“a day of fasting and humiliation”

Now, this is a term of art in Puritan practice, and in other Christian sects as well. “Humiliation” refers in this context to self-abasement, self-humbling, before someone or something acknowledged to be greater. The OED offers a number of citations referring to humiliating oneself before a king (especially in the 1400s and 1500s) or before God; and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) declares,  “How much we ought to …examine and humiliate our selves, seek to God, and call to him for mercy.” In fact, as far as the OED can demonstrate, this meaning of “humiliate” was the meaning, until in the 1700s it acquired the additional sense, the one that prevails now (except for religious observers of Days of Humiliation), of loss of face, public shaming.

I have said before that students try to make sense of new or unusual words and phrases through the lens of their own experience; but I also tell my students, particularly in literature courses, that if they find a familiar word being used in a way that confuses them they should go straight to the OED and see if there’s another meaning that would clarify the issue.

THIS student did not follow that advice; instead, she gave an accurate statement and then followed it (she couldn’t resist!) with a clarification of her own:

“The governing body of Plymouth met for the last time on the last Wednesday in August to have that day be a day of fasting and humiliation for not getting a Charter sooner.”

And those last six words, meant to show that she understood what she was saying, sank her.

I knew what she meant because, with an academic specialization in 16th- and 17th-century literature, I have done a lot of reading in Christian texts. She thought she knew what she meant because, as an undergraduate not majoring in English literature (or religion), she had no idea “humiliation” had a sense other than pejorative. I can’t blame her entirely; but I do blame her a bit. I corrected the error but tried not to humiliate her!

Going through my Book of Horrors this summer in preparation for beginning this blog, I had marked this quotation to use on August 31, the last Wednesday of August, to commemorate the governing body of Plymouth and their holy exercise. But thanks to Irene (possibly the only thanks offered up to that watery lady monster), August 31 was my first day of classes this term (instead of August 29), and the entry I had earmarked for that took precedence. Still, give the Puritan gentlemen a thought today, and also pause to marvel at a language that lives so large.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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