Bill Long 10/1/08
Nothing "Ordinary" About It
If there is one word in the English language that we all know, it is ordinary. It means common or typical, and could refer even to something of inferior quality (wine). Something that is ordinary is not exceptional. An 1870 quotation uses the word in this way: "The mastery of Shakespeare is shown perhaps more strikingly in his treatment of the ordinary than of the exceptional." Case seemingly closed.
But if we look at this word more carefully, we see in it also an ecclesiastical title, a judicial officer, a portion of the Roman Catholic mass, a rule of life, a chaplain hired to give condemned prisoners their "neck-verse," an inn or a meal at an inn, as well as other things. By seeing ordinary in such a light, we might, if we were insightful enough sociologists, be tempted to see it as a multi-tasking word that contributes to a multi-faceted protest against chaos and disorder in 16th-17th century England. By giving ordinary, and you can see the word order behind it, such wide reach, it is as if the society was trying to save itself by linguistic as well as by political and military means. Language, then, saves. That, I suppose, is the subtext of these two essays.
Ordinary and "Neck-Verse"
The most "sexy" meaning of the term refers to an English diocesan officer, entitled ordinary of assize and sessions, who was appointed to give condemned criminals their neck verses and assist them in preparing for death. A "neck verse" can only be understood in the context of the common law doctrine known as "benefit of clergy." Clergy could get out of most capital sentences if they could prove their clerical status. What were they doing getting capital sentences in the first place? Well, that opens the world of the "wordly" nature of the medieval English priesthood--which I can't explore here. But, how did they get out of their near-death experience? By reading a verse from the Bible strung around their necks. This verse was the Latin of Ps. 51:1 (David's psalm of confession). Since it was believed that only priests could read Latin, such a "reading" would prove a person to be a cleric and get him "off the hook," so to speak. Of course this could be counterfeited, as this 1607 quotation is aware: "It is not good to put it upon the psalm of Miserere (1st word of Ps. 51), and the neck-verse, for sometime he proves no clarke."
But the clergyman was called an Ordinary because that use of the term goes back to the 13th century in Middle French (ordinaire) to denote a diocesan official or a holder of jurisdiction attaching to an ecclesiastical office. Such a person kept order by exercising authority in a sphere or jurisdiction. The first usage in English of Ordinary to describe an ecclesiastical official is one who has, in his own right and not by appointment of another, immediate jurisdiction in ecclesiastical cases (an archbishop in a province or a bishop in a diocese) is in 1400. Or, to put it differently, an Ordinary has authority derived by law rather than by appointment of another.
The Canon to the Ordinary
The concept of ordinary would soon became applied to "rules" or "orders" and not simply to people who hold authority over a jurisdiction. But before we get to these derivative ordinaries, I should mention an official in the Episcopal Church, whose name is so not 3rd Millennium that I need to pause on it: Canon to the Ordinary. I had a friend a few years ago who decided to go to seminary in her mid-40s to prepare for the Episcopal priesthood. She was worried about possible placement in ministry after completing her education. One day she confessed to me, "Bill, I am afraid of the Canon to the Ordinary." I, not knowing what she was referring to, agreed that I would be afraid of someone so called, too. But then I learned that such a person is the bishop's "chief of staff." The Canon to the Ordinary can be either a lay or clerical person, but s/he functions as a sort of assistant to help diocesan affairs run smoothly.
The word "Canon," too is an old one. We know it as meaning a "rule" (either in music--Pachelbel's Canon--or in sacred/classical books--the canon of Scripture or of "Western classics"), but it goes back to the Middle Ages to denote a clergyman living with others in a clergy-house or, in late Medieval times, in one of the houses within the precinct or close of a cathedral or collegiate church. The Canons were so called because they lived according to the "canons" or "rules" of the church. To live a "canonical life," or vita canonica, one had to live according to a rule, usually based on practices mentioned in St. Augustine. If you lived with others who embrace the rule, you were known as a regular canon; others were called secular (living in the world) canons.
Even in our day a Canon usually is associated with a cathedral or collegiate church, but all the canons have become secular. I think the title is rather cool, "The Rev. Canon Something or Other," and only the Episcopalians use the term. So now we know that a Canon to the Ordinary is just a person who works at the Cathedral or Diocesan offices to help out the Ordinary, or bishop.
Ordinary in Heraldry
Well, all this church stuff is making my head spin, so let's escape to the world of heraldry. I wrote on flanches and flasques yesterday, so now let's turn to ordinary in heraldry. Ordinary is a "very common bearing, usually bounded by straight lines, but sometimes by one of the heraldic lines, nebule, or the like." Well, let's get more specific. This article gives about a dozen examples of heraldic ordinaries. A few are: bend, fess, saltire, pile, chevron, pale, pallets, bars, cross. It might be helpful to go through what some of these are, just in case you ever are on Jeopardy! or you are held up by someone who demands a definition of one of them in exchange for your life.
The bend is a slanting bar running from top left hand corner of the shield (as you look at it) to the bottom right edge. A fess is simply a horizontal band across the middle of the shield. Bars are more than one fess. A pile is a downward-pointing triangle with its top edge at the top of the shield. We know what a cross is, and a saltire is simply a diagonal cross. Finally, a pale is a vertical band right down the middle, while pallets are parallel pales, similar to the distinction between a fess and the bars. Well, that is heraldry 101, by introducing you to some of the ordinaries of heraldry. The use of ordinary here emphasizes the "rule" or "regulation" part of the definition.
We still haven't exhausted the meaning of ordinary, even though I may have tried your patience, so let's unfold this word yet further in the next essay.