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.