Originally, the privilege of exemption from trial by a secular court enjoyed by the clergy if arrested for felony. In time it came to comprehend not only the ordained clergy but also those who, being able to read and write, were capable of entering into their numbers.

The origins of this privilege lie on the Bible: "Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm" (1 Chronicles 16: 22), and it was abolished by George IV in 1827.

See also neck-verse.

Benefit Of Clergy is also the title of a collection of essays by George Orwell (which I believe is out of print now, but is also unnecessary given the availability of various volumes of collected non-fiction containing the same material).

It takes its title from an essay Orwell wrote about the autobiography of Salvador Dali. In this essay Orwell addresses what he perceived as the distinction between moral and artistic judgments, pointing at two distinct schools of thought among critics at the time. The first school of thought saw the subject matter of Dali's work (which at the time was very shocking, particularly to the homophobic Orwell) and instantly dismissed the artistic quality of the work. The other group perceived Dali as a great artist, and therefore (according to Orwell) dismissed claims that his work was immoral - (or possibly had different moral standards to Orwell, a possibility he failed to consider).

The crux of his argument comes in the following section:

One ought to be able to hold in one's head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other. The first thing that we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp. In the same way it should be possible to say, "This is a good book or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman". Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shrinking the implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human being.

Of course it should not be imagined that Orwell was arguing in favour of book burning - the next paragraph starts "Not, of course, that Dali's autobiography, or his pictures, ought to be suppressed. Short of the dirty post cards that used to be sold in Mediterranean seaport towns it is doubtful policy to suppress anything, and Dali's fantasies probably cast useful light on the decay of capitalist civilisation".

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Orwell (and I agree on the general principle but not on the specific case of Dali, in so far as I know Dali's work at least) the essay makes fascinating reading, and is particularly relevant today in the light of 'BritArt', the Sensation and Ant Noises exhibitions, and most recently the exhibition of plastinated human corpses as artworks in London. Like all Orwell's nonfiction, it remains relevant today because the issues remain relevant, and because Orwell was a master both of the English language and of rhetoric, who knew better than any other essayist of his generation how to construct an argument.

Benefit of Clergy, the advantage derived from the preferment of the plea "I am a clergyman." When in medieval times, a clergyman was arraigned on certain charges he was permitted to put forth the plea that with respect to the offense of which he was accused, he was not under the jurisdiction of the civil courts, but, being a clergyman, was entitled to be tried by his spiritual superiors. The cases in which the benefit of clergy might be urged were such as affected the life or limbs of the offender, high treason, however, excepted. The exemption has never been recognized in America, and is abolished in Great Britain.

Entry from Everybody's Cyclopedia, 1912.

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