Last week a reader asked a question on the Glossary of Medieval Terms page and I thought the answer was interesting enough to warrant a post of its own, albeit a short one. The question is: what does “presented to the living” mean?
A benefice is an office of a priest, vicar or rector, usually associated with a parish. In return for carrying out parochial responsibilities the rector was given some land and its revenues. The rector was the priest responsible for the parish. He wasn’t paid a salary, but lived on the revenues of the land associated with the parish and its tithes. For this reason, it was known colloquailly as a living. It should be noted that not all priests were parish priests and not all benefices were parishes where a priest had responsibility for parishioners.
England was, and is, divided into parishes. Although the number of parishes now is almost 25% greater than it was in the Middle Ages, the population is 18.5 times greater, so there are many more people in most parishes than there were then.
The parish system was fully developed by the end of the twelfth century. There were about 9,500 parishes in England and most of the appointments to parish priest were made either by the local bishop or a monastery. Monasteries were responsible for about a quarter of parishes, which meant that a monastery was the rector for these parishes, a role that it could not fulfil, since a monastery isn’t a person. Monasteries had to appoint a vicar to carry out these duties on their behalf. A vicar is a substitute, that is someone who represents someone else.
The practice of rectors appointing substitutes wasn’t just limited to the instances where a monastery was the rector. Going into the church was an established way for younger sons of nobles to make a living. They were not going to inherit, so there was little point marrying and raising a family. Generally, though, they didn’t have the money to marry and raise a family. If they went into the church, they weren’t necessarily guaranteed a glittering career ending up as a bishop or archbishop, either. The best they could hope for was to be presented with the living of one or more parish, hire someone to do the work in their place and live off the difference between what they paid the vicar and the revenues and tithes provided for the rector.
You’ll note that I wrote ‘one or more parish’. In the Middle Ages it was possible for a priest to be responsible for more than one parish. Although this pluralism was banned at the Lateran Council of 1215, it was easy enough to get a dispensation from Rome.
In England (and probably in other countries) the situation was exacerbated by the fact that many pluralists were foreigners appointed by the pope, or at his behest. Since they didn’t speak English, it was clear that neither they, nor the pope himself, expected them to take up their parochial duties.
When Pope John XXII suspended all earlier dispensations in the early fourteenth century and declared that a priest could only have one living, about 200 benefices became available in England. Whilst it might look as if the pope was concerned about the negative effect of absentee priests on parishes, it was more an attempt to gain more control over appointments to benefices.
In 1291 Bogo de Clare, the son of an earl, had twenty-four parishes, plus a few other church positions, all of which brought him £2,200 a year. I’ll just remind you that a skilled labourer in the mid-fourteenth century earned 4d a day. I don’t know how much parishioners knew about all this, but had I been one of Bogo’s parishioners I expect I would have been horrified to know how much money he was making.
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams.
A Social History of England 1200 – 1500 ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
England in the Reign of Edward III by Scott L. Waugh
Life in a Medieval Village by Frances Gies and Joseph Gies