French Farmers in the early eighteenth century

When visiting France one can note lots of old farms that can only have been the property of wealthy famers. This is inconsistent with the general belief that in ancien regime France all farmers were poor. In fact there were relatively few wealthy farmers and lots of very poor peasants. For the rural population the difference between the haves and the have nots lay in whether the farmer was what we would now call the 'owner' of a significant amount of such land or had no such right. This page is about the owners we'll call farmers. The have-nots we'll call peasants and treat on their own page.

Land ownership in the French feudal system

Under the ancien regime 'ownership' of most of the French rural land was ultimately held from the king by a feudal title. Only a small amount of rural land was considered allodial and fell outside of this system. It would now fit our definitions of land held in fee simple (common law) or as immovable property held by ownership (civil law). The land that the king had not given to the nobility would also fit these definitions. All the rest of rural France knew no ownership that would fit our present day definitions. It was held by a set of feudal titles.

Under the feudal system the land was held by a pyramid of lords and vassals. The lord (seigneur) who held land immediately from the king exploited part of this land directly (direct exploitation), could have vassals (seigneurs who held their land from him and could in turn have vassals), and could have civilians who held land from him. The land in direct exploitation can be said to have been 'owned' by this noblemen. It was an ownership that fell short of our definition of ownership because it gave him certain obligations to the king, but was more than our ownership because there were other rights attached. The land held by his vassals was not 'owned' by this seigneur, and only brought in revenue on a very irregular basis. The land held by civilians in his seigneurie could bring in a lot of money or just very little.

For definitions of ownership in feudal times we're concerned with the (land)lord, which was a nobleman called seigneur and the civilian who held land from him. Most often this relation was based on a rentcharge being attached to the ground. At the time ownership of the farmer boiled down to what we would call a freehold with an attached rentcharge in today's english.1 An interest in land was a freehold when it lasted for an indeterminable duration and was inheritable and could be sold. In medieval times the rentcharge was so high that even though we could have called the freeholder owner in the judicial meaning the seigneur was indeed owner in the economic sense.

After much debasement of the currency the rentcharge had however often become very low under the ancien regime. By 1700 we could therefore call the freeholder owner of the land and the seigneur someone who owned a rent charge, but didn't own the land. For those rentcharges that were payable in kind (and therefore almost always a lot higher) we could still say that the farmer had a freehold and the seigneur a rentcharge, but in case that the rentcharge had a higher price than the freehold, we would call the seigneur the owner of the land.

The ultimate distinction between farmers and peasants can therefore only be made by looking at the price that the individual farmer paid. This can't be done and as regards feudal land this chapter therefore is about farmers holding land by feudal title. Some of those were wealthy and others were poor. Those on feudal land that did not hold such a title were always poor and called peasants.

Three kinds of farmers in ancien regime France.

  • The free farmer owning his land;
  • The freeholder;
  • The serf;

The free farmer owning his land

In ancien regime France the king was eventually lord of most of the land under allodial title. The king was however not landlord of all the soil of France. Some pieces were owned by men who did not stand in a feudal relation to the king for (some of) their real estate. These men were said to hold a Franc Aleu. If such a franc aleu did have judicial rights attached to it, or brought a title or collected a cens from parts of its soil it was a franc aleu noble. If none of these was the case it was a franc aleu roturier2. This franc aleu could be held by a specific title or without title.

Most of the land held by franc aleu was situated in the pays de droit écrit3. In the pays de droit écrit all land was supposed to be held in franc aleu unless proven otherwise. In the pays de droit coutumier the opposite assumption was held. There the franc aleu was always threatened by the maxim 'Nulle terre sans seigneur' (no land without lord). Only the pays des coutumes allodiales did offer some protection against this maxim. These were Troyes, Chaumont, Vitry, Sezane, Auxerre and Nivernois. This protection against the rule of 'Nulle terre sans seigneur' was however far from perfect.

In 1700 there was no national reliable cadastre in France. As a consequence one could not reliably ascertain whether a possessor in franc aleu held his land by a title or that no feudal obligation had ever been imposed on his land. The maxim 'Nulle terre sans seigneur' thus enabled any seigneur to demand feudal tribute from anyone who could not provide proof of his title. Many seigneurs thus demanded a cense from people living in their seigneurie.

The owners of lands in the pays coutumiers who could not provide a title had only recourse to arguing that the right to levy a cens had been usucapted. In some areas of France the cens was indeed held to be susceptible to usucaption / adverse possession prescriptbilité. This was the case in the province of Bourbonnois, where the coutume specifically stated that usucaption had taken place when no cens had been paid for 30 years. There were also the coutumes allodiales that more or less accepted this prescription. In the pays de droit écrit the usucaption of the cens was presumed.

The small number of farmers who truly owned their land thus held it by allodial title. This is the same title by which the Queen of England owns all English soil, but at the time it was equal to what is now fee simple in common law or ownership in civil law. In principle this type of farmer worked only for himself and was generally well of.

The freehold farmer (censitaire)

The next class of farmers were the freeholders. They were indeed bonded tenant farmers holding a cens. These tenants held their land as a civilian loan or tenure roturière from a seigneur. The freeholder had economic ownership of his land, did not have personal obligations to his seigneur and was himself free. By 1700 the value of their obligations had often dwindled to such a low value that they were indeed often called owners (propriétaires) in contemporary writing. Most of the censes had been founded in medieval times, but even in modern times censes were still founded. Holding the land however brought obligations to the seigneur (landlord). This meant that the freeholder had to:

  • Pay a seigneurial taille aux quatre cas to his seigneur (landlord) in certain cases;
  • Pay a compensation for having the loan le cens; or
  • Pay a rent for the loan rente foncière seigneurial;
  • Work for his seigneur on certain times corvée;
  • Was obliged to use manorial facilities banalités;
  • Pay the Lods et Vends

The taille seigneuriale aux quatre cas

For our freehold farmer the taille seigneurial was limited to the taille aux quatre cas. This taille aux quatre cas originated from the civility (courtoisie) of the vassals and subjects and had been converted into law4 by the coutumes. These same coutumes mostly limited the taille aux quatre cas to: chivalry, crusade, ransom, and marriage of daughters, but if a distinct other agreement had been made it could entail up to nine cases. This could e.g. mean that a landlord could claim this tax when he bought some land or got children.

The case of chivalry meant that the son of the seigneur was admitted to the ordre du Saint Esprit. The case of crusade or voyage d'outremer saw to a pilgrimage to the holy land or joining in a crusade and had become irrelevant. The third case was the case of ransom and saw to the seigneur being taken prisoner and having to pay a ransom. This was only applicable if he served on account of his seigneurie in the ban or arriere ban and was therefore also not relevant anymore. The case of marriage of daughters was in most parts of the pays de coutumes limited to the first marriage of the oldest daughter. In the pays de droit écrit it was generally applicable to the first marriage of all the daughters of the seigneur.

The height of the taille aux quatre cas was mostly fixed to the value of one year's cense.

Le cens

The transfer of the economic ownership of the land had often been made on the condition of cens. The cens was an everlasting, annual and fixed fee which was attached to the land the tenant held. We would call it a rentcharge. Most of the cens contracts had been instituted in medieval times for a fixed amount of money. By 1700 the height of the cens was often unchanged and still something like 1 or 2 sou for each arpent of land (about 5000 square meters or 0.5 Ha). This had led many to believe to believe that the cens had only been collected by the seigneurs as a mark of their rights and honor5. This is a misconception that has been widely held till the present, but even in 1700 there were authors who appreciated that in medieval times it had been equivalent to a rental contract.

The real height of the cens had lowered for two reasons. The first was the way that the intrinsic value of money had heavily decreased in France. Let's do a very rough and very unscientific computation of the silver value of 1.5 sou, or 18 deniers in medieval times. It has been said that the deniers issued by Charlemagne contained 28 grains of silver, that is 28 * 0.05 gram = 1.4 gram of silver for a denier. With a sou equivalent to twelve deniers the medieval cens for an arpent of land would be 18*1.4 = 25 gram of silver. In 1700 the sou was a copper coin with a little bit of silver. In 1641 the sou contained 9.3 grains of silver and in 1726 4.25 grains6. If we assume that it was 6 grains in 1700 a cens of 1.5 sous then boils down to 1.5*6*0.05 = 0.45 gram of silver. The effects of the debasement of money thus reduced the silver value of the cens to less than 5% of what it had been.

The second reason that the real value of the cens was much lower was inflation. Supposing that the money had not been tempered with and the freeholder still paid a cens of 25 grams of silver in 1700 he would pay about 25/(6*0.05)= 80 sous, or 4 livres of cens for each arpent. This is still much lower than what arpent would have yielded in rent. Supposing an average arpent could be rented out for 15 livres (I have to get back to this 15), the inflation effect is about 60%. The seigneurs of these lands of course perceived the rising gap between the cens and the economic value of their lands and thus tried to take or buy back their censes and profit from them exploiting them by another method.

The conclusion is that by 1700 the cens was no longer relevant if it had originally been settled as a sum of money. Sometimes the cens had however not been stipulated as an amount of money, but as an amount of produce. In that case it was called terrage or champart, see below. The height of the cens had thus often made it irrelevant as a revenue by 1700.

The reason that the right of cense was still important was that the Lods & Ventes were connected to it. As stated above the cens itself was only subject to usucaption in some parts of France. The seigneurs therefore tried to impose supposed censes on people that had not paid anything for centuries, in order to assure themselves of the Lods & Vents. They also resisted the concept of usucaption with regard to the nature of the cens. If it had ever been a payment in kind the courts generally confirmed a demand that it should again be paid in kind. One furthermore has to note that a cens was inheritable in equal parts to both sexes and could be broken down in smaller parts that would each be accountable for their part of the obligations resting on the loan. The condition for this was however that the cens had been stipulated in parts, e.g. per arpent.

The surcens

Just like the cens the surcens was an amount of money or a certain amount of produce fixed for eternity. It could be created in a number of ways: The most important one was that the seigneur could impose it on top of the original cens when he owned the loan and gave it out to someone new. Then he could for example stipulate: 'dix sous de cens & rente' or 'dix sous de sense ou rente' or 'dix sous de rente & cens' or 'dix sous de cens & surcens'. These were all examples were the term surcens or rente perhaps reflected an augmentation of a previous cens, but did not have any practical meaning. In all cases above there is legally only a cens of 10 sous. It could also be stipulated to replace other seigneurial rights. In that case it was truly a second cens.

Most of the time the surcens had however been added to the cens at a later date. If an act stipulated 5 deniers de cens & 5 sous de surcens, or 5 deniers de cens & 5 setiers de blé it was quite clear that the cens was 5 deniers and the rest was something else. In that case the surcens was a simple rente foncière (see below, not a rente foncière seigneurial) and was not attached to the seigneurie. As such it was liable to usucaption. The gros cens was a cens for the whole loan. The menu cens was a cens that was per measure of surface, mostly par arpent. The 'Croix de cens' referred to the cross on the reverse side of the silver denier.

The rente foncière seigneurial

The rente foncière seigneurial was probably just a variation of cens that had been more recently instituted. Creating a rente foncière seigneurial brought an institute of Roman law into seigneurial relations. It could also be that (my speculation) the difference was that a cens was created in medieval times and its height determined by the seigneurial title, while the height of the rente foncière seigneurial was prescribed by the seigneur himself.

The simple rente foncière was a kind of leasehold whereby the economic property was transferred for eternity and for a fixed price (in money or in kind), all on condition that the rente was paid. The essence of a rente foncière was that it was a debt that was due by a piece of realty. This unlike a mortgage hypotheque which was a right that was accessory to ensure another contract. The rente foncière could therefore not be paid off, the obligation to pay was transferred to any party that came into possession of the land, and was non redeemable (non rachetable). A stipulation to the effect that the rente foncière could be redeemed could nonetheless be made, but then the rente foncière was perceived as a transfer of ownership, which would make it a mortgage. In the cities and towns of France a rente foncière was either a mortgage or was made redeemable by royal decree, giving it the character of a mortgage

After this short introduction to the rente foncière, we now get to the rente foncière seigneurial variant that bound the land to a seigneur7. It emerged when at the creation of the rente foncière by a seigneur an explicit stipulation of retaining fealty was made. It had some advantages over the ordinary rente foncière. It was not subject to usucaption except for the height and arrears. From the fealty was derived the obligation that the holder of the land was obliged to pay the Lods & Vents when he sold it. For the sake of the Lods & Vents the assumption that some ownership had been transferred also held when a rent payable by third party was lower than the economic value or any money changed hands with the deal.

Le Champart seigneurial

A Champart8 or terrage was the obligation to pay a certain amount of the produce to the landlord. Here we treat the champart seugneurial, which was a variant of le cens. This was the case when the champart was the only stipulation that had been made for the loan, or if it had been stipulated together with the cens in money. In the pays coutumiers de champart was generally only applicable to grains, not to grapes or vegetables9. In some areas the right was applicable to grapes, but was then named differently: Teneau in Chartres, Complant in Poitou, Angoumois and Saintonge, Carpot in Bourbonnois. In the pays de droit écrit the champart could be applicable to all produce and was mostly named agrier. Just like the cens the champart seigneurial carried Lods & Vents and was not subject to usucaption.

The champart seigneurial was generally not that oppresive. It could be fixed to a certain amount, or be regulated by the coutumes or even be left to local tradition. Those of Montargis, Berry and the local coutume of Vatan held it to amount to the twelfth sheaf. The coutume of Bovines stated it to be the tenth sheaf. In certain areas of the pays de droit écrit the champart was called droit de quarte or droit de cinquain. In the Dauphiné it was called vingtain10. The payment of the champart was regulated by that the farmer had to warn his landlord that he would begin his harvest.

The Lods & Vents

The Lods et Vends were payable when the cens or champart changed hands by sale. These generally amount to a fith (quint) and a fifth again of that (requint) of the price of the contract by which it was sold. In Normandy it amounted to a twelfth. It did not amount to the value of the cens and the seigneur did not have the right to demand an estimation. The contractors could simulate a lower price in order to evade the Lods&Vents. Sometimes the seigneur could re-unite the cens to his fief by paying the price to the seller retrait censuel.

The Corvées and banalités

The corvée was an obligation to work for the seigneur for a limited number of days each year. The corvées lasted longer, had often been paid off, but were more or less replaced by the royal corvée which mostly entailed working on streets or fortifications. The banalités could entail the obligation to use the manorial mill, cellars and ovens for a certain price. I do not know whether the banalités were still important by 1700.

The serf or Main-mortable

The term serf implies servitude to a landlord and had personal obligations to his landlord that were originally independent from holding the loan. To be more specific the serf or main-mortable did not really own a right, but only possessed it. In 1700 France one could still become main-mortable by taking up permanent residence in a house that brought this condition of maint-mortabilité11. The maint-mortabilité was still recognized in a about a dozen of coutumes: Nivernois, Bourgogne, Bourbonnois, Auvergne, La Marche, Mennetou, Rue d'Indre and some local coutumes of Blois, Vitry and Troyes.

The coutume of Nivernois was reputedly the harshest: Les serfs sont taillables par le seigneur, a volonté raisonable, une fois l'an, & la taille s'impose sur les corps desdits taillables, & sur leur meix & tenemens mouvans de la servitude. This translates as The serfs can be taxed by their lord, at will but within reason, once a year. The tax is on the body of these serfs, their house and what they hold on condition of servitude. The lord of such a village also had the right to pursue his serfs for these taxes if they left the seigneurie, he could then seize their holdings, and they became his when the serf stayed absent for 30 years. If the serf died without immediate heirs his holding fell back to the landlord.

The coutumes of Bourgogne had similar rules, but clearly stated that the main-mortable was not a serf de corps. The serf could therefore leave his state main-morte by leaving the seigneurie. His inheritance in the seigneurie was limited to those with whom he lived in community property. The coutume de la Marche stated that the seigneur could only succeed to the belongings that were in the seigneurie. A regular rule was also that the holding could not be sold to someone from outside of the seigneurie.

The serf's obligations to his landlord could thus be summed up as:

  • Pay the taille à volonté that the seigneur could levy from the serfs living on his premises;
  • Pay a seigneurial taille aux quatre cas to his seigneur (landlord) in certain cases;
  • Pay a head tax (chevage) to his seigneur (landlord) on account of his personal obligation to the seigneur;
  • Work for his seigneur on certain times corvée;
  • Obliged to use manorial facilities banalités;
  • Could not leave the domain without permission forfuyance
  • Could not marry freely formarriage
  • Could not inherit freely main-mortabilité

The taille à volonté

The taille à volonté that the serf paid was a tax that was mostly as high as the landlord liked. It was therefore also called: Taille a merci. By 1700 the coutumes had however severely limited the taille à volonté. First of all it could only be imposed once a year. It was also subject to usucaption when it had not been levied in 40 years. It was furthermore possible to make a subscription to this taille, the so-called taille abonnée. It seems that this taille á volonté could be levied as a sum payable by all the serfs of the seigneurie as a group. It could either be levied in money or in kind.

The taille seigneuriale aux quatre cas

Many French lawyers of the time thought that the taille à volonté included the taille aux quatre cas, because the seigneur could levy taxes at will. This was not the case, first of all because the taille à volonté could only be levied once a year. If in a certain year the seigneur had already levied the taille à volonté he could not levy another tax à volonté in the same year. He had to resort to the taille aux quatre cas. The effect of this would be most clear if the taille à volonté was a taille abonnée.

The chevage

The chevage or head tax was a tax that had for some time been levied on foreigners and bastards, mainly in Vermandois. Some authors also had it as a tax payable by all maint-mortables in a certain area, but this is not sure. Anyway one can presume that by 1700 it was not levied anymore.

The forfuyance and formarriage

The concept of forfuyance meant that the serf was not allowed to leave the domain of his landlord without permission. The penalty for doing so varied. Originally it could be the loss of all his property, his loan and him still being required to pay the seigneurial taxes. The concept of formarriage meant that the serf was not allowed to freely marry with someone from outside the domain. The original ground for this was that the seigneur would lose laborers. Because the children of such a marriage almost automatically came into obligations to the landlord of the mother their was always one seigneur who could perceive a possible setback. By 1700 both these obligations did not have much meaning anymore.

The main-mortabilité

As regards his existence as a class the most important part of the serf's legal position was however formed by the concept of mainmorte. Mainmorte originally was a metaphor meaning that the holder of the loan held it with a dead hand. The dead hand could not make a will, could not sell, and could not give. At the dead of the serf the landlord could give the loan to (some) of his children, but could also decide to give it to someone totally unrelated. By 1700 the main-mortable could however generally leave his estate to those with whom he was living under the same roof.

All in all farming as a serf or maint-mortable may not seem to have been a very desirable way to farm. On the other hand the serf did have a permanent right to the land he farmed. He could not easily be evicted and his rights were inheritable. In short his rights came very close to the ownership the censitaire enjoyed. Compared to some of the farmers described below he was well off. It's a fact that in medieval times serfs made up the majority of the rural population and by 1700 they were a minority. This must not be ascribed to enlightened ideas of the king or his nobles, but to their self interest.

Those farmers holding their land under roman or modern law.

Above we've seen that in time the rights of the nobility towards its tenants and serfs tended to erode by money tampering and inflation. That part of the nobility which was affluent enough or powerful enough therefore tried to replace the feudal rights by more modern instruments that rendered a price that was proportional to the economic value of their land. The first of this was the bail à rente foncière

The bail à rente foncière

As stated above the simple rente foncière was a kind of freehold whereby the economic property was transferred for eternity and for a fixed price (in money or in kind), all on condition that the rente was paid. The essence of a rente foncière was that it was a debt that was due by a piece of realty. This unlike a mortgage hypotheque which was a right that was accessory to ensure another contract. The rente foncière could therefore not be paid off, the obligation to pay was transferred to any party that came into possession of the land, and was non redeemable (non rachetable).

As most of the land was held by seigneurs getting the 'ownership' of a land under a simple rente foncière was not easy. If a seigneur was even prepared to close such a deal he needed the permission from his seigneur, and the buyer became the vassal of that seigneur. In such a case we're not considering farmers. A simple rente foncière for a farmer was possible in case of Franc-aleu, but because of the scarcity of such land this was not likely either. What was likely was that someone holding a cens handed it to someone else for a rente foncière (which was always non-redeemable). This was e.g. explicitly permitted by the coutume de Boulonnois12


1) This is a construction that is universally considered to be undesirable. The United Kingdom strives that an interest in land should either be a freehold or leasehold. The former may not be subjected to a rentcharge, the latter may be subjected to a rentcharge called groundrent. Civil law countries strive that real estate is either owned or hired. Apart from the judicial reasons the main reason is that real estate is a cost factor in production. In the production process the part of the cost price that is due to the lessor of leased land is seen as a compensation for contributing the real estate. In turn his ownership of the real estate has its own costs attached. Someone who has inherited a rentcharge from his great grandfather however does not contribute anything to the production process, he only augments its costs while not being burdened with any himself.
2) Dictionnaire raisonné, des domaines et droits domaniaux, by Bosquet vol. 2 Rouen 1762, page 422 has a long article about the Franc Aleu.
3) Coutumes literally translates as customs and reflect law based on tradition, just like common law in the Anglo-Saxon world. In principle each province of France had its own coutumes. Some provinces in the south of France however held on to Roman law. France was thus divided between the pays coutumiers and the pays de droit ecrit.
4) De l'usage des fiefs et autres droits seigneuriaux en Dauphiné by Salvaing, Grenoble 1664, Vol. 1 page 512:'parce que autre chose est la taille que le Seigneur imposoit du temps de nos peres sus les serfs de mainmorte, qui .. appelle taillables. Autre chose est la taille qu'il leve sur les vasseux & sujets au cas de chevalerie, mariage de filles & autres dont je pareleray cy-apres. .....l'une estoir servile et honteuse ... l'autre est une subvention honneste, qui a pris son son origine de la courtoisie du vassal, que la coustume a convertie en droit.
5) Collection de décisions nouvelles et de notions relatives à la jurisprudence by Denisart, Paris 1786 vol. 4 page 342: 'a trompé la plupart des auteurs qui ont écrit depuis deux cents ans sur la matiere des censives; ils ont vu que le cens ordinairement n'étoit que d'un ou deux sous par arpent, plu ou moins; ce qui leur a fait croire que les seigneurs avoient plutot imposé cette redevance pour une marque d'honneur & de superiorité que comme un revenu ordinaire.
6) Dictionnaire du commerce et des marchandises, by Blanqui and others Paris 1852, vol. 2 page 1356 for the amount of silver in a sou.
7) Traicté du déguerpissement et délaissement par hypothèque by Charles Loyseau, Paris 1606, non paginated, about the differences between normal and seigneurial rentes foncières.
8) Traité des fiefs, tant pour les pays coutumier, que pour les pays de droit écrit by Guyot, Paris 1746 vol. 4 page 438 has a large section about the champart.
9) Répertoire universel et raisonné de Jurisprudence by Guyot, Paris 1776 vol. 8 page 563 about the champart being only applicable to grains.
10) Traité des fiefs, tant pour les pays coutumier, que pour les pays de droit écrit by Guyot, Paris 1746 vol. 4 page 473 about the height of the champart.
11) Répertoire universel et raisonné de Jurisprudence by Guyot, Paris page 37: 'Il faut donc pour contracter le main morte, résider dans une maison main-mortable.'
12) Coutume de Boulonnois, conférées avec les coutumes de Paris by Le Camus d'Houlouve, vol 1 Paris 1777, page 291 for this permission.