benefit of clergy
A felon could plead "benefit of clergy" and be saved by [reading aloud] what was aptly enough termed the "neck verse," which was very usually the Miserere mei of Psalm 51.--William Hazlitt's Faiths and Folklore of the British Isles, 1870
Birthday of Ben Johnson (1572-1637),
English playwright, who was once cleared of a murder charge stemming from a duel by pleading benefit of clergy. This odd legal loophole was inspired by I Chronicles 16:22, "Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm." In medieval times, church clerics alone could read and thereby qualify for exemption from prosecution for capital crimes. During the testing procedure, applicants were required to read "like a clerk," and the coaching of an accused felon to read for this purpose was considered and indictable offense. Use of benefit of clergy diminished over time but was not formally abolished in Britain until 1827. If the prisoner could not read the neck-verse, it was said that he must "sing it at the gallows," prompting these lines in Samuel Butler's Hudibras (1663):
And if they cannot read one verse
I' the' Psalms, must sing it, and that's worse.
Ben Johnson is also the guy who gave us "drink to me only with thine eyes and I will pledge with mine" -- much to the annoyance of cartoon baby owls ever since.
-The Gneech, who wants to sing-a about the moon-a and the June-a and the spring-a