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Glebe

Pronounced /ɡliːb/Help with pronunciation

This came to mind when passing a field in the town where I live, which lies opposite the church; a house beside it, Glebe Cottage, was centuries ago the vicarage. In England, the glebe was historically endowed land that provided the rector of a parish with part of his income, either through his farming it himself, or by his letting it out to a tenant.

The Parson, who farmed his own glebe and bred cattle in its rich pastures, had won a prize at the county show.

Kenelm Chillingly, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1873.

I’m not well up on the history of my local glebe land, but even a casual glance at the small field shows it couldn’t have brought in much income. A gazetteer of 1845 noted that even then the glebe was a mere 1¼ acres. To find out more I’d have to search out the terriers, the church registers of landed property, a word that derives from Latin terra, earth. (The name of the breed of dog comes from the same source, because terriers followed their quarry underground into burrows or earths.) At one time, a rector’s living included other income, mainly tithes (from a Old English word meaning a tenth), based on the produce of the parish.

Glebes and tithes were sometimes extensive, providing rich returns for a few absentee rectors who might accumulate multiple livings called pluralities. They would appoint vicars (from Latin vicarius, a substitute) to be the parish priests.

Crabtree Canonicorum is a very nice thing; there are only two hundred parishioners; there are four hundred acres of glebe; and the great and small tithes, which both go to the rector, are worth four hundred pounds a year more.

The Warden, by Anthony Trollope, 1855. £400 a year at that time would be worth now about £15,000 or $22,000. The great tithes came from wheat, barley, hay and wood, small tithes from other growing things and from animal produce. The small tithes usually went to the vicar.

Tithes have since vanished in the UK and glebes are no longer part of the livings of rectors. However, the word survives widely in the UK and Ireland — as well as in North America and Australia as a historical reminder of colonial times — in names such as Glebe Road, Glebe Farm, Glebe Field, Glebe Pasture and Glebe Cottage. The word derives from Latin gleba, meaning a clod or lump, more broadly soil or land.

[My thanks to David Primrose, Vicar of Thornbury, for his help in sorting out the ecclesiastical vocabulary.]

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 28 Feb. 2009

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 28 February 2009.