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in Roman and medieval law, a form of land tenancy that provided for use of a parcel of land that had been allotted by the owner for a more or less extended period upon written request.
In Roman law, the owner of the land retained the right to reclaim it, and the agreement had to be renewed every five years. These two conditions were eliminated when this form of land tenure became common in Western Europe in the early Middle Ages. There were several types of precaria. In precaria data, the landowner granted his land as a precarium to a petitioner. In precaria oblata, the most common variety, the landowner—usually a small landlord and not infrequently a peasant—granted his land to the church or to a lay magnate as a gift and then received it back as a precarium. Small landowners were often forced to employ this stratagem as a result of the encroachments of large landowners. If the owners of record added parcels of their own to precaria, the augmented holdings were called precaria remuneratoria, or precaria with recompense.
The conditions of the precarium ranged from the obligation to pay a small quitrent in cash or kind to the fulfillment of corvée. In the early Middle Ages the precarium was granted for life and could often be transmitted by inheritance, usually up to the third generation. The conclusion of a precarium agreement had varying consequences. For the representatives of the feudal strata, the precarium established economic relations similar to those created by the benefice. The same agreement gradually subjected the peasant to a degree of feudal dependency that could reach total enserfment, since failure to pay the quitrent on time could lead to the conversion of a precarium into a serf holding.