25 May 2010

Why Black Rod knocks 3 times & why pointless rituals are not always as pointless as they seem

Watching the State opening of parliament today, I noticed that Black Rod (or, in this case, his substitute) knocks three times on the door of the House of Commons, after it's been slammed in his face, to summon them to the House of Lords to listen to the Queen's speech:

In a previous post - Why lists of three: mystery, magic or reason? - I discussed why so many lists come in three parts. But that related to speaking, whether in conversation or in speeches, not to door-knocking behaviour.

So this video clip got me wondering whether there was any particular reason for knocking three times, which was quickly resolved by resorting to Google - and the discovery that it's 'once for the executive, once for the legislature and once for the speaker' (for more on which, see HERE).

It reminded me of something I'd written long ago about how reforms designed to make behaviour less formal and/or ritualistic need to take into account why such forms of behaviour originally came to be there in the first place.* Otherwise, reformers can easily end up throwing out a baby - that they didn't realise was there - with the bath water.

The case of the informal smiling Pope
My favorite example was the case of Pope John Paul I, who died after only 33 days in office. Amazingly, after so short a time, he was described in some obituaries as one of the greatest popes of the twentieth century.

Before him, popes had apparently never been seen smiling in public, which was one of the reasons why he was hailed for having brought a new level of informality to the papacy. Others were that he'd refused to have a coronation and preferred walkabouts in St Peter's Square to being carried aloft on the traditional gestatorial chair.

The sight of a pedestrian Pope, smiling and mingling with his fellow men and women, presented a much less formal and more favourable image to millions of television viewers around the world. But for those who'd taken the time, trouble and expense of going to St Peter's Square, it was a complete disaster - apart from the tiny minority who happened to be standing a few rows away.

In fact, the Vatican had so many complaints from frustrated pilgrims that, before he died, John Paul I had already done a U turn and returned to the gestatorial chair.

At the time, I remember saying that, if only the Vatican PR department had understood the chair's importance in enabling the pope to be seen by a crowd, they could have simultaneously minimised papal formality and maximisied papal visibility by the simple device of installing a chair on the roof of a bog-standard Fiat - which is why, a few months later, I was delighted to see my sugestion come true with the invention of the popemobile for his successor, John Paul II.

Black Rod's 3 knocks on the door
So I was also delighted to learn today that there's a historical reason why Black Rod knocks three times on the door of the House of Commons and that it hasn't been forgotten - not, you understand, because I thought it was another example of the rule of three or had some other theory up my sleeve, but because it confirms, yet again, that there is often a logic behind apparently pointless rituals that isn't obviously or instantly apparent to contemporary observers.

(* 'Understanding Formality', British Journal of Sociology, XXXII, 1982, pp. 86-117).


Julien said...

Now, here's a simple experiment:

Do the following google searches:

"tapped once"

"tapped two times"

"tapped three times"

"tapped four times"

"tapped five times"


The number of search results for "tapped three times" is far greater than for any of the others.

I used a similar experiment (in a case for a privacy injunction) to good effect in the High Court once...

Anonymous said...

The pope who smiled and refused a coronayion. Isn't he the one they (allegedly) did in for not conforming.