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« Je le voyais travailler comme un enfant chez son père » : minority, civil law and the monetarization of adolescence in rural Quebec, 1850-1900

Thierry Nootens

Research framework : In the Quebec countryside of the latter 19th century, orphaned minors depended closely on what could be gleaned from their family inheritance and these financial rights sometimes led to litigation.

Objectives : The author examines three historical disputes to highlight two phenomena : 1) the consequences of early deaths on the legal relationships that structured lineages and, in particular, the choices made through marriage contracts and wills ; 2) the way in which people represented the cost of adolescents and the value of their contribution to the domestic economy. This cost versus value dichotomy was hotly debated during lawsuits over the accountability of guardianship.

Methodology : Taking a microsociological approach, this work considers the nature and intensity of intrafamilial obligations, the variability of family resources and the risks families faced.

Results : An early death could profoundly upset the legal and financial arrangements made by families in order to foresee the future as best as they could. Moreover, disputes over managing acquired property and the minors themselves meant that children and adolescents had to be monetarized, as the litigants debated the cost of their maintenance versus the value of their contribution to the domestic economy. The witnesses called on both sides had great difficulty quantifying these family services which were of the natural order of things at the time.

Conclusion : Urban living and waged labor allowed witnesses to more precisely measure the assets and expenditures related to adolescence.

Contribution : This abrupt change in the social relation to money and value, were it more fully documented, constituted a key moment in the history of the family during the transition to industrial capitalism in Quebec.