About Quizzes

Benefit of Clergy

Benefit of clergy was a legal plea available to clergymen beginning in medieval times. It was intended to spare clerics accused of capital crimes from the extremely harsh judgments of the secular courts, which routinely sentenced people to death for seemingly minor infractions. Ecclesiastical courts, by contrast, were lenient and often limited their punishments to penances. Naturally, many accused persons claimed to be clergymen to escape secular justice. A practice developed that allowed a person to prove he was a member of the clergy by reading the first verse of the 51st Psalm: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to they tender mercies blot out my transgressions.” This came to be known as the “neck verse,” since that was the part of the anatomy to be spared from hanging or beheading. A literacy test in this age made some sense; few people, other than churchmen, learned to read. Over the centuries, this plea continued to exist under English law, but its availability was extended to more people and eventually to everyone. The reading requirement was dispensed with in the early 1700s. The practice continued to exist as a means of sparing first-time offenders from the death penalty. Benefit of clergy was abolished in the United States for federal crimes in 1790.