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.
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.
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.
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.