Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769)

Sir William Blackstone

Of Things Personal

UNDER the name of things personal are included all sorts of things moveable, which may attend a man’s person wherever he goes; and therefore, being only the objects of the law while they remain within the limits of its jurisdiction, and being also of a perishable quality, are not esteemed of so high a nature, nor paid so much regard to by the law, as things that are in their nature more permanent and immoveable, as lands, and houses, and the profits issuing thereout. These being constantly within the reach, and under the protection of the law, were the principal favorites of our first legislators: who took all imaginable care in ascertaining the rights, and directing the disposition, of such property as they imagined to be lasting, and which would answer to posterity the trouble and pains that their ancestors employed about them; but at the same time entertained a very low and contemptuous opinion of all personal estate, which they regarded only as a transient commodity. The amount of it indeed was, comparatively, very trifling, during the scarcity of money and the ignorance of luxurious refinements, which prevailed in the feudal ages. Hence it was, that a tax of the fifteenth, tenth, or sometimes a much larger proportion, of all the moveables of the subject, was frequently laid without scruple, and is mentioned with much unconcern by our ancient historians, though now it would justly alarm our opulent merchants and stockholders. And hence likewise may be derived the frequent forfeitures inflicted by the common law, of all a man’s good and chattels, for misbehaviors and inadvertencies that at present hardly seem to deserve so severe a punishment. Our ancient law-books, which are founded upon the feudal provisions, do not therefore often condescend to regulate this species of property. There is not a chapter in Britton or the mirrour, that can fairly be referred to this head; and the little that is to be found in Glanvil, Bracton, and Fleta, seems principally borrowed from the civilians. But of later years, since the introduction and extension of trade and commerce, which are entirely occupied in this species of property, and have greatly augmented its quantity and of course its value, we have learned to conceive different ideas of it. Our courts now regard a man’s personalty in a light nearly, if not quite, equal to his realty: and have adopted a more enlarged and less technical mode of considering the one than the other; frequently drawn from the rules which they found already established by the Roman law wherever those rules appeared to be well-grounded and apposite to the case in question, but principally from reason and conveyance, adapted to the circumstances of the times; preserving withal a due regard to ancient usages, and a certain feudal tincture, which is still to be found in some branches of personal property.

BUT things personal, by our law, do not only include things moveable, but also something more. The whole of which is comprehended under the general name of chattels, catalla; which, Sir Edward Coke says,1 is a French word signifying goods. And this is true, if understood of the Norman dialect; for in the grand coustumier,2 we find the word chattels used and set in opposition to a fief or sued: so that not only goods, but whatever was not a feud, were accounted chattels. And it is, I apprehend, in the same large, extended, negative sense, that not sufficiently comprehensive to take in every thing that our law considers as a chattel interest. For since, as the commentator on the coustumier observes, there are two requisites to make a fief or heritage, duration as to time, and immobility with regard to place; whatever wants either of these qualities is not, according to the Normans, an heritage or fief;3 or, according to us, is not a real estate: the consequence of which in both laws is, that it must be a personal estate, or chattel.

CHATTELS therefore are distributed by the law into two kinds; chattels real, and chattels personal.

1. CHATTELS real, says Sir Edward Coke,4 are such as concern, or favor of, the realty; as terms for years of land, wardships in chivalry (while the military tenures subsisted) the next presentation to a church, estates by statute-merchant, statute-staple, elegit, or the like; of all which we have already spoken. And these are called real chattels, as being interests issuing out of, or annexed to real estates: of which they have one quality, viz. immobility, which denominates them real; but want the other, viz. a sufficient, legal, indeterminate duration: and this want it is, that constitutes them chattels. The utmost period for which they can last is fixed and determinate, either for such a space of time certain, or till such a particular sum of money be raised out of such a particular income; so that they are not equal in the eye of the law to the lowest estate of freehold, a lease for another’s life: their tenants were considered, upon feudal principles, as merely bailiffs or farmers; and the tenant of the freehold might at any time have destroyed their interest, till the reign of Henry VIII.5 A freehold, which alone is a real estate, and seems (as has been said) to answer to the fief in Normandy, is conveyed by corporal investiture and livery of seizin; which gives the tenant so strong a hold of the land, that it never after can be wrested from him during his life, but by his own act, of voluntary transfer or of forfeiture; or else by the happening of some future contingency, as in estates pur auter vie, and the determinable freeholds mentioned in a former chapter.6 And even these, being of an uncertain duration, may by possibility last for the owner’s life; for the law will not presuppose the contingency to happen before it actually does, and till then the estate is to all intents and purposes a life estate, and therefore a freehold interest. On the other hand, a chattel interest in lands, which the Normans put in opposition to fief, and we to freehold, is conveyed by no seizin or corporal investiture, but the possession is gained by the mere entry of the tenant himself; and it is sure to expire at a time prefixed and determined, if not sooner. Thus a lease for years must necessarily fail at the end and completion of the term; the next presentation to a church is satisfied and gone the instant it comes into possession, that is, by the first avoidance and presentation to the living; the conditional estates by statutes and elegit are determined as soon as the debt is paid; and so guardianships in chivalry were sure to expire the moment that the heir came of age. And if there be any other chattel real, it will be found to correspond with the rest in this essential quality, that its duration is limited to a time certain, beyond which it cannot subsist.

2. CHATTELS personal are, properly and strictly speaking, things moveable; which may be annexed to or attendant on the person of the owner, and carried about with him from one part of the world to another. Such are animals, household-stuff, money, jewels, corn, garments, and every thing else that can properly be put in motion, and transferred from place to place. And of this kind of chattels it is, that we are principally to speak in the remainder of this book; having been unavoidably led to consider the nature of chattels real, and their incidents, in the former chapters which were employed upon real estates: that kind of property being of a mongrel amphibious nature, originally endowed with one only of the characteristics of each species of things; the immobility of things real, and the precarious duration of things personal.

CHATTEL interests being thus distinguished and distributed, it will be proper to consider, first, the nature of that property, or dominion, to which they are liable; which must be principally, nay solely, referred to personal chattels: and, secondly, the title to that property, or how it may be lost and acquired. Of each of these in its order.


     1.    1 Inst. 118.
     2.    c. 87.
     3.    Cateux sont meubles et immeubles: si comme vrais meubles sont qui transporter se peuvent; et ensuivir le corps; immeubles sont choses qui ne peuvent en suivir le corps, niestre transportees, et tout ce qui n’est point en heritage. [Chattels are moveable and immoveable: those which can be transported and follow the person are moveable; immoveable chattels are such as cannot follow the person, or be transported from place to place; and every thing which is not in the inheritance.] LL. Will. Nothi, c. 4. apud Dufresne. II. 409.
     4.    1 Inst. 118.
     5.    See pag. 141, 142.
     6.    pag. 121.