What Is an Expectative?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An expectative is a grant of a church benefice, a position with benefits including supporting income, in anticipation of the death of the current incumbent. The benefice is not yet available for distribution, but will be when the occupant dies. Under canon law, expectatives are not permitted except in some very special circumstances, but they were once very common. The ban on this practice went into effect in the 12th century, although continued tolerance on the part of high officials allowed many dioceses to continue offering expectatives after this period.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

Benefices took the form of grants of land and accompanying incomes like rents. The church would allow the recipient to use and profit from the land for his lifetime, usually in exchange for services rendered to the church. The size of the grant could vary, and the church could also withdraw the grant if it felt the need to do so. This provided a mechanism for the church to reward loyal servitors while retaining title and ultimate right to its lands.

With an expectative, a church official would offer an anticipatory grant to a servant of the church. He would provide services with the understanding that he would take over the benefice when the current occupant died. Members of the church could use this tactic to reward people ahead of time, and ensure the fate of particularly profitable and appealing benefices. It could also become a mechanism for extending control over church policies, as an aging member of the church could have an influence on how the church distributed benefices after his death.

In the middle ages, when the expectative was common, the church engaged in a number of activities to consolidate power that drew attention and criticism. A series of reforms changed church policy to address corruption and other concerns. Even after passage of changes to canon law, however, some regions continued to use the expectative and other tools as rewards for loyal members of the community, until the process phased out entirely.

Students of history in regions where the Roman Catholic Church was highly active need to understand the role of the church in land ownership and control. Topics like expectatives are an important aspect of the systems the church used to manage its lands, which were often substantial. This topic can also come up in historical fiction, where knowing that a character has an expectative can be important for understanding how he behaves within the context of the novel.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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