The pope’s butler did it

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a butler.” So wrote Jane Austen. A butler buttles. But why does the pope need one?

In former times, great households were divided, with the butler in charge of the dining room, wine cellar, and pantry. Usually, the butler was a man and supervised the male servants, while the housekeeper was a woman and supervised the female servants. Fans of the television dramas Upstairs, Downstairs (1971) and Downton Abbey (2010) will recognize the status quo. Male servants (such as footmen and grooms) were better paid and of higher status than female servants. The butler was highest in the servile pecking order.

The word “butler” derives from the Old French bouteleur (cup bearer), from bouteille (bottle). In Britain, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the butler gradually assumed seniority in the household staff, although there was also a steward who ran the estate and financial matters. Butlers dressed in a special uniform, distinct from the livery of junior servants, but today’s butler is more likely to wear a business suit and appear in uniform, if at all, only on special occasions.

After World War I, employment in domestic service began to decline in western European countries. There were still around 30,000 butlers in Britain by World War II, but as few as 100 were estimated to remain by the mid-1980s. Social historians know that as a society becomes more egalitarian, the number of people employed in domestic service declines. Today, the image of tray-bearing butlers polishing the silver and decanting wine is an anachronism; employers are more interested in people capable of managing a full array of household affairs.

One of the best-known fictional menservants is Reginald Jeeves, the creation of author P. G. Wodehouse. He is not actually a butler but a “gentleman’s gentleman”, who tries to keep his master up to the mark in matters of taste. In My Man Jeeves (1919), for example, “Jeeves lugged my purple socks out of the drawer as if he were a vegetarian fishing a caterpillar out of his salad.” And in spoof detective stories, it was the butler that “did it”.

None of which tells us why the pope, who is not known to wear purple socks, needs a butler. Apparently, his duties (the butler’s not the pope’s) include handing rosaries to visiting dignitaries and riding on the pope-mobile. Perhaps the pope’s butler is a bodyguard armed with a vintage Magnum (Bollinger, most likely). And at Vespers he is still expected to serve a nightcap (Tia Maria, of course).

Benedict XVI’s butler seems to have had his fingers in more than His Holiness’ sock drawer. He has been charged with misappropriating documents that allege mismanagement, cronyism and corruption within the Vatican. A rebuttal is likely, but the pope will probably think twice before a re-butler.

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