Presented to the Living

St. Michael’s Church, Southampton

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

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 The Medieval Church

12 responses to “Presented to the Living

  1. Religion, like politics is a magnet for corruption and averice. I think I would be naffed off at Bogo too.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Bogo de Clare the rotter ..good name though…sounds like what I’d call my toilet if I lived in France….

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Understanding better how hogtied Europe’s rulers were, and how the Reformation appealed to many, especially those whose realms were on the northern tier.

    The Pope didn’t travel far from the Vatican and its defences. Britain and the Baltic countries may have well been on the moon. And, of course, Popes were local boys with local loyalties.

    Yes, we’re I a northern ruler I’d want out of that uneven yoke! 🌹

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love how reader questions inspire such eye-opening posts, April! Remind me what 4d a day adds up to in a year? I find the medieval currency system is difficult to calculate!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Looked up what 4d would equal in modern money from the U.S. National Archives. Best comparable date I could find was 2017. It stated that 4d equaled 11 pounds, 82 pence, which it said was a daily wage for a skilled worker; presuming some kind of farm work.

      Since that was 5 years ago, and we’re going through another inflation spike, the current price will be higher.

      It seems odd to think that L11.82 a day was a livable wage, but most farm people raised their own food, made their own cloth, and lived on the lord’s land. They’d have fees, taxes and tithes, but their needs were few outside of that which they could produce. Barter was another form of exchange which may or may not have been taken into consideration when this estimation was made.

      I am curious, as wives and children were also expected to work, what they might earn. All was the husband/father’s right to spend, so the family income could have been higher. Children tended to stay with their parents until around ages 7-14, depending if they were apprenticed, married off, or other obligations. Presumably, for the land, an eldest son inherited the responsibility of husbanding, but this would not necessarily be a hard and fast rule.

      I’m loving this! ♥

      Liked by 2 people

      • £11.82 is not what a skilled labourer would earn today for a day’s work. It’s a bit more than the minimum amount unskilled labourers can be paid per hour. Five years ago it woulnd’t have been a day’s wage. I’m not sure how the US National Archives arrived at that figure.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yeah, I agree. Who knows what resources the National Archives plumbed. Certainly that was not what a journeyman, apprentice or master craftsman would earn. That’s why I’m presuming it meant serf or farm labor. When much of what one needs is produced from the land, and little chance of investments or improvements could be made without the lord’s permission, cash on hand was probably not considered necessary for the comfort of a serf.

          I also neglected to mention the reckoning was comparing 1300 to 2017. Post Black Death wages would have been much higher. Sorry!

          Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve cheated a bit, because there would have been lots of holy days on which the labourer didn’t work. I’ve assumed that he worked five days a week for fifty-two weeks of the year. He earned four pounds and four shillings.

      Liked by 1 person

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