A view backstage at Beverley Minster

The ‘i’s have it – at last

Neil Pickford continues to explain his unusual job title.
Where was I before I was so rudely interrupted by a lack of space?
Oh yes, deep in the heart of the pre-Reformation (before Henry VIIIth) Beverley Minster, where I am surrounded by smelly pilgrims, tradesmen (and women), beggars, workers, lawyers and even animals.
Imagine the noise, imagine the smells, imagine the chaos and confusion.
Do you also remember me mentioning last week that there were at least 16 different altars located all around the building, each one with their own special timetable and (sometimes conflicting) set of schedules.
Gosh, exciting isn’t it?
In all this milling around and lack of focus I, as the virger, have an apparently simple task: get a small group of priests from point ‘A’ (probably the relative safety of the enclosed north-eastern end of the Minster) to the correct altar at the right time.
As we emanate (and what a good word that is to use at any time of night or day) – I repeat, as we emanate from this priestly sanctuary we are confronted with hordes of people who, quite frankly, don’t care about the holy duties and responsibilities of my little charges. They are having too much fun negotiating contracts, examining produce, viewing the sights or just keeping out of the rain and sniffing our incense. 
I have to get their attention, to make them move if necessary – and for this I have a long club.
In fact this club of mine is such an important tool that it defines my job. It was as clear a symbol in the 16th century as the mediaeval barber-surgeons’ blood-soaked, bandage-wrapped pole you can still see outside some modern male hairdressers, or the “three gold coins” symbol of pawnbrokers throughout the centuries.
“By my rod shall ye know me” someone once said – although probably not in this context.
Anyway, virgers weren’t the only people to have clubs as the symbols of their authority: from Roman times bundles of birch rods, sometimes with an axe blade sticking out, were used to show that magistrates or people who had the power of life and death over you were on their way.
These clubs, however, were called ‘fasces’ and are less popular since the Italian fascists adopted the symbol in the 1920s.  
My club didn’t have the axe, but it still remained practical. Ah, the good old days of robust Christianity: “move out of the way because a belt across the back of the head often offends.”
To this day, I carry a formal version of the club or rod during church processions when I walk just in front of the priests and lead them to and from the pulpit.
I’d be hard-pressed to hit anyone with it now – we hold it rather like a sword, which is fine for waving around but useless for building up momentum – a quick flick is about as much as I could manage these days.
But I digress: my magnificent and ancient tool (stop sniggering at the back) carries the Latin name of ‘virga’ – hence I am called a ‘virger’. That’s the spelling used in St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, the Royal chapel at Windsor and also, I’m glad to see, in the recently-renamed Doncaster Minster.
So you don’t have to ask me anymore why we in Beverley Minster spell virger with an ‘i’. You’d be more sensible asking the other churches why they’ve got it wrong.
And next week I hope to introduce you to some more of the weird and wonderful things that go on behind the scenes. ‘Til then.
By the way, I was delighted to see the term ‘virger’ getting an updated usage in a recent episode of Doctor Who.
Now, before we get into a dispute about the gaping plotlines in the latest series I should just point out that I’m a huge fan and have been right since the very first broadcasts in 1963, so I know what I’m talking about. The current doctor and his assistant are BRILLIANT and that’s a scientific fact, based on years of research by me.
Anyway, the relevant point here is that, in the episode: “The Time of Angels” we were introduced to a military force headed by an armed Bishop.
Matt Smith explained; “The church has branched out,” or something like that.
I could have been annoyed at this, snorting that it was yet another example of trendy lefty so-and-sos in the BBC running down religion and continuing the agenda of the forced multi-culturalising (I know there’s no such word – but there is now) of this country.
I might then have gone on to lament that in this new equality some religions (i.e. the Established religion of this country which is headed by our own Head of State, Gawd save ‘er) are less equal than others.
But I managed to suppress my first reaction and watch on.
The Bishop was actually portrayed as a very thoughtful, considered and caring individual who took the casual insults thrown at him by the Doctor with great dignity. His bunch of soldiers or ‘clerics’ were also not the normal gung-ho cannon fodder (or canon-fodder – hahahahahaha = sorry, a little church play on words there, please excuse me).
No, they were polite, disciplined, admirable, and when the Bishop himself faced certain death he was given one of the most dignified sets of final words I’ve ever heard on telly – and Matt Smith then acted a response that was full of humility in the face of such inspiring behaviour.
So, OK, the setting of a military religious army to protect humanity may have started as a bit of a joke, but the result is that the job titles of bishops or clerics have now become slightly more identified in the viewers minds with behaviour that was noble, inspiring and selfless.
Could we claim that of modern bishops, do you think?
Oh yes, and a further exciting point – the virger in the team was the man with the bazooka. I liked that a lot.
First published June 2010 


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