Saturday, February 15, 2014
With restraint, or, Odd things in churches (2)
A set of stocks does seem an odd thing to find in a church, but it's less odd if viewed in a historical perspective. In the 16th century, the vestry, a committee of parishioners chaired by the church's incumbent, was becoming the key body in parish government. Its responsibilities embraced civil as well as ecclesiastical affairs and included keeping the peace, dealing with vagrants, mending roads, and destroying vermin. These important roles of the vestry continued until Parish Councils were introduced in the late-19th century. Maintaining instruments of punishment, such as stocks and whipping posts, was therefore part of the work of the vestry, and sometimes stocks were set up by the churchyard wall. A few have found their way into the church as historical curiosities, like this set in Dinton, which is kept in the church porch.
Malefactors – drunks, rowdies, vagrants, and scolds – were often put in the stocks for a while, the mixture of shame, inconvenience, and discomfort being a punishment and a way of detaining people until they calmed down, or sobered up. Perhaps the main punishment was that, stuck in the stocks with feet clasped firmly, a person was brought down a peg or two and was, indeed, a laughing stock.
There's one other curious thing about these stocks, though. There are five holes, and an odd number of holes doesn't seem to go with the usual human complement of two feet. The town where I live also has an old set of stocks with an odd number of holes and the tradition here is that they were made that way because a one-legged man was among the local wild bunch who often got into trouble. I don't know how true this is. Maybe having a single foot in the stocks was considered restraint enough: you certainly wouldn't be walking anywhere with one foot stuck in there. But an uneven number of holes certainly makes these stocks in the porch of Dinton church numerically, as well as ecclesiastically, odd.