Daily Life in New France


Nobles and Commoners

Melchior de Jordy de Cabanac (1666-1726)

Caption: Melchior de Jordy de Cabanac (1666-1726)

During the Ancien Régime, service as an officer could lead to high positions in the state bureaucracy, although success depended in part on birth, social rank, wealth and influence at the royal court. Nobles sought to fight off commoners for positions as officers, claiming that these positions were the exclusive province of the nobility. Under Louis XIV, such claims had to be tempered because the Sun King emphasized competence above all else. Under Louis XV, the nobility recovered some of its lost ground, although it failed to make positions as officers the exclusive domain of the aristocracy. This goal was finally achieved under Louis XVI, when all candidates to be officers in the home army had to present their genealogy and certified documents proving their noble descent.

This was the general context, therefore, in which the colonial forces in New France operated. The "Canadian nobility" was not an aristocracy by bloodlines in the sense required by the army. Apart from a few families whom the king had raised to the nobility, those who could meet the genealogical requirements were few and far between. All officers claimed to be gentlemen (gentilshommes), however, because this was essential to their status. In theory, gentilshommes were the younger sons of noble families, although the definition had many loopholes and commoners who became officers qualified for the same title.

As a result of this state of affairs, ambitious commoners and poor gentlemen found it advantageous to seek their fortunes in the colonial forces because nobles of the blood preferred to remain in France. Officers who went to the colonies in the seventeenth century hoped one day to be given their own seigneury and maybe even a title. By the end of the century, they could also hope to become knights of the Royal and Military Order of Saint-Louis.