Daily Life in New France



Officers certainly expected to spend their leisure time engaged in more refined activities than did soldiers. Some officers frequented taverns, but more often they attended the parties and balls thrown regularly by the bourgeois and superior officers of the town.

The pleasures of the table played an important role in their social lives. The engineer Franquet left an excellent description of a dinner given by the governor of Trois-Rivières for officers and their wives in July, 1752. Seated in the dining room, around a table with 20 settings, the guests particularly appreciated "the profusion and delicacy of the dishes from the best provinces in France." "We drank all sorts of wine, always chilled," continued Franquet's account. "Imagine the pleasure of this, especially as the weather was very hot." 115

Madame Bégon, a fine Canadian letter-writer, left some delicious passages on the social life of the Montreal military elite during the 1740s. There was an endless succession of balls, parties and receptions, and dancing masters were very busy. Some balls were given especially for cadets and young officers so that they could meet girls from their own class. Young or not so young, masked or not, they danced the minuet, sang, and drank toasts to each other's health with "excellent" champagne and good wines. One particular evening, the officers Noyan and Saint-Luc raised their glasses so often that they could not get up. Another time, the Baron de Longueuil was "more than tipsy," and Captain Noyan fell while dancing the minuet and lost his wig. Manners at the balls given by the governor general were somewhat less free and easy!

The clergy of the era generally opposed the merrymaking of the officers, though without much success. According to Baron de La Hontan, the clergy were extremely narrow-minded. One of their representatives even went so far as to destroy his copy of Petronius. The clergy looked askance not only at balls and certain books; the theatre also came in for its share of criticism. In 1694, Frontenac organized comedy productions at the Château Saint-Louis in order to "amuse the officers a little." 116 Nicodème and Mithridate were put on, to the great indignation of Monseigneur de SaintVallier, who discreetly offered the governor general 100 pistoles not to mount Molière's Tartu ffe. Frontenac agreed to change his plans, took the money, and spread gossip about the whole affair, to great general amusement. Things had not changed much 50 years later, when the bishop of New France, Monseignor Dubreuil de Pontbriand, denounced the balls and parties and even suspended a priest for having taken part in a reception given by the intendant. This didn't get him anywhere, as shortly thereafter a farce was staged at a ball for officers and bourgeois, which ridiculed the clergy's stand. The authors of the farce are unknown, but one can imagine that some officers had a hand in it.

Officers also spent their spare time playing cards, dice, chess, checkers, backgammon and ninepins, in addition to going hunting and fishing. They shared the Canadians' passion for racing horses, with riders in summer and drawing sleighs over ice in winter, as well as for the betting that accompanied it.

Officers' amorous adventures seem to have been less in the public eye than those of ordinary soldiers. It was not considered honourable for officers to frequent bawdy houses. However, women of easy virtue could always go to their houses, as happened in 1687 when the commandant of Fort Chédabouctou was surprised "in bed sleeping among [Amerindian] women or girls." 117 There were also cases of cohabitation and unwed pregnancies that were considered very scandalous at the time. The most infamous case involved Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville and Jeanne-Geneviève Picoté de Belestre during the 1680s. In general, though, officers maintained an aura of discretion around their amorous exploits and do not seem to have been caught committing too many misdemeanours, at least in comparison with other times and places.