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The language of the law. Part Latin, part Anglo-Saxon, all confusing.

It’s one of those words we come across every so often as genealogists that simply has us shaking our heads.


It doesn’t even look right.

Maybe the spelling is off… or something… Shouldn’t it be spelled — and mean — something like elementary???

But no: that really is the way it’s spelled, and we really do need to know what it means.

The Legal Genealogist came across the word yesterday in the opening chapter of the book by Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. That book begins with the statement that “(a)n author ought to consider himself, not as a gentleman who gives a private or eleemosynary treat, but rather as one who keeps a public ordinary, at which all persons are welcome for their money.”1

And you’ll come across it in discussions of corporations in sources such as Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, where he divides corporations into “two sorts, civil and eleemosynary.”2

Or even in the laws of some of the states, as in an entire chapter of the Missouri revised statutes of 1899 talking about eleemosynary institutions.3

So… what the heck is it anyway?

Charity The term eleemosynary simply means “relating to the distribution of alms, bounty, or charity; charitable.”4

The eleemosynaria was the “place in a religious house where the common alms were deposited, and thence by the almoner distributed to the poor”5 and the eleemosynarius was an “almoner, or chief officer, who received the eleemosynary rents and gifts, and in due method distributed them to pious and charitable uses.”6

In other words, this all has to do with poor folks and the alms collected for and distributed to them. The origin of the word alms is from the “Middle English almesse, almes, from Old English ælmesse, ælmes, from Late Latin eleemosyna alms, from Greek eleemosyne pity, alms, from eleemon merciful, from eleos pity.”7

And when it’s applied to corporations and to charitable gifts, it’s for things “constituted for the perpetual distribution of the free alms and bounty of the founder, in such manner as he has directed; and in this class are ranked hospitals for the relief of poor and impotent persons, and colleges for the promotion of learning and piety, and the support of persons engaged in literary pursuits.”8

So those are the kinds of gifts you’ll see in a will, or in the law, when it has to do with charity and support of the poor.

Not very elementary at all, is it?


  1. Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, 3 vols. (Paisley, Scotland: A. Weir, 1775), I: 1; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 30 Nov 2016). No, don’t ask what I was doing poking around in The History of Tom Jones… Really, now…
  2. William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book the First (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1770), 470; digital images, HathiTrust Digital Library ( : accessed 30 Nov 2016).
  3. Chapter 118, Institutions-Eleemosynary, in The Revised Statutes of the State of Missouri, 1899 (Jefferson City: State Printers, 1899), 2: 1795; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 30 Nov 2016).
  4. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 413, “eleemosynary.”
  5. Ibid., “eleemosynaria.”
  6. Ibid., “eleemosynarius.”
  7. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 30 Nov 2016), “alms.”
  8. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 413, “eleemosynary corporations.”
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