Bill Long 1/17/05
Where all the Action in the Word is "Obsolete"
Nowadays disparagement has fallen upon hard times. We rarely use the word anymore, even though it is sturdy and wonderfully suggestive word when you know its story. The purpose of this min-essay is to let "disparage" tell its story to us.
If it is used today at all, disparage means "to speak of our treat slightingly; to treat as something lower than it is; to undervalue (OED 4)." Thus a 19th century writer could say, "It is a very narrow criticism which disparages Racine out of idoltray of Shakespeare." Or, John Stuart Mill could say, "It is the fashion of the present time to disparage negative logic." And then Emerson, who always wanted to lift up America's literary tradition and proclaim American literary independence from Europe, said "We shall not again disparage America, now that we see what men it will bear." Something or someone who is disparaged is dishonored, slighted or undervalued. "His fault was that he always disparaged people, believing incorrectly that their gentle chidings were biting criticisms."
Yet its original usage creates a vivid picture for us. It meant, as early as the 12th century, to "match unequally; to degrade or dishonor by marrying one of inferior rank." If you are someone's "peer" you are of "equal rank" with them. A "peerage" in Britian puts you on par with a new group of "equals." The "dis" prefix functions like the "alpha privative" in classical languages, thus "taking away" or reversing the sense of what follows. Thus, to "disparage" is to "take away" the equality of something or someone.
Perhaps the most famous usage of the word, famous because it appears in a document that at least we have heard of from medieval times, is in Magna Carta. Listen to the baronial demand, to which King John assented, in chapter 6:
"Heirs shall be married without disparagement, yet so that before the marriage takes place the nearest in blood to that heir shall have notice."
Disparagement in English Law and Custom
McKechnie, in his commentary on MC, speaks about the rich legal and historical background that led to this provision. Actually, by the time of MC this was a rather commonplace principle of operation, but it was not always so. When one of the King's tenants in chief would die, leaving a widow and children, their vulnerability was evident. The King would be able to collect various "feudal incidents" from them, one of which was called "wardship." Wardship enabled the King to approve the marriage partners of heirs of a tenant in chief. By the mid 12th century, the Crown's right to regulate the marriages of wards had become an intolerable grievance. Often the King would assent to marriages, but would often demand a high sum from the suitor or the ward in order to let the marriage proceed. To be fair to the King, he had to be able to ensure that the next generation in the family would be loyal to him; therefore, a a marriage between a tenant's heir and a sworn enemy would run the king into lots of problems, not the least of which was the economic one.
For example, MC tries to deal with the problem of the widow of the tenant in chief who would like to remarry. Chapter 8 provides:
"No widow shall be compelled to marry, so long as she prefers to live without a husand; provided always that she gives security not to marry without our consent, if she holds of us, or without the consent of the lord of whom she holds, if she holds of another."
MC "liberalized" the law by allowing widows the choice of remarriage, and it attempted to balance the interests of widows and the King by requiring her dower to be paid immediately (ch. 7) but by giving the king the right to consent to her possible future marriage. It is intersting that the language that grew up in regard to the latter is language that is now used in American law with respect to subletting property--the owner of the property shall approve subleases, but assent shall not unreasonably be withheld. This would be the practice required by law after MC.
The next essay will briefly describe the development of the "law" of disparagement.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long