In England, the term mortmain was a legal one, originating in the Old French mort main, or "dead hand." Essentially, it refers to any property held by a corporation or institution, especially one connected with the Church, that is held in perpetuity. These are considered "undying" institutions, and the properties they hold are usually held for all time; unlike the case of living persons, whose property will pass on to someone at the time of their deaths.
Whenever an individual bequeathed his property to the Church, it could be a serious economic loss to the deceased's community. All the revenue that would have been collected on the property would not be available to the secular community or a feudal lord. Not only did the Church never die, it was never underage, so no funds connected with appointing a guardian could apply; it never committed a felony, so no fines could accrue; it never married, so it didn't have to pay a merchet, and it never committed adultery, so it never had to pay leirwite,.
With the religiosity of medieval Europe as high as it was, it was not at all uncommon for someone to bequeath their lands to the Catholic Church, particularly if they were without children. Over the centuries, the Church became more and more wealthy, and some nobles felt the lack of revenue more and more severely. To address this problem, statutes were passed prohibiting the passage of land into mortmain without a license from the king. One of the most notable statutes was the Statute of Mortmain of 1279.
Also Known As: mainmorte