from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

  • n. Law Perpetual ownership of real estate by institutions such as churches that cannot transfer or sell it.
  • n. The often oppressive influence of the past on the present.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

  • n. The perpetual, inalienable possession of lands by a corporation or non-personal entity such as a church.
  • n. A strong and inalienable possession.

from the GNU version of the Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • n. Possession of lands or tenements in, or conveyance to, dead hands, or hands that cannot alienate.

from The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia

  • n. In law, possession of lands or tenements in dead hands, or hands that cannot alienate, as those of ecclesiastical corporations; unalienable possession.

from WordNet 3.0 Copyright 2006 by Princeton University. All rights reserved.

  • n. real property held inalienably (as by an ecclesiastical corporation)
  • n. the oppressive influence of past events or decisions


Middle English mortemayne, from Old French mortemain : morte, feminine of mort, dead; see mortgage + main, hand (from Latin manus; see man-2 in Indo-European roots).
(American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)
From Anglo-Norman mortmayn, morte meyn, from Old French mortes meins, after Late Latin phrase mortua manus. See Latin mors ("dead") + manus ("hand"). (Wiktionary)


  • On the last occasion the king ennobled him, As prime minister he was most zealous in establishing the supremacy of the State over the Church, and in abolishing the privileges of the nobility together with feudalism, He restricted the jurisdiction of the bishops, impeded the last increment of the so-called mortmain, and reduced the taxes belonging to the chancery of the Roman Curia.

    The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 14: Simony-Tournon

  • It is to this inalienability of all the possessions of the Church, which like the "hand of a dead man" never loosens its grip of what it once has clutched, that the prejudice already referred to against property held in "mortmain" grew up in the thirteenth century.

    The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 12: Philip II-Reuss

  • Whatever advantages are obtained by a state proceeding on these maxims, are locked fast as in a sort of family settlement; grasped as in a kind of mortmain for ever.

    Paras. 50-74

  • The "oppressive past influence" sense of both "mortmain" and "dead hand" developed from the idea of the dead exercising posthumous control over their property by dictating how it must be used after they die.

    Latest Articles

  • "mortmain", a word coined to represent the condition where land has come into the possession of a dead hand, or in Latin mortua manus.

    The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 3: Brownson-Clairvaux

  • "mortmain" were for this reason always regarded as wrong in principle, though the loss occasioned to the feudal lord by the cessation of reliefs, escheats, wardships, marriages, etc., when the land was made over to ecclesiastical uses could not be denied.

    The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 12: Philip II-Reuss

  • a sort of family settlement, grasped as in a kind of mortmain forever.

    The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, Vol. 03 (of 12)

  • The windows blocked all sound, and there was nothing audible in this room at all save the faint ticking of a wall clock with mortmain and company engraved on the face in gold.

    Clockwork Angel

  • Alexandria, built over the grave a place of visitation and endowed it with mortmain writing over the door these couplets,

    The Book of The Thousand Nights And A Night

  • Property was kept away from perpetual corporations such as the Church by the doctrine of mortmain.



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  • The often oppressive influence of the past on the presence.

    September 22, 2009