources to New France. The lack of a significant population meant that they also did not offer an attractive new market, like the English had created in its colonies. There was, therefore, a reliance on Native Americans for survival and the development of the fur trade.

Native American assistance allowed the fur trade to continue to operate under a feudal society. By working with the Native Americans, the French did not need to send over a population to take on the role of collecting the fur, which would have added to the colonies’ population. This lack of population and resources left much of New France in relative poverty, and led to them trading with the Native Americans and English where they could.


Feudal society in France, and its reliance on its peasant population, had left few making the journey to the New World, with only 3,000 ‘permanent’ colonists being received between 1670-1730. While its population did rise, it was predominantly due to natural increases rather than emigration levels. Coupled with inadequate trade, New France was not able to expand to significant levels. So while there were other contributing factors to New France’s lack of stable success, the nature of feudalism was particularly damaging. With an increased population, New France could have diversified its trade, and provided the metropolis with a new market for its goods. Instead, the maintenance of a subsistence economy that relied on the production of its peasants left its North American colonies threatened by hostile Native Americans and an expanding English empire.

Further reading

Beik, William. A Social and Cultural History of Early Modern France. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

de Charlevoix, Pierre François Xavier. History and General Description of New France. Translated by John Gilmary Shea. New York: John Gilmary Shea, 1871.

Hamilton, Roberta. Feudal Society and Colonization: the Historiography of New France. Gananoque, Ontario: Langdale Press, 1988.

Pritchard, James. In Search of Empire: the French in the Americas, 1670-1730. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

3 comments on “The Limitations of Feudalism in New France

  1. This is a very interesting topic and one which fascinates me, especially in regards to the contrast in how the British and French operated their American colonies. Your overview of Feudalism is clear and succinct making it easily understood to a wide variety of audiences. I like how you have explained how French society shaped the outcome of the French colonies in their failure to develop to the extent of the British. I also think this lack of colonial development influenced the defeat of the French in the Seven Years War, as well as ruining the reputation of the Feudal system of government ultimately leading to the revolution in the late eighteenth century. I understood that France had a great social divide during its monarchy but I did not know that this influenced the view of preventing surplus peasant workers going to the Americas to establish farms. It seems that the French ended up economically as well as militarily defeated in contrast to their British rivals, however this would eventually turn against Britain with the American Revolution. While the French lost their American possessions as a result of poor development due to Feudalism as you have argued, I think that the cultural influences still there are sign that their failure did not remove France entirely from the Americas. Overall great blog post, and a very interesting topic relating to French politics and their colonies.

  2. Very interesting topic and a very interesting post. I had never paid too much attention to what the French got up to in the colonies but I was really looking forward to reading about it. It’s quite astonishing, I feel, that the French approached the colonies in the way you have outlined, I would have thought it would be similar to the British. However I also had basically no idea about how the French operated during this time period. You blog post helped a lot with this as it easy very clear and easy to understand. It’s amazing how much the French stuck to their feudal system even when it was affecting their progress in the colonies. The fact that they had to rely on the Native Americans in order to survive is also something I never would have expected. The comparison with the British is also great as it highlights the differences France had with what I traditionally thought of when thinking of the colonies. It also helps explain why, for a time at least, the British seemingly came out on top. Overall a great post and very interesting, really made me think.

  3. Ben Bushby says:

    Wow this was a great blog post! This topic actually struck a chord with me due to my familiarity with the material. Earlier this year I was on an exchange program in Canada and took a subject on Quebec history. The course covered the history from the initial settlement all the way up to modern separatist issues. However, I always felt the period of French control was always more interesting. While studying this topic I always found the relationship the colony had with the native population and fur trade to be particularly fascinating. In the course we did not compare the French and British colonies as you have done but I had always wondered about the differences. I think you have written a great blog post on a very interesting topic! Thank you for building upon my knowledge!

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