Saturday, November 27, 2010


a master of contumely, inevitably evoking contumelious rejoinders

This one's a request, and it takes me back to my early days when I read lots of Victorian lit. Contumely is, surprisingly, a noun, and some of its synonyms are abuse, vituperation [a word I still actually use], invective and vitriol. It was quite popular in the nineteenth century [Hawthorne used it] though probably even more so in earlier centuries. Here's an example from Francis Bacon's essay 'Of Superstition':

IT WERE better to have no opinion of God at all, than such an opinion, as is unworthy of him. For the one is unbelief, the other is contumely; and certainly superstition is the reproach of the Deity. Plutarch saith well to that purpose: Surely (saith he) I had rather a great deal, men should say, there was no such man at all, as Plutarch, than that they should say, that there was one Plutarch, that would eat his children as soon as they were born; as the poets speak of Saturn. And as the contumely is greater towards God, so the danger is greater towards men. Atheism leaves a man to sense, to philosophy, to natural piety, to laws, to reputation; all which may be guides to an outward moral virtue, though religion were not; but superstition dismounts all these, and erecteth an absolute monarchy, in the minds of men.
I chose this one not just for the usage, but for the mention of atheism, though I'm not sure that I can clearly make out Bacon's meaning. I mean the first sentence is clear enough, and the first half of the second, but what is meant by 'superstition is the reproach of the deity'? Presumably he means that superstition misinterprets the deity, imputing to him/her/it diabolical intent, as in the example of Saturn. Better to be an atheist than to be superstitious about gods, Bacon apparently believes. It's an interesting passage [and the continuation is interesting too] in that it really seems an early defence of atheism, but I don't believe that, as some claim, Bacon was an atheist.

Returning to contumely, the obnoxious Mr Knox, who still has his fans today, used the word himself in this typical quote from his eternally veritable 'First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women':
And therefore yet again I repeat that which before I have affirmed: to wit, that a woman promoted to sit in the seat of God, that is, to teach, to judge or to reign above man, is a monster in nature, contumely to God, and a thing most repugnant to His will and ordinance. For He hath deprived them as before is proved of speaking in the congregation and hath expressly forbidden them to usurp any kind of authority above man.
Knox was of course reacting to the awful fact that a woman was then sitting on the throne of Scotland, and another on the throne of England, at a time when ordinary women rightfully had no rights at all to speak of. Truly a world turned upside down.
Contumely comes from Old French, contumelie, which is in turn derived from the Latin contumelia, a reproach or insult. It's probably related also to the Latin contumax [haughty, stubborn]. Con- as a prefix is an intensifier, and tumere means to swell up [think of the various tumescences Fanny Hill had to deal with].

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