Neck-Verse

I had the increasingly rare pleasure of learning a new expression today: neck-verse.

I was reading the prologue of the book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. It mentioned that Shakespeare’s fellow playwright Ben Jonson was imprisoned and sentenced to hang for manslaughter after killing the actor Gabriel Spenser in a duel.

Jonson pleaded guilty, but was released after successfully claiming benefit of clergy. This was a tradition in English law dating back to the 12th century, which provided leniency for members of the clergy, based on the idea that they were outside the jurisdiction of secular courts, and should instead be tried under canon law.

Now, Jonson wasn’t a clergyman, but by the late 16th century, the methods for proving oneself to be a member of the clergy, and therefore entitled to the benefit of clergy, weren’t as strict as they had been previously.

At that point in history, all that was required was that the accused recite a verse in Latin from the Bible. Strictly any passage could be chosen, but traditionally Psalm 51 was used, quite appropriately: Miserere mei, Deus, secundum misericordiam tuam (O God, have mercy upon me, according to thine heartfelt mercifulness).

Reciting this passage was no problem for the highly-educated Jonson, though even the illiterate could gain clemency by memorising this verse. It therefore became known as the neck-verse, because knowing it could save your neck from the hangman.

Reading more about the neck-verse also reminded me of another interesting term. By Jonson’s time, the benefit of clergy had become what’s known as a legal fiction. This is a term I’d often heard, but never really knew the strict definition of. It sounds quite negative (not far from a lie), but as is often the case with legal language, it’s got quite a specific meaning.

A legal fiction is a fact assumed by courts in order to make a decision. An example of a legal fiction is something I looked at previously: the treatment of corporations as legal persons. Another interesting one I’ve just discovered is the doctrine of survival. If two people die simultaneously or in a way that makes it impossible to tell who died before the other, then the older of the two is assumed to have died first.

Benefit of clergy was a legal fiction as it assumed that the person was a clergyman because of their Latin literacy. Though in Jonson’s case, it was quite a literal fiction too!

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