Online Encyclopedia


Online Encyclopedia
Originally appearing in Volume V06, Page 497 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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BENEFIT OF CLERGY, an obsolete but once very important feature in English criminal law. Benefit of clergy began with the claim on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities in the 12th century that every clericus should be exempt from the jurisdiction of the temporal courts and be subject to the spiritual courts alone. The issue of the conflict was that the common law courts abandoned the extreme punishment of death assigned to some offences when the person convicted was a clericus, and tqe church was obliged to accept the compromise and let a secondary punishment be inflicted. The term " clerk " or clericus always included a large number of persons in what was still further extended to include laymen who performed duties in cathedrals, churches, &c., e.g. the choirmen, who were designated " lay clerks." Of these lay clerks or choirmen there was always one whose duty it was to be constantly present at every service, to sing or say the responses as the leader or representative of the laity. His duties were gradually enlarged to include the care of the church and precincts, assisting at baptisms, marriages, &c., and he thus became the precursor of the later parish clerk. In a somewhat similar sense we find bible clerk, singing clerk, &c. The use of the word " clerk " to denote a person ordained to the ministry is now mainly legal or 'formal. The word also developed in a different sense. In medieval times the pursuit of letters and general learning was confined to the clergy, and as they were practically the only persons who could read and write all notarial and secretarial work was discharged by them, so that in time the word was used with special reference to secretaries, notaries, accountants or even mere penmen. This special meaning developed into what is now one of the ordinary senses of the word. We find, accordingly, the term applied to those officers of courts, corporations, &c., whose duty consists in keeping records, correspondence, and generally managing business, as clerk of the market, clerk of the petty bag, clerk of the peace, town clerk, &c. Similarly, a clerk also means any one who in a subordinate position is engaged in writing, making entries, ordinary correspondence, or similar " clerkly " work. In the United States the word means also an assistant in a commercial house, a retail salesman.
CLERK 1 (from A.S. cleric or clerc, which, with the...

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