This is not how it worked in the Middle Ages however. To begin with, when a church was built it was generally the responsibility of the feudal lord on whose lands the church stood and whose serfs the church would serve. Lord Jones was not only responsible to build the church for his serfs but even more important he was expected to give the church lands to support it. Land had to be given for the support of the priest. In the earlier part of the Middle Ages it would be normal for the priest and his family to work the land themselves but as time went by the land was generally rented out and the priest collected the rents. Land had also to be given to provide for the upkeep of the church and its needs—vestments, candles, sacred vessels, furnishings, etc. Lord Jones might give several fields, an orchard, a mill, some fishing traps on the river, and a toll booth on a road through his lands for the support of the Church. The priest would then rent these lands and traps and tolls out to farmers who wanted to farm the land or orchards, to a miller to work the mill, perhaps to a widow who collected the fish or the tolls. The rents were then used to support the parish. The income from the Church lands was divided between the priest, the upkeep of the church facilities, the bishop, and Lord Jones. Moreover, as explained in earlier entries, Lord Jones held the “advowson.” He had the right to “present” his candidate for rector (pastor) of the church to the bishop. The bishop could not turn down Lord Jones’ nomination unless there was a very grave reason and Lord Jones could appeal the bishop’s refusal to the Crown should he think he was treated wrongly. Later he could send the appeal to Rome if he thought he would get a better hearing from the Roman Curia than the Crown but as said in the previous post, the Statute of Praemunire was meant to prevent such appeals over the head of the King.
Now the original donation was not the only property attached to the Church. When Lord Jones died, perhaps his widow or his son would want to make a further donation for his soul. Perhaps they would give another mill or a toll over a bridge and that income would come with the condition that the priest would each month say a Mass for the eternal rest of Lord Jones. And perhaps Aunt Sally would die and leave a house in the village to the church on the condition that the rent be used to build a small chapel in the Church in honor of Our Lady. And Mr. Browne died and left a farm to the Church for annual masses for his soul. And over a period of time quite an endowment would be raised for the parish, providing a handsome salary for the priest and a good return on Lord Jones’ original investment for whomever then held the advowson.
There was another source of income for the parish church as well. The tithe was enforced by law. The parish had a reeve and the reeve’s task was to visit each of the parishioners at harvest time and collect the “first fruits” of the harvest. Ten percent of the apples in the orchard, the wheat in the field, the grapes in the vineyard, the olives on their trees—all to the parish. Well, actually olives don’t grow well in England but you get the idea. And this system was not unique to England in any case but throughout Catholic Europe. Moreover, every tenth lamb, every tenth piglet, every tenth calf went to the tithe. The reeve would put aside what he or the priest could use, turn the rest into cash and it got split, like the rents, between the advowson, the priest, the maintenance of the church fabric, and the diocese. Of course not all reeves were honest, nor were all priests, but that is how it was supposed to work.
Now what about the diocese? Well townsfolk also donated property to the Cathedral and to the town churches. They might donate a field or a farm or an orchard but they more likely donated city property—shops, houses, market stalls, or other city property. The rents went to the church to which the donation had been made. Mary Jones was convicted of running a bordello—the building was confiscated and given to the cathedral for its support. John the shoemaker died and left a house to the cathedral which then collected the rent for that house. Perhaps the city council would designate that twenty percent of a tax on salt be given to the Cathedral for its support. In Rouen in Normandy the Cathedral boasts the famous “Butter Tower.” This tower to the cathedral was built with money that the citizens of Rouen contributed to the cathedral in return for a dispensation allowing them to eat butter during lent. No Frenchman could go forty days without his good Normandy butter. Perhaps the cathedral—or any church for that matter—had relics. Canterbury in England had the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. Westminster Abbey the shrine of Saint Edward the Confessor. Durham Cathedral had the remains of Saint Cuthbert. Most churches had relics. Pilgrims came and made offerings. Perhaps, the relics were kept in a special chapel and one had to pay to enter that chapel. It might cost the pilgrim only a penny or two but those pennies added up. Rents were particularly valuable because they keep coming in, year after year after year. And relics were particularly important not only for the small gifts they generated but for the sometimes very large gifts from kings or nobles whose prayers in time of need had been heeded by the saint.
The bishop had his funds separate from the Cathedral. Bishops were Peers of the Realm. They sat in Parliament. They served the King as ambassadors and chief officials of the realm. Their bishoprics had been from the beginning invested with royal lands to provide them income in return for their public duties. Over the centuries some of these bishoprics became quite wealthy yielding immense salaries from the rents and incomes the lands provided. Bishops often had to maintain any number of knights who would fight for the King in return for the lands the Crown had given the bishopric. Because they sat in Parliament, they also had to maintain a house in London as well as in their diocese. Both their London houses and their various local palaces were grand establishments requiring scores of servants. They also had their own curiae—their courts—with their vicars general, chancellors, and other officials. All this was expensive but then their wide holdings in lands as well as the gifts given them in return for various dispensations and favors—both in the Church and in Parliament—provided for them handsomely.
Abbeys and monasteries also had vast holdings of land. The king or nobles who had founded them had provided for them initially with enough land to support the monks. But even more than the parish churches, the monasteries drew generous donations in return for the prayers of the monks. Moreover, when a young man or woman came to the monastery he or she was expected to bring a dowry—almost always land—which was added to the monastery’s lands and which continued to provide income for the monastery long after the monk or nun whose dowry it comprised had died.
If all this makes the Church sound very land-rich—it was. The Church grew richer and richer and exercised every greater power. There were those who were impressed, even awed, by the greatness of the Church. There were those who were jealous of the Church’s wealth and coveted it. There were those who became cynical and bitter over the Church’s place in society and determined to undermine it. And there were those who saw how wealth and power were corrupting the Church and were determined to reform it. Unfortunately, they were unsuccessful. But we will talk about that later.