On a recent journey to Bath I drove through Bradford-on-Avon, where there is a splendid fourteenth-century tithe barn. Sadly, the weather was dreadful on that day, so the photographs are very dark, but you should be able to get an idea of the size of the barn.
There are about 200 surviving tithe barns in England of varying sizes. English Heritage, who are responsible for it, tells me that this one is 51 metres long or, if you prefer, 55.77 yards.
Tithe barns were built to store a parish’s tithes. The tithe was the tenth of the crop given to the church. The object of the tithe was to provide for the parish priest, to pay for the upkeep of the church building, to provide alms for the poor. A proportion was also sent to the local bishop.
As soon as the crop had been reaped a tenth was taken from the field and stored in the barn.
There were three different types of tithes:
- praedial tithes, based on the income from produce;
- mixed tithes, based on income from stock and labour;
- personal tithes, based on income entirely from labour.
Whether you were someone who had your own land and produced your own crops, or earned your living from labour, you paid a tenth of it to the church. Income from woodland was exempt. I haven’t discovered why this should be the case.
Not all parishes had an incumbent rector, i.e. the priest responsible for the parish who lived and worked in it. Somethings this was because the rector was an institution, such as a monastery or a college. This was the case at Bradford-on-Avon, where Shaftesbury Abbey had the living. An absent rector would appoint a deputy, a vicar (from the Latin vicarious, meaning deputy) to look after the parish. The tithe would be shared between the rector and the vicar.
The barn at Bradford-on –Avon belonged to Shaftesbury Abbey, almost 30 miles away, which meant that the parish would have had a vicar.
The barns were not only used for storage. They were large, roofed buildings and provided shelter against snow, rain and cold. Cows could be milked inside. Ewes could be kept warm and safe during lambing. On wet days a barn provided a space where labourers could carry out tasks that would normally be done outside.
In theory, the contents of the tithe barns could be used to dispense food to people in times of need.
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys – Stephen Friar
Medieval Lives – Terry Jones
The English Manor c1200 – c1500 – Mark Bailey