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A general definition of free alms consists in their being gifts to the religious for unspecified spiritual services. More precise definitions are still being contested, as , for example, in the contrasting statements by Audrey Douglas and Benjamin Thompson.
In the twelfth century, however, particularly in the first half, gifts to the religious, especially in foundation charters, were prescribed in a more inchoate form, but also for a specific purpose. The form of the beneficiaries might be: to the church of the saint of the patrimony; to my church of the saint of the patrimony; to the abbot and monks of such and such a church. The specific reason behind founders' charters might have been that they regarded the religious houses which they founded as Eigenkirchen, proprietary churches, their own pieces of property. That perception was altered by the canonical pronouncements in the twelfth century about the nature of the property of the Church.
In the thirteenth century, these inchoate clauses still persisted, but in a benign context, without the previous secular intention.
Bibliographical note: no further works have been cited here, but if you are interested a further bibliography can be supplied for these aspects.
Second in occurrence of the clauses relating to free alms was the definition of the form of 'tenure': in free, pure and perpetual alms. Ensuing from this phrase are several questions:
As a broad generalisation, gifts in liberam puram et perpetuam elemosinam had these defining characteristics:
The perpetuity of the gift referred to the corporate nature of the Church -- an unending and unbroken body or corporation sole. The religious thus had no heirs, only successors. In theory, therefore, gifts to the religious were not hereditary but perpetual. It is not clear, however, that they had always been so; for example, it is conceivable that at an earlier time some gifts in alms were 'wandering' alms, in the sense that they were given in association with a member of the family entering a religious house, but reverted to the grantor after the life of that person (as documented, for example, by Barbara Rosenwein, To be the Neighbor of St Peter: the Social Meaning of Cluny's Property, 909-1049 (1989)).
Moreover, the language of gifts in perpetuity was inconsistent in the early 12th century, so that some gifts in alms were indeed made in inheritance or hereditarily rather than in perpetuity. Two inferences follow:
The spiritual nature of the services is occasionally specifically further described in 12th-century (and some later) charters: except prayers (nisi oraciones); exceptions of secular services (seculare servicium). Spiritual services were thus presumed to be unquantified prayers, for which benefactors could not distrain, since they were unspecific both as to quality and quantity.
Practice, however, deviated from theoretical principle. Taking the question of the performance of services first, transfers of land from lay hands to the Church involved the question of who would perform the secular services owed by the land -- from donor to superior lords and forinsec services owed to the Crown, including knight service (commuted as scutage). Behind gifts to the religious then lay negotiations about who would perform those services, sometimes resulting in provisions in the charters, sometimes described in confirmation charters. In many cases, the performance of services attached to the land were:
In the late 12th century, the issue of the performance of services assumed greater significance because:
Contention about services surfaced in the reissue of Magna Carta 1217 c.39, in which provision was made that no tenant should alienate so much of a fee that the services could not be properly performed (P. A. Brand, S. F. C. Milsom). Although the provision did not explicitly refer to free alms and the religious, it is generally assumed that they were the problem at which it was directed (the maritagium is another possibility, although a less likely one).
Further provisions were enunciated through the 13th century, the concern now being as much with the balance of land in lay and religious hands as with services. One manifestation in charters of this concern is a restraint on alienation to the religious (see also the section on assigns). In the Petition of the Barons in 1258, the grievance was expressed against the religious entering lay fee without the consent of the chief lord, reiterated in The Provisions of Westminster (1259) which prohibited religious houses entering lay fee without the licence of the chief lord. This concern culminated in the First Statute of Mortmain in 1279 (De Viris Religiosis). In future, alienations for religious purposes required a licence from the Crown; at first, specific licences were required for each acquisition, but by 1300 the Crown was issuing general licences to religious houses to acquire lands in mortmain (up to specific values, for example a licence to acquire lands in the future to the value of £20). The issue was thus confounded by royal fiscalism, for licences after 1279 were required from the Crown not from chief lords as proposed in the period of Baronial Reform. (T. F. T. Plucknett, S. Raban).
As mentioned in the section on the second clause, free and pure alms were theoretically required only in return for unspecified spiritual services, but in practice negotiation was necessary to ascertain who would perform the secular services. In some cases, the religious house assumed the secular services. The tenor of clauses such as 'as freely as alms may be given' may overtly recognise this problem: that the religious may have to perform some secular services. The import of gifts in free alms is then a question of the will and wish of the grantor -- acquitting the lands from as much service as is possible. In many cases, that service will be only intrinsec service with the recognition that little might be achieved about extrinsec services (Yver et al.). This question may be at the hub of whether free alms was recognised as a distinctive doctrine in the early 12th century; Douglas suggests that it was a formal doctrine. She made a distinction between the site of the church or religious house, which was elemosina, and the wider estate which was held by tenure in elemosina. The effect of the introduction of the assize utrum (1164) was to blur that fine distinction, producing in the mid 12th century a formal, specialised doctrine of alms. Thompson, by contrast, argues that there was no formal doctrine of alms before the late 12th century; all that existed was an intention by donors to give to the religious as far as possible for their free enjoyment. It was only later, not much before the time of 'Glanvill' (1187x1189), that a doctrine of alms as tenure in return for services developed.