Seigneurial tenure and development in French Colonial America, 1688 to 1760

UPDATE 15/10/15: Here is the link to the paper on ACADEMIA

As I finish my preparations for the job market, I have also finished formatting a first draft of a paper on the role of seigneurial tenure for Canada’s early economic development. I have sent it to some colleagues for comments. I will soon upload the paper on Academia (I will update this post when it is ready). In the meanwhile, you can send me an email at to ask me a copy.

Below is the abstract and the introduction

Abstract: This paper argues that the important transfers from peasants to landlords through private taxes and duties under seigneurial law in the French colonies in North America in the 18th century have been underestimated. They represented a labor income tax which ranged between 4.75% and 6.61% which is a conservative estimate. This high burden of taxation – which was not used to produce public goods – created a supply-side impediment for economic growth.

When Canada was first settled in the 17th century, it was settled by the French who opted to locate themselves in the St-Lawrence Valley (modern day Quebec). Generally, the historiography of that colony points to poor economic performance. Until recently, estimates of that poor performance did not exist. Most of the discussion was qualitative and numerous scholars dissented from that viewpoint.  However, new empirical evidence has solved this problem by providing a long series of wages and prices to compare living standards over time and across regions.The inhabitants of the colony were generally poorer than British settlers in the United States by a substantial margin while they were roughly as rich as the inhabitants of France.

This data points to a certain role to be given to seigneurial tenure – the system of land tenure – as a factor in retarded economic development were correct. In this paper, it is argued that it was an extractive institution which acted like a predatory state. Using the aforementioned data, we can create a measure of the economic burden imposed upon the economy by this system of law and then discuss the type and the quantity of public goods it produced. It is argued that this system of law which allowed landlords to exact fees and dues from peasant households led to an important tax on labor that would have represented between 4.75% and 6.61% of the typical household labor income. The tax revenues generated were not used to finance the production of public goods. The predatory nature of seigneurial tenure contributes to explaining the slow growth and the low levels of living standards in the French colony relative to the American colonies.

Strasbourg wages, 1675 to 1760

In the course of my doctoral thesis, I have collected data of relevance to compare living standards across the Americas by including Canada before 1760. Since it was colonized mostly by French settlers until the King of France ceded it to the British, Canada had to be compare with France as well.

In the process of preparing the comparisons, I opted to use the prices and wages available for Paris and Strasbourg amassed by Robert Allen. However, in the process, I have noticed that these wages are too low. This is a result of the nature of the wages used.

In essence, the problem has been a misunderstanding of the french term used to designate unskilled workers. The term gâcheur does not refer to unskilled construction workers, but rather to workers who were carpenters and highly skilled. They also probably earned wages in kind which were not accounted for in the original data. I have attached to this post the images of the dictionaries where this is properly specified. For a longer discussion of this problem, more information can be found here in my working paper here.



Real wages (piece rates) for women in Canada, 1764 to 1826

I have recently shared my job market paper (which I have submitted to the Journal of Economic History) where we can see real wages in Canada up to 1760. Obviously, I am not satisfied with studying male wages up to 1760, I want to extend to female wages and move beyond 1760.  Using the same sources, I have extended the data up to 1826. At present, the collection is partial, but I have some information about piece rate work for women. The trend confirms, although I am cautious at present, the general claim advanced by Gilles Paquet and Jean-Pierre Wallot that growth was positive.

I am sharing this graph just for readers to see what I am working on.