Really Rare Words I
Bill Long 8/10/08
Let's begin with a portmanteau word, which has inexplicably fallen out of English use: magnolious. Consisting of "magnificent" and "glorious," magnolious means "magnificent or splendid or large." The first OED attestation is from 1865: "But..she might be the sheriff's daughter..accustomed to go out on Sundays with a 'magnolious' parasol and a 'spanglorious' crinoline." James Joyce used a similar word as a noun in a 1921 letter: "Best wishes for your continued magnoliousness." Liking the word, Joyce used it in another 1921 letter: "With many thanks again and wishes for your magnolious expansiveness." While the OED has magnolious, it lists no separate entry for spanglorious, despite its attestation above. Spanglorious is obviously a portmanteau for "spangled" and "glorious." Both words suggest something "glittery" or "glorious" or "magnificent." Both would be very welcome today, I think, in popular conversation. When I told a 20-something the word magnolious the other day in Seattle (Magnolia, actually, is a section of Seattle), she eagerly wrote it down. Perhaps my itinerant evangelistic work may pay off.
Gyrovagi/Gyrovague and Circumcellions
Speaking of itinerant evangelistic work, we also have the rare word gyrovague or, in plural, gyrovagi. An allied word, and group, of whom I will also make mention is Circumcellions. As is the case with any early Christian group which was not approved by the dominant majority, the gyrovagi and Circumcellions were roundly trounced by their (victorious) opponents, physically and literarily, making it very difficult to figure out the theology and precise practice that lay behind their lives. Let's begin with the gyrovagi. The word, first appearing in 1801 in English, points to a group of vagrant (vagi) monks in the early church, without definite occupation, who wandered about (gyro) subsisting on the charity of others. The Britannica could say they were "vagrant tramps (no pejorativeness here, right?) who even at that time (528), as more than a century earlier, continued to bring discredit on the monastic profession."
Well, how did they bring this discredit on the profession? Apparently, according to this source, they took advantage of the general rule of hospitality, described in the Letter to the Hebrews and elsewhere, and roved from one cell or monastic community to another, refusing to adopt the strictures of community life. A monk as powerful as Benedict of Nursia in the early 6th century mentions them as being worse than other groups (the article lists cenobites--Is there anything the matter with them??-- eremites, and Sarabaites), and calls for their removal. But if we read between the lines of the sixth century (and earlier) controversy, we can probably see a struggle for power among early monks regarding the proper form of monastic existence in the late Roman Empire. Benedict was quite committed to communal existence according to a rule.
But the philosophy behind the itinerant monks, no doubt, was one that was based on the imitatio Christi. Indeed, didn't the birds of the air have their nests but the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head? Didn't he send out his followers two-by-two to ask alms and beg to stay at various places when they announced the coming of the Kingdom of God?
As we learn from history, biblical models are often powerless to stand up against different sociological realities, especially at a time when the crumbling of the society all around reinforced the need to build up a community which would, as it were, preserve the culture in the midst of the chaos. That is what the settled, or cenobitic monastic movement tried to do. By the regularity of life in prayer and study the world would be preserved, some scholarship would go forward, and the Gospel would be proclaimed.
Augustine, the 4th-5th century African Bishop and prolific writer, equated the gyrovagi with the Circumcellions (those who go around "cells" or monastic communities), who were accused of being monks so committed to the martyr ideal that they would engage in violent activities as a means of bringing violence, and martyrdom, among themselves. Indeed, this article, quoting from the respected Oxford Dictionary of the Chrisitan Church, suggests that the Circumcellions were such wild-eyed fanatics that they focused on bringing on their own martyrdoms--by any means possible. This unlikely scenario is probably the result of "anti-Circumcellion" propaganda.
The propaganda reached its height in Philip Schaff's multi-volume history of the early Church. He mentions that the Circumcellions were a "sort of Donatist mendicant monks," but then his description is unforgettable. They
"wandered about the country among the cottages of the peasantry, carried on plunder, arson, and murder, in conjunction with mutinous peasants and slaves, and in crazy zeal for the martyr's crown, as genuine soldiers of Christ, rushed into fire and water, and threw themselves down from rocks."
Now, the patient historian in me wants to say to Schaff, even though he has been dead for more than a century, "when did they rush into fire and water?" and "from which rocks were they hurling themselves?" But this was the kind of scholarship that students of the early Church were subjected to until there arose a different philosophy of how to tell the story of the early Church--as a struggle of several groups against each other, with the winner celebrating its victory by trashing the reputations of those against whom it fought.
In any case, I think one of the major struggles in the early Church was regarding the nature of the monastic life. Should it be solitary or communal? Wandering or settled? What should be the focus of the life? Rule-based or rather free-flow? The gyrovagi were monks whose approach ended up being in the minority--and henceforth they had to bear the opprobrium not only of the victors but also of students of history to this day. Let's try to rehabilitate them, by saying that they, indeed, felt they were following the true picture of the life of the disciple laid down by Christ and that the other groups of monks were "sell outs" to the dominant culture. But they have just bequeathed to us their names, and even those names aren't even known in educated culture--hence this longish note...
I see I have gotten far afield on my words, so let's return to the rare ones...