Tag Archives: Medieval Priests

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.

Available now:




Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life, The Medieval Church

Medieval Priests


Some time ago I started an occasional series on the various roles in fourteenth-century society. It was so occasional that I didn’t finish it. I don’t promise to finish it now, but I will get to some of the things that I left out.

We’ve spent a lot of time with monks recently, but the medieval church was more than monks. There were many clerics who lived and ministered in various capacities in the secular world and some of them were more secular than others. Today I want to look at priests.

Anyone other than a serf was eligible for the priesthood. Once ordained there was nothing, in theory, to stop them becoming bishops. William of Wykeham was a good example of this in the fourteenth century. His father was a freeman, but he went to school and started work as a secretary, becoming supervisor of Edward III’s building works. When he was almost 40, he was ordained. Four years later, he was made Bishop of Winchester. It is true, however, that few men of humble origins rose so far. They were far more likely to become the priest of a parish not far from where they were born.

There were about 9,000 parishes in England at the beginning of the fourteenth century and each one needed at least one priest. The lord of the manor appointed the rector, who was responsible for the parish, but the rector didn’t always live there. He could hire a deputy, a vicar, to manage the parish in his place. The rector received the revenues from the glebe and the parishioners’ tithes. From these he paid the vicar a stipend.

The glebe was land that was used to provide a living for the rector.  A glebe would, on average, be about 100 acres in size. Like everyone else in the parish, unless it was in a town, the priest would grow crops to eat on some of the land and grow crops to sell on the rest of it. Most rectors paid men to work on the glebe.  Parishioners gave a tenth of what they produced each year to the priest. This might be in the form of money, crops, eggs, milk or animals. This was the tithe. For most parish priests the tithes provided more than the glebe and they were able to sell some of the crops they grew themselves.

If the rector was a local man, he tended to live in the parish and do the work himself. In this instance he was usually the son of a freeman or a craftsman. Absentee rectors were more usually members of the nobility who lived on the income from one or more parishes. It wasn’t uncommon for rectors to have several parishes. As you would expect, some took care to make sure that the work was being carried out properly, while others did not.


Fourteenth Century Priest’s House, Muchelney

Parish priests were very much part of the community they lived in, even though they were distinct from it. They joined in all the village celebrations and activities, and they worked their land like their neighbours. They were different in that they could absolve sins and, as they saw it, ‘make God’ in the mass. They were also supposed to be celibate.

It took a long time for the first Lateran Council’s ruling on celibacy in the first half of the twelfth century to be imposed, but by the fourteenth century it was generally accepted in England that priests weren’t supposed to have wives. Some priests kept concubines, however. It wasn’t until the Counter-Reformation in the sixteenth century that celibacy was finally enforced.

Another distinction was that members of the clergy were tried in church courts, which tended to be more lenient than other courts. Although priests, like monks, were supposed to be tonsured, most weren’t. There wasn’t really any way to differentiate between a priest and anyone else by the way they were dressed, so priests who were accused of a crime could find themselves in the position of having to demonstrate that they had the right to be tried by a church court. The test was whether or not they could read a passage from the Bible. This wasn’t the easy test that it sounds, as the Bible was in Latin and the majority of priests received little formal education.

The lack of educated priests was tackled by the fourth Lateran Council in 1215. It took a few decades for its effects to be felt across England, but bishops began to require that their parish priests should know and understand the Ten Commandments, the seven deadly sins, the seven sacraments and the creeds. They were supposed to preach about these to their parishioners, teaching them how to approach the sacraments. Other duties were catechising children and guiding the morals of their parishioners. Since priests had to look after the glebe, there was always the fear that they would spend most of their time growing food rather than looking after the spiritual needs of their parishioners.

Despite the growing use of instruction manuals for priests since the thirteenth century, there were many complaints at the end of the fourteenth century that parish priests were so ignorant they were leading their parishioners to hell.

A Social History of England 1200-1500 ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
Life in a Medieval Village by Frances 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.

Available now:









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Filed under The Medieval Church