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benefice (bĕnˈəfĭs), in canon law, a position in the church that has attached to it a source of income; also, more narrowly, that income itself. The occupant of a benefice receives its revenue (temporalities) for the performance of stipulated duties (spiritualities), e.g., the celebration of Mass. He receives the free use of such revenue but is expected to convert into good works any income in excess of his personal needs. Benefices are normally bestowed for life. Canon law forbids plurality of benefices, i.e., the holding of more than one benefice, but papal dispensations have made many exceptions to this rule. Benefices were originally in the form of land donations made to the church by wealthy laymen. Today the revenue of a benefice may come also from government salaries, investments, or the offerings of the faithful. Benefices are common in Europe but are practically unknown in the United States. The Church of England makes extensive use of the beneficiary system; the benefice in England is also called a living. The value of benefices led to many abuses (see simony) and frequent conflict between secular and ecclesiastical authorities in the Middle Ages.
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  1. (in contemporary usage) a living from a church office or the property attached to a church.
  2. (historically, and in sociology) the institution in Western European feudalism whereby a vassal was given land or a position by an overlord from which the vassal could gain an income. Especially where land was involved, more commonly this was known as a fief. See FEUDALISM AND FEUDAL SOCIETY.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(1) In ancient Rome, some kind of privilege, as for example, one granted to a debtor and, during the empire period, also various tax exemptions, grants bestowed by emperors, and so forth.

(2) In Western Europe in the early Middle Ages, the benefice in its classical form was a temporary grant, usually of land, in return for performance of administrative or military service. The classical benefice came into use in the Frankish kingdom after the benefice reform of Charles Mar-tel in the 730’s. According to this reform, gifts of land, which were earlier considered the unconditional property of great lords or vassals, were replaced by grants bestowed only as a benefice for lifelong use, primarily in return for military service. This formalized the territorial relations within the emerging feudal landlord class. As the practice of granting benefices, which came with the peasants dwelling on that land, became widespread, it led to increased dependence of the peasants upon the landholders and to a concentration of military and political power in the hands of the ruling class. Benefices served as the economic base underlying feudalism’s hierarchy. Owners of benefices gradually succeeded in turning their lifelong grants into hereditary feudal property, or fiefs. There was a certain similarity to the West European benefice in the milost’ (favor) and later the po-mest’e (estate) in Russia and, in the Arab countries, in the ikta (before they acquired a hereditary character).

(3) The ecclesiastical benefice, in the Catholic church, is the awarding of a profitable post to a clergyman. During the Middle Ages there was a struggle between the clerical and secular authorities over the right to dispose of ecclesiastical benefices, which included tracts of land. For example, such a struggle occurred between the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire and the papacy over the question of investiture in the 11th and 12th centuries.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. Christianity an endowed Church office yielding an income to its holder; a Church living
2. the property or revenue attached to such an office
3. (in feudal society) a tenement (piece of land) held by a vassal from a landowner on easy terms or free, esp in return for military support
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005