Types of charters 2: leases and precarial grants

Posted: Sept. 23, 2014, 10:17 a.m. by Edward Roberts

This week, we’re going to look at a type of conditional property grant which became fairly widespread in Frankish Europe.

In my last blog, I talked about why people gave to the Church in such abundance, and why the Church itself encouraged such donations. In the Merovingian period, new forms of leases and tenancy agreements were gradually introduced to facilitate the granting of land on easy terms and to enable donors of lesser means to give their property to the Church without impoverishing themselves. These leases were rooted in Roman law, which had long maintained a distinction between 'owning' or holding the ultimate rights over property (dominium) versus physically and temporarily controlling it (possessio). In early medieval Europe, it came to be that a granter could donate his property to a church or monastery and ask to retain the usufruct of that property (i.e. the right to use, derive profit from and inhabit that land) for a certain period of time, usually the remainder of his life. In Francia, this form of tenure came to be known as precaria (from the Latin verb precari, ‘to beg’ or ‘to pray’; so called because the granter entreated the recipient to let him keep certain rights). After the leaseback period ended (normally after the death of the granter), all rights over the land would in theory revert to the owning institution, although in practice many precarial lands were leased back to the original granter’s successors (indeed, many donors stipulated in charters that both they and their children should retain the usufruct of the granted property for the duration of their lives). Precarial grants are so frequent in Carolingian charters that you’ll be able to search or browse specifically for these transactions.

A very similar practice of tenure emerged known as landholding in benefice. The Latin beneficium means a ‘favour’ or ‘good deed’, and the appearance of the word in charters initially expressed the fact that a grant of usufruct had been made as a goodwill gesture by the recipient for the original donor. It seems to be the case that land granted in benefice came to be done so in return for a specific service rendered. In the Carolingian period, kings and magnates often granted property in benefice as a means of rewarding their followers for military service. If an individual decided to join the clergy, he might grant his property to the institution he has entered and then immediately receive the use of it back in benefice. By the ninth century, both precaria and beneficium could be referred to in charters as nouns denoting a granted property itself (i.e. ‘a precarial estate’ or ‘a benefice’), and in practice the two terms seem to have come to mean essentially the same kind of tenure, although beneficium emphasised the sense of favour attached to the grant. To investigate the prevalence of transactions invoking this kind of language, you’ll be able to search the database for Latin terms such as precaria and beneficium.

Many charters containing grants of land as precaria or beneficium also stipulate that a census (a rent or tax) should be paid by tenants and holders to the owning party. However, there is debate about whether this payment constituted a real source of income for landowners or was rather a token amount intended merely to recognise an owner’s ultimate rights of dominium over a property. This is a question users could explore for themselves by searching for the appearance of the term census and looking at the kinds of documents in which it appears, or perhaps the geographic areas in which such charters were issued.

It should be stressed that grants of land to the Church were not at all uniform: such arrangements were very fluid and assumed a variety of shapes. A plethora of terms and conditions could be applied to property transfers. Land was often only promised to a church, not to be transferred at all until after the death of a granter, or perhaps after the death of a granter and his wife, or after the death of both spouses and their children, and so forth. A donor could specify that a transfer was only to be completed in the event that he died childless. Alternatively, he might retain the usufruct of a granted estate as a precaria or beneficium for a child or spouse in the event of his death. A church might require that a granter inhabit an estate in order to ensure that he maintained it, or that a tenant had a duty to ‘improve’ a property. An institution could assert that a holder was only allowed to cultivate certain fields of a particular property, or that he was only permitted to take certain specified profits from an estate. Grants and leases were all technically revocable if the various stipulations attached to them were not met.

Let’s look at two examples of grants with leases, both from the cartulary of the monastery of St Gall (St Gallen) in Switzerland. Like many churches in Charlemagne's Europe, St Gall let the majority of its property to individuals in precarial arrangements.

The Plan of St Gall - an extraordinary architectural drawing of the monastic complex, dating to the early ninth century (Stiftsbibliothek Sankt Gallen 1092)

The Plan of St Gall - an extraordinary architectural drawing of the monastic complex, dating to the early ninth century (Stiftsbibliothek Sankt Gallen 1092)


St Gall No. 54 (16 October 769):

In the name of God. I, Matzo, give and transfer to the monastery of St Gall, where his holy body rests. This is what I give: whatever I seem to have in the villa called Waldhausen, on the condition that by the goodwill (beneficium) of these monks, I may receive those goods [back] afterwards and I may pay a census thence, that is one saiga annually, in whichever form I am able. These are the witnesses, who are present and confirm [this charter]. Signed Matzo, who ordered this charter of transfer to be made. Signed Fito. signed Boazman. signed Ehso. signed Witpert. signed Appo. signed Sindram. signed Hadupert. signed Maur. And I, Ato, deacon, wrote this charter of transfer, having been asked by Matzo, on the 17th Kalends of November, in the second year of the reign of Carloman, king of the Franks.

This charter is a simple donation and leaseback arrangement made by a certain Matzo with the abbey of St Gall. Matzo gives everything he owns in the villa (a term with a wide range of meanings, but usually ‘estate’ or ‘village’) of Waldhausen, and St Gall agrees to return the property to him in benefice in exchange for an annual census payment. The census here is described as one saiga, a gold coin of a certain weight and by extension a unit of measure, payable ‘in whichever form I am able’, presumably meaning that St Gall would accept goods of value equal to a saiga. Note also that this charter is dated according to the reign of Carloman, Charlemagne’s younger brother, who ruled a share of the Frankish realm until his premature death in 771.


St Gall No. 55 (21 October 769):

In the name of God. It pleases us – I, John, bishop and abbot of the monastery of St Gall, with our brothers, the monks of this monastery – that we ought to grant out again those goods which Chrodhoch and his wife Raginswinda transferred to us in the villa called Baldinga, in the pagus (district) called Adalhartespara, as a precaria to them by this precarial charter. And this is what they gave to us in the villa Baldinga and its marca (i.e. within its confines): whatever we seem to have there, excluding their servant Waldilana. And this is the census which they ought to pay every year: 20 barrels of beer and 1 maldrum (unit of measure) of bread and a piglet worth one saiga. And if they should bring forth a son, let him do the same, and if not after the death of both [Chrodhoch and Raginswinda] let those goods return to the monastery without any hindrance, and may they come to no person by exchange or sale or donation, but may the monastery itself hold them firmly and stably in perpetuity. And if one of them (i.e. Chrodhoch or Raginswinda) should survive the other, let the census be increased; that is, to 30 barrels of beer and 1 maldrum of bread and a piglet worth 4 denarii. And if anyone should want to break this charter, let him pay 2 ounces of gold and 4 pounds of silver to the fisc (treasury). Signed Woffi witness, signed Aato witness, signed Intto witness, Hugiperto witness, signed Hariperto witness, signed Walto witness, signed Liuto, witness, signed Maorinzan, witness, signed Amulfrido witness, signed Wachar witness. Enacted in the same monastery on the 12th Kalends of November, in the second year of King Carloman ruling. I, Ato, deacon, wrote and subscribed [this], having been asked by the brothers.

This charter is similar, although it contains several other terms and conditions for the grant. A certain Chrodhoch and his wife Raginswinda give their property in Baldinga to St Gall, and Abbot John agrees to return it to them as a precaria in exchange for an annual census payment of beer, bread and a piglet. The granters stipulate that if they have a son, this arrangement should similarly be maintained for him (likely for the duration of his life, though this is not stated). The charter also includes a curious clause about the census increasing after the death of one of the spouses. It's impossible to say exactly why this was included; it might be the case that St Gall thought it should take more following the death of either the husband or wife because the surviving granter would require less for his/her livelihood and have more to spare. The document is vague in some respects: it doesn't tell us, for instance, which census rate the hypothetical son would pay. There is also a penalty clause detailing the fine to be paid by anyone (probably to St Gall, but ‘fisc’ can also refer to the royal treasury) who contravenes the charter’s provisions.

Some historians estimate that perhaps a third of all the land in Francia was owned by the Church by the time of Charlemagne. There can be no doubt that religious institutions were major landowners in this period, but it is important to underline the fact that a great deal of land remained in the hands of the monarchy and the laity. An overwhelming majority of the thousands of legal documents from Charlemagne’s reign are ecclesiastical charters, with the notable exception of about 260 diplomas (royal charters) issued by Charlemagne himself. Moreover, diplomas often survive precisely because churches and monasteries kept copies of them. But while charters from religious houses dominate the documentary record, recent research has shown that lay people too frequently possessed their own documents, although they are often only attested indirectly through references to them in ecclesiastical charters or in formularies (collections of document models, or formulae, which scribes could use to draw up charters). Lay documents seldom survive because families lacked the institutional longevity of churches and monasteries: an early medieval charter is much more likely to survive if housed in the archive of a religious institution which remained intact for a thousand years than in a private archive which was liable to be lost when a lay family died out. It would be wrong to conclude from the documents in our database that land transactions always involved churches, or that churches were the only parties interested in producing and keeping written proofs of their rights, claims and activities. It is nevertheless largely from ecclesiastical evidence that historians must try and reconstruct many important aspects of early medieval society.



W. Brown, M. Costambeys, M. Innes and A. Kosto (eds), Documentary Culture and the Laity in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2013).

W. Davies and P. Fouracre (eds), Property and Power in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1995).

W. Davies and P. Fouracre (eds), The Languages of Gift in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2010).

R. McKitterick, The Carolingians and the Written Word (Cambridge, 1989).

A. Rio, Legal Practice and the Written Word in the Early Middle Ages: Frankish Formulae, c. 500-1000 (Cambridge, 2009).

S. Wood, The Proprietary Church in the Medieval West (Oxford, 2006).