Virgers – I before E
“Are you half a virgin?” an elderly man asked me, somewhat rudely, the other day.
“Not any more,” I wittily riposted while racking my brains to work out what he was talking about.
“Spelling ‘Virger’ like that,” he snorted, in a high state of orthographic self-righteousness. “It should be v-E-r-g-e-r!”
Actually sir, as I tried to explain at the time, it shouldn’t. Beverley Minster spells my job title as Virger for a darn good reason and I’ll just spell out why (ha, ha, little play on words there – oh, go on, please yourself).
Firstly, yes, most churches do spell virger with an ‘e’ and, in consequence, I have a running battle with the Hull Daily Mail every time they run a story about the Minster – the paper’s wonderful computer spell-check always defaults to that spelling. But they are wrong.
I am a virger because I carry a long metal rod (stop sniggering at the back there. I’ll tell you more about that rod in a minute, but just for now I’ll stick to the point).
The Latin for ‘rod’ is ‘virga’. Not V-E-R-G-A but virga. So I’m a virger because I’m named after the symbol of my role.
They spell it this way at St Paul’s Cathedral, Winchester and Windsor so, frankly, I don’t care if we are in a minority. It’s a pretty elite one, and I can only feel sorry for the majority who’ve got it wrong. So, HDM sub-editors, you now know why you should overrule your spellchecker next time it attempts to ‘correct’ me.
But why is my job named after a long stick? Well, the answer might seem silly now, but it’s rooted in basic practice from many centuries ago. Think back, if you can, some 500 years. In those days there was no pulpit, no neat rows of chairs in the nave and a church was not a centre of calm and quiet in a busy world. In fact, if you go back to the early Tudors you’ll find many churches and cathedrals were bustling markets, with people yelling, and animals inside making whatever noises animals make (with attendant smells), plus lawyers drawing up contracts, and general background noise. In the middle of all this were altars – at least 16 permanent ones in the Minster, and maybe many more.
Each of these altars was the centre of its own timetabled range of services and ceremonies, with priests and their attendants praying, chanting, waving incense around and generally doing what they were supposed to do. It was the virgers’ job to clear the way through the confusion and get their priests to the appointed place at the proper time. The rod wasn’t a ceremonial object then; it was a practical tool, a club used by my predecessors to bash their way past anyone who got in their way.
Ah, the job was a lot more fun in the old days.
As a ceremonial throwback to those ancient times, whenever there’s a formal church service at the Minster you’ll find a virger walking ahead of the preacher and vicar, leading the way with a modern lightweight virge in a sort of ‘half-ready’ stance – not really a practical fighting position.
So my job title is basically 500 years out of date, but it could be worse. I might be named after the most common tool in the modern virgers’ armoury – the ‘Henry*”
*(note to readers, a proprietary brand of vaccum cleaner).