mortmain (môrtˈmānˌ) [key] [Fr., = dead hand], ownership of land by a perpetual corporation. The term originally denoted tenure (see tenure, in law) by a religious corporation, but today it includes ownership by charitable and business corporations. In the Middle Ages the church acquired, by purchase and gift, an enormous amount of land and other property. The struggle over this accumulation of material wealth was an important aspect of the conflict between church and state. Moreover, lands held by monasteries and other religious corporations were generally exempt from taxation and payment of feudal dues, greatly increasing the burden on secular property. Attempts to limit ecclesiastic mortmain began as early as Carolingian times, and by the late 19th cent. the right of religious bodies to own land was in general highly restricted. In many countries the prevailing principle limited such ownership to absolutely necessary holdings. In the United States ecclesiastic mortmain was never a serious problem, and remaining statutes on the subject are essentially inoperative vestiges of former law.
See H. C. Lea, The Dead Hand (1900); C. Zollman, American Civil Church Law (1917).