White (1962):

By about 745 both monasteries and bishoprics were receiving a census in partial compensation for lost estates.

Brown (2021):

The formula represents a gift of property to a monastery, in which the donor, his wife, and his heirs retained use rights to the property in exchange for a census.

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    You should ask this in a community about Law, because this contract still exists in countries with Roman Law tradition (eg in the article 1604 of the Civil Code of Spain). In short, it's receiving annually money or goods in exchange of the loan of money or the transmission in propierty of a piece of land. And the contract of a census must be backed-up by a property or real state. For example, a monastery could sell a piece of land and the buyer had to pay a certain amount of money each year with the caveat that if the buyer didn't pay that money, the propierty would revert to the monastery. Apr 25, 2022 at 5:28
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    @CarlosMartin That sounds kind of like an answer. Apr 25, 2022 at 19:20
  • I am not familiar with this meaning of the word “census” but it sounds like a Latin name of the French cens. It's a payment owed to a seigneur (feudal lord) for the right to use land. I don't know enough to write an answer but it's usually interpreted as a tax rather than rent because the lord receiving this payment owes some protection to the tenant. The cens can be paid in kind rather than cash and the tenancy typically couldn't be resold so it's quite different from the kind of document mentioned in the comment and answer.
    – Relaxed
    Apr 26, 2022 at 7:57

1 Answer 1


A census is a type of debt document used in the middle ages. See a translation of this Catalan Wiki Article, which explains it very well. 'Censuses' were very common in Catalonia in the middles ages, as well as in Italy. They help explain the birth of capitalism later in Early Modern era.

The 'census' is a paper that documents payments to be made, yearly, in exchange for an investment received. 'Censuses' were created and redeemed. They were similar to present day mortgages, also public debt instruments (bonds), and other long-term investment documents, depending on the features agreed in the document.

  • 7.5% annual interest. When Regine Pernoud comments on acceptable interest rates in the Middle Ages, which would not mean usury charges, she tells about 7%/annum. Nice to see matching numbers.
    – Luiz
    Apr 25, 2022 at 13:23
  • I think the "census" may later have evolved in Spain into this "censal"--"a widespread financial instrument in the Crown of Aragon from the late Middle Ages", whose "use lasted until the contemporary age". However, this doesn't quite answer the question which is about early medieval Europe. In particular, the two quotes I gave were in the context of 8th-century Franks/Carolingians/Charlemagne. It doesn't sound like in the context of those passages, the "census" was simply a debt instrument "similar to present day mortgages" or "bonds".
    – user54367
    Apr 26, 2022 at 2:53
  • @user24096: well, with a modern financial instrument like a bond we assume that the person who made the initial investment did so fully voluntarily. So, government offers bond, people queue up to buy it, government accepts their money, government pays out on bond. I haven't checked the context, but I'm guessing this "secularization" wasn't the monks' idea. So, government seizes land, monks put up with this situation without complaining too loudly because government or other new landowner pays out on census? Similar financial exchange, rather different social situation. Apr 26, 2022 at 5:41
  • @user24096 Catalan "censals" emerge from the Carolingian "census". There was no Spain back then, Catalonia was part of the Carolingian Empire. Catalan censals later got different from French ones, from 1200' on, but the origin is the very same document type, from VIII century onward. Franks conquered Barcelona in the year 801. The citation you provide looks like a reverse mortgage as compensation for lost property.
    – James
    Apr 26, 2022 at 7:35

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