Great Domesday Book 1086 1089

Tenure and Property in Medieval England

This article argues that the use of the word ‘tenure’ instead of ‘property’ in discussions of medieval English property law impedes the understanding of that law and makes it harder to compare it either with modern law or with the law of other parts of medieval Europe.

Tenure and Property in Medieval England
Susan Reynolds (Institute of Historical Research)
In: Historical research 2015 (Article first published online: 26 AUG 2015


Medieval Deed
Medieval deed from Chetham. The Phrase – tenend et habend – is marked with purple ink. Source: Medieval Documentation fro Salford Hundred

This article argues that the use of the word ‘tenure’ instead of ‘property’ in discussions of medieval English property law impedes the understanding of that law and makes it harder to compare it either with modern law or with the law of other parts of medieval Europe.

The argument hinges on the way in which “tenere” in a biblical context was used to denote “holding fast to something which was good”, much in the same way as tenure in modern universities denotes a firm grasp of a University career; as opposed to short-term employments as assistants etc.

In the Middle Ages, when people used the phrase ‘habendum and tendendum” it meant in fact to have the full use of the land and the possibility to pass it on as inheritance. When it says – for instance in Doomsday” that someone held ,’tenet’, the land ‘de” someone (king or lord), it basically just meant that the land came from this or some-other lord). It did not imply subordination in any way. What it meant, though, was that the customary obligation of armed service (or the corresponding payment) was supposed to be channeled through the respective lord (and ultimately to the king and the realm).

It was this organization, which later “opened up for the system of so-called “feudal events” (the lord taking over wardships etc), writes Susan Reynolds. This contributed to the way in which later English antiquarians – inspired by French historians, inspired by Italian Lawyers from the 12th century – adopted the idea of land as something, which was held not as property per se but as a temporary grant.

The use of the word ‘tenure’ derived not from the vocabulary or content of medieval English law, but from the effort of seventeenth-century antiquaries to connect medieval English law with the academic law that French scholars had derived from the twelfth-century Italian Libri Feudorum, writes Susan Reynolds

Later this led to the steadily broadened ideas about how the law of fiefs embraced feudal government, feudal society and feudalism, “fortified by the vocabulary and ideals of chivalry”, so as to stress the close interpersonal relation of lord and man. “Vassals, for instance, though extremely rare in English medieval sources, are almost everywhere in the historiography, writes Susan Reynolds.

This has, she suggests, “made medieval property law seem unduly strange and impenetrable. Using special words for medieval phenomena and giving them technical senses that they may not have had impedes the sort of comparisons that help to make sense of different societies and their law. A further impediment to understanding medieval property law arises from the assumption, derived from the English antiquaries, who first learned of the academic law of fiefs from French scholars, that this academic law merely recorded and developed earlier customs”.

“The words themselves matter because of the meanings we read into them. A word such as ‘tenure’ carries a heavy freight of meaning, largely acquired since the sixteenth century and in a very specific intellectual contexts. Using the word tenure rather than property, and referring to land ‘held of’ a king or other lord makes it hard to know what the words mean either in modern English or in their medieval Latin or French forms. Nor does it help us make comparisons,”, she concludes.

It stands to reason, though, that this does not imply that there were no legalities concerning how land was held. Holding property is always something, Susan Reynolds points out, which is governed according to law. But it does help us to be much more precise in understanding how changing medieval laws organised the praxis of owning (holding), transferring and inheriting land at specific times and under specific circumstances. It might also free up time to reflect upon the actual descriptions of what was owned, transferred or inherited.

This is a very important and illuminating article, which should be obligatory reading on any graduate course touching upon such messy topics as feudalism and chivalry.


Susan Reynolds is an Honorary Fellow of the IHR and of the History departments of Birkbeck College and University College London, as well as an Emeritus Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. Her research interests cover the social, political, and legal history of medieval Western Europe. She is the author of a number of important books on feudalism – or rather the misunderstandings and misappropriations of the term in the history of the Middle Ages. Her latest book is: The Middle Ages without Feudalism: selected essays including two previously unpublished (Variorum, 2013).


A page from the Great Doomsday Book (compiled 1086 – 1089) held in the National Archives in Britain. Source: Wikipedia


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