Under pre-Reformation Canon law it came to mean an income enjoyed — often linked to some land administered — by a priest in chief of an ecclesistical office, such as a parish, monastery, or a post of canon in a chapter. Each benefice had a number of "spiritualities", or spiritual duties, attached to it. For providing these spiritualities, a priest would receive "temporalities", or pay. From the medieval period onward, priests administered sacraments to their flock and usually provided other services as well. The pastorally served community was to provide for the priest as necessary, often in the form of a land-based tithe (often partially or wholly lost to a temporal lord); the elite provided patronage and made significant donations. Consequently, these two factors concentrated enormous wealth in the 'dead hand' of the Catholic church, so called because it endured beyond any individual's life and also avoided some or all taxes.
Pluralism was often seen as a good investment for a family that could afford to buy a position (simony) for a younger son or other protégé. The position would allow the family to curry favour in the Church and serve to guarantee a future for the appointee.
Other 'fat' benefices — even abbotships — were sometimes delegated to priests hired for a fraction of the benefice, while the family held the 'nominal' benefice. This practice encouraged the use of substitute priests of dubious quality: the lack of proper training until the invention of seminaries led to illiterate priests, a few even preaching heresy.
After the Reformation, the new churches generally adopted systems of ecclesiastical polity that did not entail benefices, with the exception of the Church of England. On the continent the French Revolution broke the back of the system by the Constitution civile du clergé, confiscating the vast capital of the church and paying for it by awarding the formerly dependent clergy a state salary. This system is still in force in several countries, including Belgium. At the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church called for the abolition of benefices in that church altogether; it was not successful.