Seigneurialism, sometimes known as seigneurial feudalism, was a system of organisation and land tenure in rural France prior to the revolution. Under this system, peasants were obliged to provide the landowner with seigneurial dues, paid either in cash, produce or labour. The seigneurial system became a notable source of grievances and a focus for change during the tension of the 1780s.
Seigneurialism is sometimes referred to as “feudalism”, though this is not strictly correct. While seigneurialism was certainly derived from medieval feudalism and retained some of its practices, true feudalism had vanished from France some two centuries before the revolution.
Unlike feudalism, the basis of the seigneurial system was almost entirely economic. It required peasants who occupied land owned by a seigneur (‘lord’) to pay feudal dues (either in cash, produce or service) to the seigneur.
Seigneurialism and feudal dues were a significant source of dissatisfaction in the late 18th century, particularly in northern France, where seigneurialism was more prevalent and the weight of feudal dues was heavier.
French seigneurialism was derived from medieval feudalism, the dominant political, social and economic system in Europe during the Middle Ages. Feudalism was a hierarchical system that organised communities so they could feed, supply and defend themselves.
Though inherently unequal, feudalism bound the different classes of society together with a series of bonds or obligations. The lord allowed peasants or serfs to work his land. In return, the peasants handed over a proportion of their grain or produce to the lord. The lord also shared his land with his knights, who helped defend the realm. All classes contributed to the church with gifts and tithes, believing these would provide blessings from God.
These feudal relationships provided medieval Europeans with a de facto form of government and enough stability and security to survive in small communities.
Elements of feudalism
By the early 1600s, medieval feudalism had faded away in France. At the turn of the 18th century, France had a strengthening national government and a rapidly changing economy – yet remnants of feudalism lingered in many rural areas.
This diluted form of feudalism, which historians now refer to as seigneurialism, was chiefly economic. It was concerned chiefly with ownership, tenure and maintenance of the land.
That these feudal practices continued within a modernising capitalist economy was an anachronism. Despite this, seigneurialism was defended by the French nobility and the church – even by wealthy members of the bourgeoisie who harboured ambitions to be seigneurs themselves.
As historian Jack Censer puts it, “French society was a kind of hybrid, neither entirely free of the feudal past nor entirely caught up in it”.
Feudal dues and powers
The workings of seigneurialism were inherently one-sided, with many benefits for the lord and few, if any, for peasants.
The seigneur doled out sections of his estate in small plots to individuals or small groups. Those who occupied and worked the seigneur’s land were subject to a range of feudal dues, including the champart (paid in grain or produce) and the cens (paid in cash).
Where the system was strongest, the landowner could hold a seigneurial court within his estate and pass legal judgement on peasants who lived there; there were over 70,000 of these courts in place, though they operated infrequently.
The seigneur could also demand the much-loathed corvée, which required each male peasant to provide several days of unpaid labour on the seigneur’s own projects, such as working his land or repairing his house, fences, bridges or roads.
In some regions, the seigneur owned the flour mill, the baker’s oven and the grape press – all critical infrastructure in a rural village – and demanded annual payments for their use (banalités). The seigneur might also be the only party permitted to own male pigs or cattle, for which he charged a stud or breeding fee.
While most seigneurs were nobles, this was not always the case. Many members of the clergy and wealthy bourgeoisie purchased seigneuries (feudal estates) in the 17th and early 18th centuries.
The status and trappings of the seigneur – the feudal dues, exclusive hunting rights, an individual pew in the local church and so on – were prestigious and highly sought after.
The seigneurial system came under attack throughout the 1700s. Many philosophes condemned the historical origins of seigneurial dues, which stemmed from medieval ideas of fiefdom and fealty but were without legal basis. They also criticised the system for its inequality, noting that in some seigneuries the peasants existed as virtual slaves.
Several radical theorists believed seigneurial economics held back agricultural production; a more open labour market, they argued, would benefit economic progress.
The administration and paperwork involved in maintaining the seigneurial system was also extensive and complex. Unlike the Middle Ages, 18th-century feudal dues were usually outlined in contracts and deeds associated with land tenure.
A cause of revolution?
To what extent was seigneurialism a cause of the French Revolution? Historians have long pondered this question. It is difficult to answer it definitively because seigneurialism was a regional phenomenon that took different forms and evoked different responses.
Seigneurial dues, for example, were applied differently from place to place and were levied more rigorously in some regions than others. They were proportionately heavier in northern France than in the south, for example, at least for collecting the champart and cens.
Despite this uneven application, opposition to seigneurial dues was fairly common across France. The best evidence for this can be found in the cahiers de doléance, the grievance books drawn up in early 1789 for submission to the Estates-General.
Rigorous studies of cahiers de doleance drafted by the Third Estate show little or no support for retaining feudal rights as they stood.
The majority of the cahiers (55 per cent) suggested abolishing the champart and cens, albeit with some compensation to the seigneur. A smaller proportion (36 per cent) suggested reforming or merging these payments.
The cahiers were similarly opposed to the banalités, arguing that they be abolished with (43 per cent) or without (40 per cent) compensation to the seigneur.
A historian’s view:
“In the 1780s a French lord could collect a variety of monetary and material payments from his peasants; could insist that nearby villages grind their grain in the feudal mill, bake their bread in the feudal oven, press their grapes in the feudal wine press; could set the date of the grape harvest; could have local cases tried in his own court; could claim particularly favoured benches in church for his family and point to family tombs below the church floor; could take pleasures forbidden the peasants – hunting, raising rabbits or pigeons.”
1. Seigneurialism was a system of land tenure used in some rural areas of 18th century France. It was derived from and contained aspects of medieval feudalism.
2. Unlike medieval feudalism, which connected social classes and provided stability and security in a small community, 18th-century seigneurialism took the form of a land contract between the seigneur (lord or landowner) and the peasant farmer.
3. In seigneurial holdings, peasants were required to make annual payments to the seigneur, either in cash (cens) or with produce (champart). The seigneur also charged taxes for using infrastructure like the flour mill, wine press and baker’s oven (banalités).
4. The seigneur could also demand a period of unpaid labour from his tenants, called the corvée. Many peasants were also subject to seigneurial courts, which were overseen by the seigneur.
5. The feudal dues imposed under seigneurialism, while not applied uniformly across France, were nevertheless unpopular. This is reflected in the cahiers de doléance drafted by the Third Estate in early 1789.
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: October 5, 2020
Date accessed: March 17, 2023