Monday, September 3, 2018
Perhaps if I begin this time with the digression—get it out of the way early, so to speak--my eventual topic may emerge more clearly. I first encountered the odd phrase benefit of clergy in the title of a Kipling short story by Rudyard Kipling. Kipling was one of two very great writers, contemporaries—the other being Joseph Conrad—who are suffering what I pray is temporary academic neglect for their crimes of political incorrectness. The full title of his story is “Without Benefit of Clergy,” and its subject is amazingly “modern” and shockingly “transgressive” for something published in 1890. It is about a British colonial bureaucrat, John Holden, with a secret double life. Everyone takes Holden for a bachelor, but actually he is shacked up with a young Muslim girl, Ameera, whom he bought, in a little house on the edge of town. She gives birth to their child, and for a while they are blissful. Then the baby dies. Then the girl-mother dies. End of idyll, end of story. It’s as though it all never happened.
The phrase “without benefit of clergy,” of course alluded to the irregular sexual union at the center of the story, unsanctified by religion and therefore presumably deeply shocking to Victorian readers, or at least those unfamiliar with Kipling’s 1892 poem “Road to Mandalay” in which he has an ordinary British sailor wistfully hoping to be shipped “somewhere East of Suez, where the best is like the worst, Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst.” Actual Victorians were not all that Victorian.
I have seen the idea of “benefit of clergy” used in a similar manner in many other places, though such usage misunderstands the phrase. Benefit of clergy is actually a technical legal term dating from the Middle Ages. It refers to the legally enshrined clerical privilege of exemption from the civil courts or their penalties for felonies under certain circumstances. The clerus in Christian Latin, the generic word for the clerical estate, suggested a special degree of education. The “clerics” or “clergy” were the educated ones, and they were afforded special legal advantages. So there was one law for the lettered men and another for the lewd men or lay men. The origins of this legal peculiarity are obscure. But there is a probably relevant biblical passage in the First Book of Chronicles (16:22) that reads “Touch not mine anointed, and do no evil to my prophets” (Nolite tangere christos meos, et in prophetis meis nolite malignari). The Chronicles (or Paralipomenon as they were generally called in the Latin Bible) are of course history books, and for the most part not merely prose but distinctly prosaic. But most of this one chapter is a pretty fancy poem, a kind of misplaced psalm, that seems to suggest that the special function of the “anointed” is literary: to proclaim among the nations the glory and dominion of the Lord. And, indeed, the special office of the medieval clergy—actually called that, “the Office,” was the faithful recitation of the psalter.
All this is speculative, but it fits in so nicely with another aspect of the “benefit of clergy” that I cannot resist bringing it up. That aspect is the means by which an accused person could actually claim clerical exemption from the penalties of the secular law. Remember that English law was pretty sanguinary, becoming ever more so with the advancement of modernity. Somebody has made an actual census, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century there were two hundred and twenty-two statutory crimes for which the penalty was hanging. It is a number that sticks in the mind. In the gentler, good old medieval days of Merry England there were probably only half that number, but every town had its gibbet, and many of them more than one. So if you were a Friar Tuck type, prone upon occasion to poach a rabbit or two in Lord Oswald’s timber reserve, you needed some definite means of demonstrating that you were too erudite to swing.
The legal convention that emerged was this: a defendant could establish claim to benefit of clergy by being able to read the opening verse or verses of the Miserere, the fiftieth psalm: “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness: in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. Thoroughly wash me from my guilt, and of my guilt cleanse me” et caetera. The Miserere is the most famous of the penitential psalms, and indeed it grew out of a matter needing much penance. Its medieval rubric identified it as “a psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him after his sin with Bathsheba,” discreetly leaving unmentioned the fact that David had also arranged to have Bathsheba’s husband killed by way of anticipatory cover up. Thus by being able to bewail your guilt in biblical Latin, you might dodge guilt’s hempen and vernacular guerdon. This biblical passage was aptly called “the neck verse,” and it makes numerous witty appearances in medieval literature. One of them is this: Miserere is the very first word spoken by the pilgrim-narrator of the Divine Comedy (Inferno, 1:65). I suspect that Kipling himself was aware of the cultural background of “benefit of clergy,” and were there but world enough and time I might even write an essay about it.