Mediæval English Dictionary: A Selective Glossary of Terms in Land Law

As you perform genealogical or historical research, you will encounter strange terms that must be understood so that you can interpret the sources examined. Here is a brief list of legal terms peculiar to English land law and early American land law:

Decedent: Person who has died. Sometimes abbreviated as dec’s or dec’d.

Dower: Share of husband’s real estate to which the widow is entitled. This dates to a time when women came into a marriage with a dowry of money and/or property which the men assumed and used as their own. Women’s ‘dower rights’ protected them from being disowned when husbands died. This dower usually entitled widow’s to 1/3 of the deceased husband’s estate, over and above anything left in a will.

Estate: an interest in land. By Common Law, no one owns land in England save the Sovereign. All others have greater or lesser interests or estates in the land. The total property held by an individual and available after death, including land, money and personal possessions, and money owed to the decedent at the time of death.

Fee Simple: the most absolute interest which a subject can possess in land. The owner can sell or otherwise alienate the land. In grants denoted by the words ‘… to A and his heirs’.

Fee Tail: land whose descent is limited to heirs of the body of the original grantee. These ‘entailments’ preventing the sale of inherited land to anyone except blood descendants were a way to keep the land in the family. They had disastrous effects, though, when war, famine, disease, or other external events forced families into abject poverty and no means of relief.

Feoff, Feoffee, Feoffment: a feoff is a freehold legal estate in land, granted to the feoffee and transferred to him/her by a feoffment, with Livery of Seisin.

Grantee: Recipient of property either through purchase, gift, or bequest.

Grantor: Individual who sells or gives property to another person.

Ibid: Same location. Identifies a document that has already been quoted.

Infant: A person below the age designated as adulthood.

Intestate: Died without leaving a will.

Issue: Offspring.

Law and Equity: Common Law is the ancient unwritten law of England, administered in the Common Law Courts and embodied in judicial decisions. It was sometimes rigid and unjust in particular cases; suitors would then apply to the Chancellor as ‘Keeper of the King’s Conscience’ for equitable relief. These cases in Equity were heard in what came to be called the ‘Court of the Chancery’ by the 15th century.

Livery of Seisin: investiture of possession, sometimes by delivery of a clod of earth or other physical thing from the land.

Nee: Identifies a woman’s maiden name.

Posthumous: After death.

Proximo: Used in dates for next, usually refers to the following month.

Real Property: land which would descend to the heir-at-law. Property which devolved on the executor or administrator for distribution on death was Personal Property; this category contained leasehold interests in land as well as movable property.

Relict: Widow or widower of a particular individual.

Seisin: feudal possession of a freehold estate; not applicable to leasehold estates or beneficial ownership under a Use.

Tenure: the manner of holding land. Freehold land could be held by military tenure (by rendering knight’s service), in socage tenure (by paying a money rent), or by spiritual tenure (by rendering spiritual services).

Use: the equitable right to receive the profits from land from the owner at law. When X granted land to Y to the use of Z, X was the grantor or feoffor, Y became the new legal owner and the feoffee to uses, and Z the beneficial or equitable owner under the use. Uses which evaded certain feudal principles were abolished by the Statute of Uses in 1535.

William Knight's Will

William Knight’s Will