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mortmain

mortmain (môrt´mān´) [Fr.,=dead hand], ownership of land by a perpetual corporation. The term originally denoted tenure (see tenure, in law) by a religious corporation, but today it includes ownership by charitable and business corporations. In the Middle Ages the church acquired, by purchase and gift, an enormous amount of land and other property. The struggle over this accumulation of material wealth was an important aspect of the conflict between church and state. Moreover, lands held by monasteries and other religious corporations were generally exempt from taxation and payment of feudal dues, greatly increasing the burden on secular property. Attempts to limit ecclesiastic mortmain began as early as Carolingian times, and by the late 19th cent. the right of religious bodies to own land was in general highly restricted. In many countries the prevailing principle limited such ownership to absolutely necessary holdings. In the United States ecclesiastic mortmain was never a serious problem, and remaining statutes on the subject are essentially inoperative vestiges of former law.

See H. C. Lea, The Dead Hand (1900); C. Zollman, American Civil Church Law (1917).

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Mortmain

MORTMAIN

[French, Dead hand.] A term to denote the conveyance of ownership of land or tenements to any corporation, religious or secular.

Traditionally, such transfers were made to religious corporations. Like any corporation, the religious society had unlimited, perpetual duration under the law. It could, therefore, hold land permanently unlike a natural person, whose property is redistributed upon his or her death. The holdings of religious corporations grew as contributions were received from their members. Because such holdings were immune from responsibilities for taxes and payment of feudal dues, greater burdens were placed on noncorporate secular property. Therefore, land in mort-main was said to be held in perpetuity in one dead hand, that of the corporation.

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mortmain

mortmain condition of lands inalienably held by a corporation. XV. — AN., OF. mortemain — medL. mortua manus ‘dead hand’, i.e. mortua, fem. of mortuus dead, manus hand (cf. MORTAL, MANUAL); perh. a metaphor for ‘impersonal ownership’.

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