A clerk ther was of Rowan County also…. What the Kim Davis Case Tells Us About America’s Long Middle Ages

A clerk ther was of Rowan County also…. What the Kim Davis Case Tells Us About America’s Long Middle Ages

By Richard Utz

Have you ever thought about the relationship between the words “clerk” and “clergy”? “Clerk” we associate with someone doing “clerical” work, like Kim Davis, the Rowan County Clerk who has now been jailed for contempt of court after refusing to issue marriage licences to same sex couples. County clerks are usually responsible for issuing various county licenses (marriage, motel, liquor, bingo), keeping records, issuing certificates of vital statistics (birth, death, marriage), computing tax extensions, and maintaining accurate county maps. “Clergy” we associate with any and all religious leaders, especially those ordained for religious duties in Christian denominations.

Linguistically, “clergy” and “clerk” are only distinguished by one letter, “g” instead of “k” (we can safely disregard the suffix “-y”), and these two letters are homorganic velar consonants, which means that we pronounce them in the same articulatory position, by the back part of the tongue pushing against the soft palate, the back section of the roof of the mouth. Thus, while “clerk” today is niched within the realm of secular administration and public records management, and “clergy” belongs to the realm of religious practice, there is ‘sound’ evidence that the modern semantic distinction did not exist in the past and that both words go back to the same origin.

Medievalist Karl Krebs devoted an entire book to the semantic development of Middle English clerk, showing how the word’s path, beginning with Late Latin clericus (“priest,” “clergyman,” “cleric”), points to a major shift in medieval educational practice.[1] Literacy, originally in the hands of members of ecclesiastic orders and clergy in general gradually moved to a lay class of city, county, and state officials, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Clerk in the Canterbury Tales (“A clerk ther was of Oxenford also…”) is an illustrative example of the very transition Krebs describes. Moreover, anyone who has ever done genealogical research knows that the role of church authorities in serving as community notaries and public recorders did not end with Chaucer’s fourteenth century. As soon as we reach back into our families’ histories in the nineteenth century, we have to switch to church and parish records to access many birth, marriage, and death records. This would indicate that, until modern nations established a more definite separation between church and state, medievalist recording practices discontinued only very slowly, adding more evidence to some scholars’ claims of a longue durée (“long duration”) of the Middle Ages all the way into the eighteenth century.

Writing for the U.S. National Association of Counties, Jaqueline J. Byers reveals how the position of the medieval clerk moved smoothly and without much change across the Atlantic in early modern times:

English history shows that the role of the city clerk can be traced to 1272 AD. […] When colonists arrived in America, they invariably established the forms of government with which they were most familiar. In colonial Massachusetts one of the earliest offices created was that of the recorder, whose role it was to keep vital records of births, marriages and deaths for the church. This individual also maintained records of all of the governmental appointments, the deeds, the meetings and the elections of town officials. Early clerks in New England also had to sweep the meeting room, sell seats, ring the bell and other responsibilities that no longer exist. The title clerk started to appear around the middle of the 17th century. At that same time, the clerk’s responsibilities also included maintenance of a list of each resident’s property and its value to verify voting rights if necessary. The clerk also administered the oath of office taken by elected officials and was authorized to call local government meetings. (“The Role of the County Clerk”)

Byers also indicates that the one major change to the medieval English position of county clerk in the United States is that most states turned it an elected one. It is her status as an elected official that has protected Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis from being fired from her job for not following a Supreme Court Ruling and a federal judge’s orders.

This historical backdrop for the current conflict surrounding Kim Davis exposes fascinating continuities between her position and those in charge of notary and recording tasks in the Middle Ages. The way this specific position was adopted, almost without change, in the New World, recontextualizes Davis’ decision. Not only did the early modern and modern position of a secular “clerk” originate within medieval church culture, but the position, in part because of the new nation’s keen desire to protect a religious freedom endangered in the Old World, retained the time-honored semantic range that imbricates Christian convictions with a public administrative function. What I am saying, then, is that Kim Davis, in her rejection of the modern separation of church and state, is performing an act of political medievalism, albeit one she may well perceive as the simple adherence to an unbroken heritage.

Angela Weisl, in The Persistence of Medievalism (2003), has diagnosed numerous similar examples of continuist medievalist patterns in professional U.S. sports and entertainment. “If the ‘real’ Middle Ages,” Weisl finds, “are divided from us by time, distance, and language, popular culture provides us a contemporary Middle Ages from which we are not separated, to which we respond in all the immediacy of the present.”[2] This sense of the “immediacy” is facilitated by an Anglo-American tradition that continues to view its medieval past as eminently usable: In recent years, New Hampshire legislators and director Ridley Scott simplistically linked contemporary individual liberties to the granting of Magna Carta (1215), British politicians considered punishing contemporary jihadism based on a late medieval treason law (1356), and Prince Philip was appointed to a knighthood of the Order of Australia, a title the illustrious heritage of which dates back to ye olde 1975.[3]

Thus, when Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal recently explained to the Huffington Post that “[t]he United States didn’t create religious liberty. Religious liberty created the United States of America. It’s the reason we are here today. This is an essential freedom and an essential right and I don’t think you give up this right by simply taking a job,” he only confirms that church and state were never truly separated and, in his eyes, should never be separate in the first place. In Jindal’s opinion, Kim Davis simply adheres to a view of the United States as a foundationally and unchangingly Christian and European country. Of course, North American slaveholder-gentlemen (and more recently the Ku Klux Klan), imagining themselves as the true successors of medieval (Christian) knights, created similarly continuist narratives to maintain their power and privilege.[4]

Richard Utz is Professor and Chair of the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech. or follow him on Twitter @ricutz


1. Der Bedeutungswechsel von me. Clerk und damit zusammenhängende Probleme. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte und Soziologie der englischen Bildung (Bonn: Hanstein, 1933).

2. Angela Jane Weisl, The Persistence of Medievalism. Narrative Adventures in Public Discourse (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 31.

3. On the “unique continuity” between postmedieval and medieval paradigms in the Anglo-American world, see Richard Utz, “Coming to Terms with Medievalism,” the European Journal of English Studies 15:2 (2011), 101-13.

4. For a helpful first orientation on this topic, see Amy S. Kaufman, “Anxious Medievalism: An American Romance,” The Year’s Work in Medievalism 22 (2009), 5-13.

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