Term denoting a system of private ownership of churches and monasteries that developed in Western Europe from the 7th and 8th centuries and lasted until the 12th. The essential features were control of the temporal possessions (ius proprietatis ) and the right to nominate the priest, abbot, and in some cases the bishop. Usually such churches were in the hands of laymen who had founded them or taken them under their protection, but it was not unusual, especially after the 10th century, for monasteries and bishops to hold proprietary churches. In this sense the Church became feudalized.
The origin of the institution is a disputed question. The major disagreement is whether proprietary churches were Germanic or Roman in origin; but the most likely explanation is that any one or a combination of causes led to proprietary churches in such countries as Germany, France, England, Italy, and Spain. It was a development that coincided with and formed part of the rise of feudalism in secular institutions.
Until the gregorian reform the system as such was accepted by the Church. Abuses, of course, were inevitable when the overlord could treat a church or monastery as a piece of property to be sold, given away, transmitted to one's heirs, and inherited. The lord also took a share of the income, which in effect led to neglect of the spiritual needs and function of the Church.
Attempts at reform were made from the 8th century onward, e.g., to control the type of person elected, and in the 9th century to strengthen episcopal authority (see false decretals).
Contrary to accepted opinion, the cluniac reform had little direct influence on the system; nor did the popes of the early Gregorian reform (leo ix to alexander ii) attack the institution, but only its abuses. However, some laymen began to dispose of their churches and monasteries by donating them to other monasteries or by putting them under the protection of the Holy See.
gregory vii was the first to attack the system as such. His attack, together with the attempt to eliminate lay investiture, brought about a major struggle between the papacy and the lay powers. By the end of the 12th century, a compromise of lay and reform demands had been reached. The lay lord or monastery had become the patron. The patron would nominate the parish priest, who would receive the revenues, but the bishop had the right to approve the nominee. The transformation of the ius proprietatis into the ius patronatus was largely the work of the canonists, and it was to have significant effects on subsequent attitudes toward the laity in the middle ages.
Bibliography: u. stutz, "The Proprietary Church as an Element of Mediaeval Germanic Ecclesiastical Law," Mediaeval Germany, 911–1250, tr. g. barraclough, 2 v. (Oxford 1938) 2:35–70. c. e. boyd, Tithes and Parishes in Medieval Italy (Ithaca, N.Y.1952). g. tellenbach, Church, State, and Christian Society at the Time of the Investiture Contest, tr. r. f. bennett (Oxford 1959). w.m. plÖchl, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche (Freiburg, 1957–66) 3:733-734. r. j. cox, A Study of the Juridic Status of Laymen in the Writing of the Medieval Canonists (Washington 1959). t. schieffer, "Cluny et la querelle des Investitures," Revue historique 225 (1961) 47–72. c. van de kieft, "Une Église privée de l'abbaye de la Trinité de Vendôme au XI e siècle," Moyen-âge 69 (1963) 157–168.