Do you know why we sign deeds to transfer property and use complicated legal descriptions?
The basic framework of real estate law in the United States comes from ancient English common law. Common law essentially means the laws developed from custom and judicial decisions, rather than by statutes. Of course, significant changes have developed over the last several centuries, but there are fascinating echoes to the past reflected in our modern customs. Two curious ceremonies from centuries ago illustrate this point.
The first is the “livery of seisin.” Some 500 years ago, English law required this ceremony to transfer title to real estate. The law required a deed – as in an act instead of a piece of paper – to effectively transfer the land. The act would involve the buyer and seller meeting on or within view of the real estate to be transferred. There, the seller would verbally grant the land to the buyer, accompanied with the seller physically giving the buyer some piece of the real estate, such as a clump of dirt, a key, or a twig. The “deed” could also be referred to as the “Ritual of Turf and Twig.”
Some elements of the livery of seisin can be seen in the modern custom of transferring real property by written deed. For instance, to be effective, a written deed must include words of grant, like the words spoken by the transferor in that ancient ceremony. Likewise, just as the seller would deliver a piece of the real estate to the buyer in the livery of seisin, a modern deed becomes effective to transfer title only when it is delivered to the buyer. Finally, the livery of seisin has left a more literal mark in some states’ laws. In Illinois, for example, 765 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/1 opens by stating, “Livery of seisin shall in no case be necessary for the conveyance of real property.” So, rest assured you will not need to bring a clump of dirt to your closing.
Another ancient custom with modern echoes is “beating the bounds,” also known as “perambulation.” Perambulation is an unnecessarily long word for walking, and the ancient ceremony involved exactly that. Specifically, the residents of an English parish (or village) would walk around the edges of the parish once a year to memorialize its boundaries. While doing so, the adults would beat boundary markers with sticks or other tools. They might also strike the boys among the group at important points along the parish boundaries, or hold them upside down to tap their heads on the markers. In this way, the residents became familiar with the boundaries of their parish, and could use that knowledge to protect against encroachment. Sounds crazy, right?
Today, nothing quite like beating the bounds is practiced in most American jurisdictions, though New Hampshire law technically requires perambulation—minus the terrible treatment of children —every seven years. If you’ve ever read a legal description of real property that is written in “metes-and-bounds,” you may have noticed that the description typically proceeds in a similar fashion as a walk around the property. Such descriptions begin at a specified point along the edge of the property, and then use mathematical language to trace the edges and create a closed geometric figure. Sometimes the descriptions rely on natural landmarks on the land, like a large stone, and sometimes surveyors place their own kind of boundary markers along the property’s edge, such as by driving a metal stake into the ground.
When they do this, surveyors are engaging in what might be considered a modern reimagining of the ancient custom of beating the bounds.
These two old ceremonies, livery of seisin and beating the bounds, don’t have much application to modern American law, but the echoes of each can be seen in modern practices. If you’re interested in reading more about these customs, please consult Statman, Harris & Eyrich or the following resources, which were used in preparing this article:
“Beating the Bounds: Property and Perambulation in Early New England” by Allegra di Bonaventura.
The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I by Frederick Pollock and Frederic William Maitland, vol. 2, pp. 86 – 87 of the LF Printer PDF.