What Does It Mean?

The Old Language of Land

by Mike Fitton

Mike Fitton is a resident of Bracebridge and an honorary member of the MPSGG. He is very knowledgeable on English research and has spoken at many of the club meetings.

What is a close? Is a messuage edible? Can you carry books in a copyhold? All of these terms relate to land, and this article will tell you what they mean.

A TENEMENT is piece of real estate of any kind including buildings. TENURE is the type of ownership of real estate, and there were three kinds. FREEHOLD is land ownership as we know it today. LEASEHOLD is renting property and paying rent to a landlord. COPYHOLD wasa type of ownership which involved paying the local lord of the manor a sum of money, called a fine, each time land changed hands, whether by sale or on the death of the owner. Land might be owned by one person, but in the OCCUPATION of another person.

Land was usually described by its use. If it was used to grow crops, it was ARABLE. If it was swampy or could only be used to grow grasses, it was a MEADOW. If it was only useful for grazing animals, it was PASTURE. Some land was useless for any kind of farming, and this was called WASTE. Land owned by the community generally was called COMMON.

In order to be certain who owned what, the land was usually fenced, hedged, or, marked by special furrows or mounds. A piece of land so marked was a CLOSE. A person trespassing on another person’s close was said to be breaking the close. From this, we get the present day criminal offence of break and enter, in which the word break means crossing the boundary, not damaging the property

Within a close there might be a HOUSE. If the close was a large field, the owner might want to occupy the house and garden, and rent the open field to another farmer. The house and garden were called the MESSUAGE (pronounced mess-wedge). If the messuage was in a town, then it was called a BURGAGE.

In Scotland, a CROFT was a house within a small close, farmed by the occupant. In northern England, a CROFT was a piece of waste on which fabric was spread out to bleach in the sun.

When land was sold, often extra rights over other lands was transferred with it. A right to use water, or a right of way, would be examples. This extra bundle of rights were called the APPURTENANCES. In old wills, this long word is often abbreviated, and you will see app’ts, ptnz, and other variations.

Sometimes, a person held a part interest in the land. If he held joint interest with others, he was a COPARCENER, If his interest was a half interest, it was called a MOIETY.

An INDENTURE was a legal document of which there were at least two original copies. The copies were made on one sheet of paper, which was then cut irregularly to separate the copies. To prove that one of these was the original, the indented edge of one had to fit the indented edge of the others.

A DEED was an indenture transferring freehold land. A FOOT OF FINE was a court judgment awarding someone a piece of land. A MORTGAGE was an indenture transferring land as security for a loan, which was cancelled when the loan was repaid. A LEASE was an indenture transferring occupation of land for a fixed time for a fixed rent.

Now you are ready to interpret the following from an old a will:

To my son John, a moiety of my three closes of arable, and the messuage in the occupation of my sister Joan, with the ptnz.

It’s not hard when you know the language

This article first appeared in the November 1992 newsletter, Volume 8 - Number 2