Managing tithes in the late middle ages

Managing tithes in the late middle ages

By Ben Dodds

Agricultural History Review, Volume 53 (2005)

Abstract: Tithes were an important resource for monasteries in the late middle ages. This study of one major tithe owner shows they were either collected directly or sold before harvest. Management decisions were not unlike those made for manorial demesnes but with some differences related to the process of tithe collection, national and regional agricultural trends and changing methods of obtaining household grain supply. The sale of tithes represented an opportunity for certain groups in society but does not necessarily imply declining interest in management by tithe owners. Responsiveness to change is reflected in the adaptation of bureaucratic arrangements.

Introduction: Landlords in the middle ages faced the choice of whether to manage sources of income such as demesnes, mills, ovens and dovecotes directly or to lease them out and collect a rent. Direct management of demesnes peaked in the thirteenth century when some major landlords ran commercialised networks of ‘federated grain factories’. From the end of the fourteenth century the leasing of demesnes became more common as a response to the lower profitability of direct management caused by rising labour costs and low grain prices. These changes have been interpreted as a withdrawal by landlords into a more passive form of management. Barbara Harvey, for example, described the ‘undemanding exercise of lordship’ by the abbot and convent of Westminster in the fifteenth century and their unresponsiveness to economic change, demonstrated by the extension of the terms of years of their leases.

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