SOME REFORMATION JOKES
Before the Protestant Reformation the Latin Church was usually fairly tolerant of doctrinal differences. It was the rise of Protestantism that forced the Church to adopt as dogma various articles of faith where a difference of opinion might previously have been quietly tolerated so long as it did not bring papal authority into question. The Church replied to Protestantism by summoning the Council of Trent (1545-63), which made a point of reaffirming those doctrines that the Protestants objected to. In this way, negatively, the Protestants defined Catholic doctrine.
The most important dogma was the doctrine of Transubstantiation. This was the doctrine that at the climax of the Mass, when the priest raised the “host” (sanctified unleavened bread) and said “Hoc est corpus meum”, the bread literally became the body of Christ. All Protestants rejected this doctrine, so it became the most crucial determinant of which side of the religious divide a person was on. There could be no middle way, no compromise position.
So, instead of “Hoc est corpus meum” (“This is my body”) a Protestant might say, in order to offend, “Hoc est porcus meus” (“This is my bacon”). This expression was reduced to “Hocus Pocus”, meaning any ritual of which you disapprove. The expression “Mumbo Jumbo”, dating from the same period, was a gibe at priests whose Latin was inadequate for the purpose of conducting religious ceremonies.
An interesting development came about in Queen Elizabeth's reign (1558-1603). Elizabeth set out to offend as few religious people as possible: she was not anxious to create disloyal subjects. It has been suggested that she disliked the clergy: it is certainly true that Queen Mary's senior clergy had kept pressing her to have her half-sister's head cut off. Elizabeth's personal views on religion are not easily fathomable. The only safe observation is that she believed that religion was vital for the preservation of the monarchy.
The Protestant Elizabeth set herself up as the Supreme Et Cetera of the Church of England. This very vagueness communicated itself to the clergy, whose understanding of their role in society must have been uncertain. Many had had their source of income removed from under them; these were called “vicars”, which means “deputies”. Their immediate superiors were called “rectors” who might well be lay persons who had acquired the church land from Little Jack Horner in a previous reign and controlled the vicar's income. Other clergy, who still controlled the source of their own income, were still called “rectors”. Most clergy were determined to cling on to their jobs and their marriages above all else. Most of them had married their mistresses in the reign of Edward VI (1547-1553), and neither the Catholic Mary or the disapproving Elizabeth had found a way to enforce clerical celibacy.
Elizabeth's first Archbishop of Canterbury was Matthew Parker (1559-75). His view was that the Church should operate as a moral censor over the people, and he used the church courts to do that. That is why he was called Nosey Parker. Parker's views were not universally followed by the clergy, but in some places they were, depending on the aggressiveness of the local bishop. In those places large numbers of wrongdoers were hauled before the church courts to be accused of that most universal moral offence: Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. We know this because the bishop of Lichfield was clearly a disciple of Nosey Parker, and records of one of his courts in Stratford-on-Avon have been scrutinised because of our interest in William Shakespeare.
The court records show page after page of entries, obviously written by bored clerks: “Joe Smith FUCK 2s 6d”; “Jack Brown FUCK 2s 6d”. That is, “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge”. That is why the word achieved its importance in the English language, where today it represents a large part of the vocabulary of football supporters. It appears in the First Folio, in “Love's Labours Lost”, but it was edited out in subsequent editions, not, one imagines, because of any perceived indecency but because it represented a joke at the expense of the religious establishment that James I (1603-25) was most anxious to support.
[Towards the end of her reign, Queen Elizabeth had all the church bells in the country taken down and sold to the Sultan of Morocco. Her expectation was that the Sultan would melt them down and cast them into cannon, with which to make war on the King of Spain. Even the Protestants were appalled. Making a military alliance with a Muslim power in order to attack a Christian one (even if it was the wrong sort of Christian), and destroying the very fabric of the Church in order to do so, was considered very reprehensible indeed. James I put a stop to it as soon as he acceded to the throne.]