Mortmain is a legal term that means ownership of real estate by a corporation or legal institution that can be transferred or sold in perpetuity; the term is usually used in the context of its prohibition. Historically, the land owner usually would be the religious office of a church; today, insofar as mortmain prohibitions against perpetual ownership still exist, it refers most often to modern companies and charitable trusts. The term "mortmain" is derived from mediæval French (mort main), literally meaning "dead hand."



During the Middle Ages in countries such as England the church acquired a substantial amount of real estate. As the church and religious orders were recognised as a legal person separate from the office holder who administered the church land (such as the abbot or the bishop), the land would not go to the king on the death of the holder, as the church and the religious orders would not die. In addition, as the land was held in perpetuity, it would never escheat or pass by inheritance (and no feudal incidents or taxes would be payable upon it).

This was in contrast to feudal practice where the nobility would hold land on grant from the king in return for service, especially service in war. This meant that the church over time gained a large share of land in many feudal states and so was a cause of increasing tension between the church and the Crown.[1]

In 1279 and again 1290 Statutes of Mortmain were passed by King Edward I to circumscribe the church's holding of property, although limits on the church's power to hold land are also found in earlier statutes, including the Magna Carta of 1215 and the Provisions of Westminster of 1259.[2] The broad effect of these provisions was that the authorisation of the Crown was needed before the land could vest perpetually in a corporation.

Although statutes prohibiting mortmain have been abolished in most countries today, the principle still subsists to a certain extent in relation to trust law in the form of the rule against perpetuities.

Mortmain played an important part in legal history, and earlier case law often needs to be considered against this background. For example, the judicial decision in Thornton v Howe[3] held that a trust for publishing the writings of Joanna Southcott[4] was charitable being for the "advancement of religion." This decision is often held up as setting the bar extremely low in determining whether a charity is for the advancement of religion.[5] But if one considers that at the time the statutes against mortmain were in force, and that the effect of the decision was that the trust was void, rather than imbuing it with special privileges in relation to taxation, it puts a very different spin on the ratio decidendi.

Origin of the term 'Mortmain'

From medieval latin manus mortua.
formed from the classic legal latin manus, (also present in mancipatio, mando) meaning power, authority (over one's wife, children and slaves) ; and the power and capacity to buy and sell (slaves or estates).
to which was added the medieval legal latin mortuus which does not mean dead but inalienable, unable to be given, rented or sold, as in mortgage. Mortmain means thus incapacity of selling possessions or estates.


  1. ^  "Mortmain". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  2. ^ The nascent Provisions of Westminster were repealed by the Crown with Papal consent in 1262 and it was formally annulled in 1264. See generally Provisions of Oxford.
  3. ^ (1862) 31 Beav 14
  4. ^ Who claimed she was pregnant by the Holy Ghost and would give birth to the new Messiah; a prediction which was apparently not borne out by events.
  5. ^ Hanbury & Martin, Modern Equity, cites it as authority for the proposition that: "any belief, no matter how outlandish, shared perhaps by only a handful of friends, be entitled to the perpetuity and fiscal advantages given to charities".

See also

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  • Mortmain — • History and details of the laws Catholic Encyclopedia. Kevin Knight. 2006. Mortmain     Mortmain     † …   Catholic encyclopedia

  • mortmain — mort·main / mȯrt ˌmān/ n [Anglo French, from Old French mortemain, from morte (feminine of mort dead, from Latin mortuus ) + main hand, from Latin manus] 1: the possession of real property in perpetuity by a corporate body (as a church); also:… …   Law dictionary

  • Mortmain — Mort main , n. [F. mort, morte, dead + main hand; F. main morte. See {Mortal}, and {Manual}.] (Law) Possession of lands or tenements in, or conveyance to, dead hands, or hands that cannot alienate. [1913 Webster] Note: The term was originally… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • mortmain — (n.) inalienable ownership, mid 15c., from Anglo Fr. morte mayn, O.Fr. mortemain, lit. dead hand, from M.L. mortua manus; see MORTAL (Cf. mortal) (adj.) + MANUAL (Cf. manual) (adj.). Probably a metaphorical expression …   Etymology dictionary

  • mortmain — [môrt′mān΄] n. [ME morte mayne < OFr mortemain < ML mortua manus, lit., dead hand < fem. of L mortuus, pp. of mori, to die (see MORTAL) + manus, hand: see MANUAL] 1. a transfer of lands or houses to a corporate body, such as a school,… …   English World dictionary

  • mortmain — /mawrt mayn /, n. Law. 1. the condition of lands or tenements held without right of alienation, as by an ecclesiastical corporation; inalienable ownership. 2. the perpetual holding of land, esp. by a corporation or charitable trust. [1250 1300;… …   Universalium

  • mortmain — noun /ˈmɔːt.meɪn,ˈmɔɹt.meɪn/ a) The perpetual, inalienable possession of lands by a corporation or non personal entity such as a church. [W]e do hereby grant our especial license and authority unto all and every person to grant sell alien and… …   Wiktionary

  • mortmain — Literally, the dead hand. Property held out of circulation. To alienate land in mortmain was to convey it to a corporation, aggregate, ecclesiastical or temporal. Perm v Carey, 65 US 465, 16 L Ed 701, 708. At one time in England, all purchases of …   Ballentine's law dictionary

  • mortmain — Mortification Mor ti*fi*ca tion, n. [F., fr. L. mortificatio a killing. See {Mortify}.] 1. The act of mortifying, or the condition of being mortified; especially: (a) (Med.) The death of one part of an animal body, while the rest continues to… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • mortmain — noun Etymology: Middle English morte mayne, from Anglo French mortmain, from morte (feminine of mort dead) + main hand, from Latin manus more at manual Date: 15th century 1. a. an inalienable possession of lands or buildings by an ecclesiastical… …   New Collegiate Dictionary

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