Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Avuncular and Nepotistic Uncles

Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity!
Draw round my bed: is Anselm keeping back?
Nephews - sons mine... ah God, I know not! Well -

The word nepotism is, literally, nephew-ism; because the Latin for nephew was nepot. However, nepotism gained its current currency from the overactive and sinful loins of the medieval popes. An Italian history of the papacy written in 1667 was titled Il Nipotismo di Roma and it opens thusly:

I begin the History of the Nipotismo, from the time of Sixtus the fourth, since he was the first that delivered up Rome and the Popedom in prey to his Nephews.

Sixtus the Fourth created 34 cardinals, of which six were his nephews; except that they probably weren't. You see a Pope wasn't officially allowed to have any sons, so, when he did, he would pass them off as his nephews and then show them enormous favouritism, or nepotism. So the primary definition of nepotism in the OED is:

The showing of special favour or unfair preference to a relative in conferring a position, job, privilege, etc.; spec. such favour or preference shown to an illegitimate son by a pope or other high-ranking ecclesiastic.

They in turn would have illegitimate sons whom they would pass off as their nephews and so on and so forth until the Roman Church had become thoroughly avuncular.

That's because avuncular just means like an uncle. So if you treat somebody in an avuncular manner, you behave as though you were a friendly and indulgent uncle. That's why nepotistic (being nice to your nephews) is exactly the same thing as avuncular (being nice to your nephews*).

In fact... hmmm... that's a very neat point, but it may be wrong. You see, I just checked, and avuncular, etymologically speaking, means like an avuncul and in Latin an avuncul is a maternal uncle. So perhaps a maternal uncle is kinder because his sister's children are not competing for his own children's inheritance. I don't know anything about Roman inheritance law, but that would make sense. Therefore, both words would have to do with the twisted relationship between uncles and wills.

This brings us inevitably to the nineteenth century and the wonderful dramatic monologues of Robert Browning. One of the best of these, and for some reason one of the least known, is The Bishop Orders his Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church, Rome. It's basically the deathbed speech of a thoroughly corrupt medieval priest who, among other things, can't remember which are his sons and which are his nephews.

Draw round my bed: is Anselm keeping back?
Nephews - sons mine... ah God, I know not! Well -
She, men would have to be your mother once,
Old Gandolf envied me, so fair she was!
What's done is done, and she is dead beside,
Dead long ago, and I am Bishop since,
And as she died so must we die ourselves,
And thence ye may perceive the world's a dream.

It's an absolutely bloody fantastic poem and you can read the whole thing by clicking on this link. There's a great bit in it where he's describing an ornament that he wants on top of his sarcophagus:

Some lump, ah God, of lapis lazuli,
Big as a Jew's head cut off at the nape,
Blue as a vein o'er the Madonna's breast...

Such lascivious blasphemy! Read the whole thing here. It's much better than anything I write.

*Nieces are innumerate and don't count.


  1. "...if you treat somebody in an avuncular manner, you behave as though you were a friendly and indulgent uncle."

    And what would you call treating someone as if you were his/her uncle i.e. behaving like an uncle?

  2. I believe that maternal uncles were more important in the past because it was generally understood that you were more provably related to your sister's children than to "your own". This, coupled with male inheritance makes the maternal uncle/nephew linkage quite important.