The earliest corporations were not organized for business purposes. Corporate law as we know it today evolved out of laws and practices governing municipalities, churches and religious institutions in the Middle Ages in Europe. Such institutions were often granted charters by the local lords or kings. Charters gave religious institutions the authority to operate as separate entities for purposes of holding property. The ability of the institutions to hold property in their own names assured that the property would not be handed down to heirs of individual persons who controlled and managed the property on behalf of the institutions (such as bishops or abbots), nor would the property revert to the estate of the lord or be heavily taxed when those controlling persons died or were replaced. In other words, the charters granted to religious institutions gave them “the power of perpetual succession” (Mark, 1987: 1450; Angell and Ames, 1832: 4).
The idea that a group of people could act together, in law, as a single entity with an indefinite life, at least for the purpose of holding property, was subsequently applied to boroughs, municipalities and guilds. By the sixteenth century, corporations were being used in a wide range of institutions, including “the King himself, cities and boroughs, guilds, universities and colleges, hospitals and other charitable organizations, bishops, deans and chapters, abbots and convents, and other ecclesiastical bodies” (Harris, 2000: 16-17). Notably absent from this list are business or commercial organizations. The purpose of incorporation, for all of these entities, was primarily perpetual succession, so that a succession of different individuals would be recognized as a single “legal person,” while the property and wealth of that “person” could be accumulated and held over time for the relevant public or quasi-public purposes, and neither be taxed, revert to the state, nor be subject to division and distribution to heirs upon the death or departure of any of the administrators of the property or members of the corporation