John Selden's History of tithes in the context of two of his other early works : a thesis presented for the degree of Master of Arts at Massey University
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In the seventeenth century one very keenly contested issue was that of tithes. In many areas these were still levied in kind - one-tenth of all pro-duce of the land - though some had been commuted to money payments. Because so much former monas tic land had come into possession of lay persons at the Dissolution of the Monasteries, many of the tithes were held by lay landlords and were not being paid to the clergy. Also some former monastic lands were exempt from tithe. As a result, many parish livings no longer provided a reasonable livelihood for a clergyman. The Church was trying to regain the tithes, which it saw as rightly Church revenue, by arguing that tithes were a levy set by divine law for the upkeep of the clergy. Those who believed this based their argument on the Bible, and also on canon law, which gave con-trol of the tithes to the Bishops. They maintained also that any dispute over tithes must be determined in the ecclesiastical courts. The landed interest on the other hand said that as tithes were a levy on land, disputes over tithes belonged properly to the common law courts. When John Selden wrote his History of Tithes he elected not to enter the argument as it stood, but claimed to set out in full the whole history of tithes from the time they were first levied. In the course of this history he not only examined Biblical texts and writings of pagan antiquity, but also early Saxon laws for tithing in England. However he spent a very great part of the work in discussing the medieval period, including researching and quoting from wills, chartularies and legal cases. In the course of this analysis he argued that tithes, not only in England but throughout Europe, were established by secular law, and disputes about them were properly matter for the secular courts; also that when tithes had been legally conveyed by will or gift to a monastic church this created a valid title in law which must stand. Most of these conveyances were made prior to the thirteenth century; after that the title to tithe was settled in the parish rector. Selden allocated the second half of the work to examining the situation in England in detail, and showed that as all the former monastic lands in England were held by the right of the Statutes of Dissolution of the Monasteries, with all the rights inhering in them at the time of the Dissolution, all the rights to tithe and exemptions from tithe held by lay persons should remain with them. However he also claimed that the clergy were more assured of their right to the tithes they held by accepting his argument than they were if they claimed them by divine law, since not everyone believed in divine law. He believed that the Church's rights were inextricably linked with the land, and if this linkage were broken the stability of society would be disrupted, and the parish clergy would be in danger of losing their rights altogether. To obtain a full understanding of his thought on the matter, this thesis examines the History of Tithes in the context of two of his other works written at about the same period, in which ancient laws were researched and the importance of the early Middle Ages, which he saw as the seminal period for the constitutional and legal framework of society, demonstrated.
Tithes, Selden, John 1584-1654, Great Britain, History