Medieval Tithes

Bradford on Avon Tithe Barn Exterior

We’re still with the church this week, but on a smaller scale. The church wasn’t just the pope and senior clerics in important secular jobs; it was also priests working in parishes trying to do what they could for their parishioners. Parish priests weren’t paid a wage, but received a tithe from their parishioners. Essentially the tithe was ten percent of a harvest or general agricultural produce. The tithe was quite a bit more complicated than I’m going to represent it as being.

There were two types of tithes: greater tithes, which were wood, corn and hay, and lesser tithes, which were flour, fish, salt and young animals. We saw last year that the clergy in Southampton parishes received a tenth of the pigs born in their parishes.

One of the reasons why this is more complicated than I’m suggesting is that the tithe didn’t always go to the parish priest. Sometimes parish priests were monks and the tithe went to their abbey. For the purposes of this post, though, we’ll assume that all tithes went directly to the priest.

Tithes weren’t the only way of ensuring that priests had enough to live on. Priests also tended to have glebe lands. This was land within the parish used to support the priest. They were on average 100 acres of various kinds of land and about three-quarters of it was demesne land, i.e. it was farmed by the villeins of the person who owned it and was not rented out. Some priests had much more than 100 acres. In 1305 the rector at Carisbrooke on the Isle of Wight had 600 acres of land with a dovecote and a mill. He also received rents from tenants and the normal tithes. He received more income from his glebe lands than from his tithes, but for most priests it was the other way round. Just as some priests had much more than the average, so many would have had much less, or none at all. For them their tithes were their only source of income.

Glebe lands became increasingly unpopular as lay people were worried that their priests would spend more time studying agriculture and managing their land than they would looking after the spiritual health of their parishioners. In some cases this was not an unrealistic fear.

You’ll have spotted that this was all very well for rural priests, but what about those in urban parishes and what did the priests in Southampton do with all those pigs, because it turns out that almost every household in the town would have had at least one, so there would have been a lot of pigs born each year.

In towns, priests were supported by tithes on commerce, probably money rather than goods. Although tithes were much more suited to rural areas, they were mostly accepted in towns as well. There were very few complaints about how they were calculated.

For most priests, who were, obviously, single men, the tithe gave them more than they needed of those particular items, so they sold the excess to buy other things that they needed, but weren’t included in the tithe, furniture, for example, or non-local foodstuffs or labour.

In some parishes the parishioners could give money at a set rate instead of a young animal. There were only so many chickens, calves or sheep a single man could use or manage, and giving money instead meant that the parishioners had the use of animals they would otherwise have lost for eggs, milk and wool, as well as for breeding, while the priest had the money to buy what he needed.

I don’t know how much of a context this is, but in 1302 a priest in the Meon Valley in Hampshire received 150 lambs in tithes. If he kept them, he would soon have a huge flock, so it’s understandable that they were sold. He still might have had a small flock, but he would have had to pay someone to look after them.

Tithes were amongst the things attacked by the Lollards at the end of the fourteenth century. Once again, they were ahead of their time, but this time by several centuries. Tithes were finally abolished in England in 1836.

A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
The English Manor c1200 to c1500 by Mark Bailey
Life in a Medieval Village by Frances and Joseph Gies
A Social History of England1200 – 1500 ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
Making a Living in the Middle Ages by Christopher Dyer

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life, The Medieval Church

22 responses to “Medieval Tithes

  1. In The Voices of Morebath, the church records carefully detail who’s raising the–I think it was the church’s sheep. So that would’ve taken care of the problem of how big a flock the priest could maintain.

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  2. Interestingly, tithes are still collected in some European countries although on a voluntary basis.

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  3. Not a bad living being a priest. You can see how it woukd build resentment too.

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  4. I can’t imagine receiving 150 lambs as payment! I can see why many priests would rather take the cash.

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  5. It’s a really interesting subject. Thanks for posting about it. You made me check back on the custumal for Rochester Priory (written in the 13th-century, but evidence that it was still being used by the community in the early 14th) because I remembered something about ‘wages’ being paid to the priest at St Bartholomew’s Hospital on the outskirts of Rochester. What it says is that a ‘stipend’ was paid to the priest of the hospital five times a year: 2 shillings at Michaelmas, 2 at Christmas, 2 at Easter, 2 at the Nativity of St John, and 2 on the feast day of St Bartholomew. St Bartholomew’s seems to have been by this time a leper hospital and the residents/patients there were called ‘brothers’. Rochester Priory basically kept it going with regularised payments, both food and monetary. It obviously saw it as important to take care of the spiritual needs of its residents/patients, so paid for a priest to perform services there on these feast days. I am assuming that the priest concerned was a parish priest of Rochester and these payments were in addition to the tithing he received.

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  7. …and….10% tithe commitment re-appeared in Protestant church America in the early 1990s, when I remember friends in my age group – each of who attended an urban, high parishoner count, church – joined the church where the moved to and learned, to their chagrin, that to be a member? They needed to self report their annual income and their continued membership was dependent upon tithing annually, 10% of that, with collection letters, etc., sent as reminders – – I was flabbergasted, but um, yup – heard shocked and amazed stories from so many friends in that recent era – even though they had committed to 10% and was putting in the collection plate each sunday – it wasn’t paid by check/could be tracked/traced to them and well – again – I thought – “Ya know? Sometimes organized religion sects/entities rather shoot themselves in their own foot….over and over…..Greed – one of the 7 sins – – LOL

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