neck verse.Hist. A verse, usu. consisting of the opening verse of Psalm 51 (Miserere mei, Deus “Have mercy on me, O God”), which was used as a literacy test for an accused who claimed benefit of clergy. • An accused who read the passage satisfactorily would not receive the maximum sentence (the person’s neck would be saved). Although judges could assign any passage, they usu. chose Psalm 51, so that for many years criminals memorized this verse and pretended to read it. Still, the records show that many accused persons failed the test. The reading of the neck verse was abolished in 1707. See BENEFIT OF CLERGY.
“During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the judges’ attitudes to benefit of clergy changed completely, and they came to see it as a regular means of escape from the mandatory death penalty. Physical appearance was disregarded, and reading became the sole test of clerical status. When a man was convicted of a felony, he would fall on his knees and ‘pray the book’; he would then be tendered a passage from the psalter, known as the neck-verse, and if he could read or recite it satisfactorily his clergy was taken to be proved …. Strictly speaking, the decision whether the convict read ‘as a clerk’ was for the ordinary; but he was subject to the control of the judges, and could be fined for refusing to accept someone. By the end of the sixteenth century as many as half of all men convicted of felony were recorded as having successfully claimed benefit of clergy.” J.H. Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History 587 (3d ed. 1990).
[Blacks Law 8th]