Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Mortmain Definition:

French: dead hand. Property taken out of circulation.

Related Terms: Mortmain Statutes

In his 1969 dictionary, James Ballentine defines this legal term as follows:

"Literally, the dead hand.

"Property taken out of circulation.

"To alienate land in mortmain was to convey it to a corporation ... ecclesiastical or temporal.

"At one time in England, all purchases of land by a corporation were said to be purchases in mortmain... Blackstone (wrote) that purchases made by corporations were usually made by ecclesiastical corporations, the members of which having taken the vows of a religious order, were reckoned as dead persons in law."

John Bouvier's law dictionary offered this:

"A term applied to denote the possession of lands or tenements by any corporation.... These purchases having been chiefly made by religious houses, in consequence of which lands became perpetually inherent in one dead hand, this has occasioned the general appellation of mortmain to be applied to such alienations.

"In England, the common law right of every corporation to take and hold lands ... has been restrained by the statutes of mortmain, which subject the power to acquire lands to the discretion of the Crown or Parliament as to the grant of a license."


  • Ballentine, James, Ballentine's Law Dictionary (Rochester: lawyers Co-op. Publishing Co., 1969), page 817.

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