The Books of Assumption of the Thirds of Benefices: Scottish Ecclesiastical Rentals at the Reformation

By Dilworth, Mark | The Catholic Historical Review, January 1997 | Go to article overview

The Books of Assumption of the Thirds of Benefices: Scottish Ecclesiastical Rentals at the Reformation


Dilworth, Mark, The Catholic Historical Review


The Books of Assumption of the Thirds of Benefices: Scottish Ecclesiastical Rentals at the Reformation. Edited by James Kirk. [Records of Social and Economic History, New Series 21.] (Published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, New York. 1995. Pp. Lxxxviii, 896.)

The title needs a word of explanation. The Reformation Parliament of August, 1560, enacted a change of religion in Scotland but took no practical steps to bring this about. Pre-Reformation holders of benefices simply remained in possession. Then, in February, 1562, an act of council ordered one-third of all church revenues to be collected annually for the benefit of the Crown and the Reformed Church, with sitting incumbents retaining the remainder. John Knox, in a memorable expression, described the arrangement as giving two-thirds to the devil and dividing one-third between God and the devil. All the same, it was a fairly statesmanlike compromise between the various conflicting interests. All holders of church property were ordered to submit a detailed account of their revenues. Only the West Highlands and Isles were exempt (the logistical difficulties in that remote and difficult terrain being considered too great).

Given the haste and complexity of the operation, the returns came in with surprising speed and completeness (though 'rentals' is perhaps not the best word, at least in our day, to describe these declarations of income in cash and kind). There are, of course, obscurities and discrepancies and omissions of every kind, but the result is a most important document for the historian. The value of each crop and the livestock is listed in detail for each district with a record of what was leased out for cash, while the church historian finds information on almost every financial aspect of church life.

One expects a scholarly introduction to an important primary source to be enlightening and helpful, but Dr. Kirk's introduction goes far beyond this. Such matters as the background to the tax, the logistics of the assessment and its errors and deficiencies might well be taken for granted, but we are also given a detailed analysis of the information provided by the text on the life of the Church. …

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