Literacy in New France

Literacy in New FranceWhen Marguerite Bourgeoys opened the first school in Ville-Marie, in 1658, most of the people living there were illiterate. Many trades did not require reading or writing and there was generally little interest in educating the masses. Moreover, in New France, books were expensive, extremely rare and difficult to obtain.

In France, the situation was similar. However, despite everything, several small schools were founded in the 16th century and the rudiments of reading and writing were taught. The religious authorities viewed these two skills as tools that would facilitate the learning of the principles of faith. Marguerite Bourgeoys, who believed in education, agreed to cross the ocean in 1653 to teach the children of the first settlers in Ville-Marie as well as Amerindian children. She set valiantly down to work as soon as she arrived.

For the 350th anniversary of the founding of the first school in Montreal, this new series of chronicles gives you an opportunity to learn more about literacy in New France.

Click on a title to access an episode or to close the tab.

First episode
Mastering the universe of letters

Mastering the universe of letters Under the French Regime, a good number of people took part in teaching others to read and write. Masters taught their apprentices, mothers taught their children, and traveling teachers offered their services from village to village. But, above all, in cities and towns, “small schools” operated by the religious communities provided such instruction to children. Modest in size, these schools generally had only one classroom, located in a house or rectory. The students, about ten years old, would sit on benches. Most of them only attended school for a year or two.

Learning to read inevitably started with learning the letters of the alphabet. Once the students could read a few words, they would tackle texts which were, for the most part, written in Latin. Generally, the first texts they were given were familiar prayers such as the Credo or the Pater, which they simply recognized by sight.

In the small schools, the books used were primers and devotional works such as the psalter and the Introduction à la vie dévote. These volumes came from France and were so rare that certain nuns undertook to copy them by hand. For the teachers of the time, using pious texts to teach reading served to help the children become familiar with religion and reading, both of which were the objectives of the small schools.

After reading came writing, which only those children who spent more than one year in school had an opportunity to learn. Writing was more complicated than reading; it required more materials and the students had to practice movements and postures. Since school supplies were limited, bins of sand were occasionally used in place of slates.

Unlike reading, which was closely related to the learning of religion, writing focused more on daily business. The students learned, for example, to write receipts, leases, proxies. In general, people thought it was not as necessary to teach girls to write. They preferred to encourage them to focus on their sewing skills, an ability which was much more useful for them.

In the 17th century, most students did not stay at school long enough to complete their learning. Some of them only learned to spell while others could only read prayers or merely write their names. In the city of Québec, at the end of the French Regime, it is estimated that 43% of adults could sign their names, a rate which was much lower in the countryside.

The first books seen by students during the time of Marguerite Bourgeoys were pious books. Did these books become their favorites in daily life? To learn more about the reading practices and books in New France, we invite you to return on June 10, 2008.

  • DUFOUR, Andrée. Histoire de l'éducation au Québec. [Montréal]: Boréal, 1997. 123 pages.
  • DUFOUR, Andrée et Micheline Dumont. Brève histoire des institutrices au Québec, de la Nouvelle-France à nos jours. Montréal, Boréal, 2005. 219 pages.
  • FAHMY-EID, Nadia. «L’éducation des filles chez les Ursulines de Québec sous le Régime français». dans Nadia Fahmy-Eid et Micheline Dumont, dir. Maîtresses de maison, maîtresses d'école: femmes, famille et éducation dans l'histoire du Québec. Montréal, Boréal Express, [1983]. Pages 49 à 76.
  • MELANÇON, François. «Façonner et surveiller l’intime: lire en Nouvelle-France», dans Manon Brunet et Serge Gagnon, dir. Discours et pratiques de l'intime. Québec, Institut québécois de recherche sur la culture, 1993. Pages 17 à 39.

Second episode
Books: food for the soul

Books: food for the soul If there had been any public libraries in the St. Lawrence River valley under the French Regime, they would have been very different from those we know today. Far from being calm and quiet, it is easy to imagine that they would have been rather noisy. In fact, reading was above all an oral activity during the time of Marguerite Bourgeoys. Only a minority of people mastered reading well enough to do it silently.

Reading out loud was a regular activity in the life of the colonists of New France. For example, during religious offices, people recited prayers and other liturgical texts as a group. During village gatherings, the governor’s orders were read out loud. In the intimacy of the family, texts were read out loud for the benefit of all.

Since most literate people were taught to read from pious texts in small schools, reading remained closely tied to religion for them. During their education, this relationship was further strengthened. Teachers invited the students to read devotional books on a daily basis. They advised them to read slowly so as to “savor the meaning” of the texts. Books were, in fact, supposed to “nourish and fortify” their souls.

Since reading was beneficial for faith, the religious authorities encouraged the circulation of books. They suggested titles and would even import and distribute books. However, they distrusted books that did not focus on Christian values. The Church asked the faithful to confess any contact with prohibited books, as well as the reading of novels and comedies that threatened chastity.

In the inventories of the colony’s merchants and in the homes of the inhabitants who were lucky enough to own one or more books, the pious work held a dominant place as a result. This meant that acquiring a book on medicine or law or a literary work was a major exploit since the merchants did not sell them and those who wanted such books had to turn to imports or used volumes. Certain members of the elite did, however, have access to a large variety of titles. For example, in the 18th century, Élisabeth Bégon’s granddaughter read novels, plays and scientific treatises.

Although few of the settlers had an opportunity to read, during the time of New France, even fewer were able to write. To learn more about handling a feather quill or those who made writing their trade, we invite you to return on June 24, 2008.

  • MELANÇON, François. «Façonner et surveiller l’intime: lire en Nouvelle-France», dans Manon Brunet et Serge Gagnon, dir. Discours et pratiques de l'intime. Québec, Institut québécois de recherche sur la culture, 1993. Pages 17 à 39.
  • MONTREUIL, Sophie et Isabelle Crevier, dir. «Tous ces livres sont à toi!»: de l'Oeuvre des bons livres à la Grande bibliothèque (1844-2005). [Montréal], Bibliothèque nationale du Québec et les Presses de l'Université Laval, 2005. 181 pages.

Third episode
“Lend me your quill”: the public writer and the notary

“Lend me your quill”: the public writer and the notaryPicking up a quill “to write a short note”, in the 17th century, was a complex activity that required an entire range of materials: paper, quills, piece of agate, knife, instrument to scrape the paper, sand shaker, wrinting stand. Under the French Regime, those who knew how to use these tools and who were able to write were rare. Some of them made writing their trade, making their precious skill available to the population. These people were public writers and notaries.

The paper used by the writing professionals was made by hand from linen or cotton rags. The color of the paper depended on the textile fibers used as well as the purity of the water. Most paper was dark in color, ranging from light brown to gray. Paper made from fine linen was white. In order to provide an illusion of whiteness, paper manufacturers add blue dye to dark papers.

When it came to drawing letters, the feather from the domestic goose had the best reputation. It required quite some skill to prepare these feathers. The humidity, fat and membranes had to be removed from the stem and then the tip had to be shaped and reshaped on a regular basis with a knife. Some people even shaped the barbs of the feather in order to make it lighter and easier to handle.

The feather would be dipped into an inkwell made of clay, glass or bronze. Black or red, the ink could be made domestically. Ink posed a great many problems since it could freeze, grow mold, thicken or pick up dirt. In order to accelerate the drying of ink, it would be sprinkled with an absorbent substance such as sand or black mica, which would be kept in a sand shaker. When an error was made, a knife would be used to scrape off a tiny layer of the paper. Errors could also be scratched out. Paper that had been scraped would then be polished with a piece of agate or the handle of a knife.

In France, public writers would set up their equipment along the sides of streets, in clear view of everyone. There, they would write everything from love letters to petitions to the king. Some even produced faked documents. In New France, one of these public writers was Daniel Normandin. He arrived here as a soldier in 1684. After tiring of military life, he roamed through the countryside with a portable writing stand. He offered to write a variety of documents for his clients, to read documents for them and to give them advice in legal matters. He settled in the Trois-Rivières region and later served as the royal notary.

Notaries were other important figures that enabled an illiterate population to have access to the world of writing. While a verbal agreement was sufficient at the start of the 17th century to make a transaction official in New France, the increase in the population made it necessary to impose procedures and put various agreements into writing. Nicolas, a clerk, was the first person to serve as a notary in Québec, as of 1621. In 1649, the first public notary, Guillaume Audouart, was officially designated. Following this, several seigniorial notaries were appointed and, in 1663, the first royal notary was named. As of that time, the profession was better regulated. For example, notaries were required to bind and keep their minutes, clearly indicating the year on them.

Under the French Regime, anyone, or almost anyone, could become a notary as long as they knew how to write and were considered a good Christian. Legal knowledge was only very briefly verified. Notaries were called on to draft a variety of documents: marriage contracts, land transfers, property inventories, hiring contracts, censuses. Notaries, who were poorly paid, often had to hold other occupations. Several also served as surveyors, clerks, physicians, merchants or judges. In areas where there were no notaries, certain people who were able to write would draft acts which were then tolerantly recognized. This was the case of seigneurs, officers in the militia and missionary priests.

Writing, which was useful in business, was also highly valued in the families of the elite who managed to maintain unique ties with distant friends and relatives through correspondence. To learn more about the art of letter writing under the French Regime, we invite you to return on July 8, 2008.

  • DOUVILLE, Raymond. «Daniel Normandin», Dictionnaire biographique du Canada, tome 2, [Québec], Presses de l’Université Laval, 1966. Page 521.
  • HARRISON, Jane E. Adieu pour cette année: la correspondance au Canada, 1640-1830. Montréal, XYZ, 1997. 181 pages.
  • MÉTAYER, Christine. Au tombeau des secrets: les écrivains publics du Paris populaire, Cimetière des Saints-Innocents, XVIe-XVIIIth century. Paris, Albin Michel, 2000. 456 pages.
  • VACHON, André. Histoire du notariat canadien, 1621-1960. Québec, les Presses de l'Université Laval, 1962. 209 pages.

Fourth episode
What a pleasure it is to receive news from you!

What a pleasure it is to receive news from you!In family letters from days gone by, one theme cropped up constantly from the pens of letter writers: their attachment to their families. In such letters, the joy experienced from receiving a missive was often highlighted, feelings of affection were expressed effusively in the greetings, and various wishes were expressed concerning the health and happiness of those to whom the letters were addressed. For the families of the elite, who were often separated by large distances, letters were highly prized. By transmitting news and expressions of friendship, they solidified family ties. Yet, making sure such letters reached their intended recipients was no mean affair in New France where there were no post offices and no official postal service.

The letters that were sent were generally written on a single sheet of paper folded in two, with the last “page” serving as an envelope. In the event that the letter writer lacked inspiration, there were manuals that proposed models that could be copied or adapted. In the event of a very long letter, several correspondents used all kinds of tricks to avoid using an additional piece of paper. Some people wrote smaller and smaller; others wrote crosswise on top of the original text, creating a grid with their words.

Once the letter was folded, it would measure about 10 centimeters. For the address, generally the person’s name and city were sufficient. The letter would be sealed by pressing a stamp into hot wax, which was generally red, where the two parts of the letter overlapped. Black wax was generally used to announce a death. When there was no wax available, letters could be sealed with a small red disk made of flour, water and gum that would be moistened before the stamp was pressed into it. When the letter would be opened, the seal would tend to tear off a piece of the paper, destroying a portion of the text. Certain far-seeing correspondents avoided writing in the most vulnerable spots.

Once the letter was ready to be sent off, the safest means was to give it to an acquaintance or a relative who was about to set out on a trip. Several letters would be written at a given time, not because the sender felt like it but because an “opportunity” arose. Traveling on the North American continent was a painful matter. There were few roads and those that existed were in poor condition. People often preferred to travel by river. As of 1737, the King's Road could be used to travel from Montreal to Quebec in four days. Most likely messengers used that road, but there was no official postal system prior to 1760.

For trans-Atlantic letters, senders who did not know any travelers could give their letters to the captain of a ship and use the services of an agent in France to forward the letter to the recipient. Corresponding with people in France was a seasonal matter that could only take place in the summer. Several letters could be sent during a single season, depending on the availability of ships.

Under the French Regime, many letters never reached their intended recipients. Those who carried them encountered numerous opportunities for losing them or mislaying them. Since there was so much uncertainty about whether letters would reach their destination, sometimes people would send several copies of the same letter, summarize past letters in a later letter or ask the person receiving a letter to read those intended for other people.

This is the end of the series of chronicles on literacy in New France. We invite you to return on July 22, 2008 for a new theme.

  • GADOURY, Lorraine. La famille dans son intimité: échanges épistolaires au sein de l'élite canadienne du XVIIIth century. Montréal, Hurtubise HMH, 1998. 185 pages.
  • HARRISON, Jane E. Adieu pour cette année: la correspondance au Canada, 1640-1830. Montréal, XYZ, 1997. 181 pages.


Why not send several?
Sending several letters during a single season often meant writing without waiting for a response and writing without knowing for sure in which order the letters would arrive. In the case of certain exceptionally rapid trans-Atlantic crossings, correspondents could send two letters in the same season and might receive a response between the two.
The season for correspondence
Ships from Europe arrived between May and August, carrying letters from European correspondents. These ships left at the end of the summer or the beginning of the fall, carrying responses from Canadian correspondents.
The King’s Road
Built along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, between Quebec and Montreal, the King’s Road was almost 8 meters wide. Along this road, ferries and bridges were used to cross watercourses. A postal relay network was also established.
Nothing more natural than providing this service...
Under the French Regime, travelers generally expected to carry packages and letters with them.
Sealing a letter
The wax used to seal letters was made of resin and gum lac.
Practical models
Published in 1704, Le secrétaire des demoiselles ; contenant des billets galans (sic) avec leurs réponses sur divers sujets proposed, among other things, a model for writing a letter to a “disgruntled lover” or a letter from “a flirtatious girl beseeching a man to come and see her”. Moreover, such manuals also contained practical information about preparing ink and quills.
My dearest...
In the 17th and 18th centuries, greetings used few first names, unless the letter wanted to emphasize great closeness. Generally, the focus was on the relationship, accompanied by an expression of affectionate feelings. Thus, many letters began with greetings such as “my dearest daughter” or “my beloved nephew”, and ended with phrases such as “Believe in me for life, your affectionate brother”.
Do you know how to write? You’d make a perfect notary!
In the colony, people who could write were so rare that even a shoemaker, a carpenter and a cabaret owner could become notaries.
Sand shaker
This small shaker had a cover with holes in it and looked much like a salt shaker.
Some ink recipes
It is possible to make black ink from suet, soot, or wood charcoal, by adding gum arabic and a solvent such as water, wine or vinegar. The very black ink make from ground gall was preferred since it was very durable. Ink could also be purchased.
For writing, people preferred the long wing or tail feathers of birds.
Transforming fabric into paper
In order to transform linen or cotton rags into paper, the paper maker would wash them, sort them and stack them up to allow them to rot. He would then pile them up or cut them in order to return them to the fibrous stage. Adding a little water, he would make a sort of broth. He would then dip a plate that looked like a screen into this mixture and collect a thin film of fibers. The sheets formed in this manner would be stacked, pressed, dried, coated with a mixture of gelatin and alum in order to make them less absorbent, then pressed again and rubbed. Two or three centuries layers, the best of these papers are still very solid.
Portable writing stands
Writing stands were boxes made of pewter or silver that contained the feather, knife, sand shaker and ink container. Large writing stands, which were made of wood and covered with leather, were often equipped with a lock. They could also hold paper in addition to all of the required accessories and provided a writing surface, which was very practical during trips.
Rare book owners
An analysis of 216 inventories made in the city of Québec during the 18th century reveals the presence of books in 36% of the cases. These owners were essentially members of the elite, members of the bourgeoisie and trades people. Some only owned one book, while other owned a dozen and some even owned over 100. As a result of the rarity of books, people would frequently read the same works over and over and circulate them as much as possible.
Mgr de Saint-Vallier’s ideal library
Here is a list of the best pious books,
according to Mgr Saint-Vallier:
- Vie de Jésus-Christ (Life of Jesus Christ)
- Confessions de saint Augustin (Confessions of St. Augustine)
- Vie des saints (Lives of the saints)
- Imitation de Jésus-Christ (Imitating Jesus Christ)
- Guide des pécheurs (Guide for sinners)
- Pédagogue des familles chrétiennes (Education for Christian families)
- Conduite de la confession et communion (Behavior for confession and communion)
- Méditations (Jean Busée) (Meditations by Jean Busée)
- Pensez-y bien (Think carefully)
- Pensées chrétiennes (Christian thoughts)
- Institution chrétienne (Christian institution)
Reading to feed one’s soul
A few tips were given to the students at the Petit Séminaire and the Grand Séminaire: “read carefully, without rushing, stopping at the places that may be touching, lifting your heart up to God, allowing the truths that you read slowly, carefully and devotedly to penetrate; […] try always to retain something for the rest of the day so as to be able to put it into practice.”
Learning to read out loud
In the small school, a great deal of attention was paid to pronunciation, accents and punctuation in order to make reading out loud understandable and pleasant.
Measuring the literacy rate
The literacy rate was generally measured in terms of the ability to sign a marriage contract, the best means currently available to historians. Unfortunately, it is an imperfect indicator since, on the one hand, it was possible to be able to read without being able to sign one’s name and, on the other hand, even someone who was almost illiterate may have learned to sign their name.
Catholic reform and education
Following the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic authorities felt a need to fight the religious ignorance of the masses. Literacy appeared to be one means to facilitate the understanding and the memorization of religious principles. Moreover, educated children were viewed as potential sources for spreading this knowledge.
A precious book
The Ursulines of Trois-Rivières provided evidence of the rarity of books when they wrote, in their annals, that their classes had only one grammar book, which was kept on a desk. The students would consult it one by one and only the teacher was allowed to turn the precious pages.
This book, which was used to enhance literacy, presented the various aspects of the alphabet (upper case letters, lower case letters), a list of syllables with two, three and four letters, a few prayers, responses for Mass, and some psalms. Primers accounted for 40% of the books available in the colony.
Latin or French?
By promoting French rather than Latin, the schools operated by the Congrégation de Notre-Dame played a pioneering role. Marguerite Bourgeoys put this idea into practice well before Jean-Baptiste de La Salle promoted it in France, at the very end of the 17th century.
Teaching communities
Under the French Regime, the State was not involved in education, except to grant subsidies. The principal elementary schools were operated by the Ursulines, the Récollets, the sisters of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame, the Jesuits and the Frères Charron. In the countryside, certain priests also played a role in teaching.