Lord Raglan: 1885-1964.

With the death of Lord Raglan in his eightieth year on 14 September, the Institute has lost the services and support of one of its best-known Fellows. He had been closely connected with many of its activities for over 40 years and was President from 1955 to 1957.

Fitzroy Richard Somerset, fourth Baron Raglan, was born on 10 June, 1885. He was a distinguished member of an earlier generation of scholars whose contributions to anthropology had been stimulated by a considerable period of service overseas. Embarking on a military career, he passed out from Sandhurst to a commission in the Grenadier Guards in 1905, went to Hong Kong in 1911 and in 1913 volunteered for service in the Sudan on secondment to the Egyptian Army, where he was posted as District Commissioner, Mongalla Province, until 1919. A paper on the Lotuko which he contributed to the first volume of Sudan Notes and Records in 1918 brought him in touch with Professor C. G. Seligman, who was actively concerned in promoting ethnographical research in the Sudan and encouraged him to extend his studies which included work on the Lotuko language, published in the second volume of the Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, 1921-3. After two years as a Political Officer attached to the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in Palestine, during which he interested himself in marriage and domestic customs among the Druses and other communities, he returned to England in 1921 on succeeding to the title.

Devoting most of his leisure from then on to anthropological reading, he found in the Institute, of which he became a Fellow in 1921, a valuable and congenial means of pursuing these interests. At this time, when anthropological studies were less developed, the Institute played a large part through its meetings and publications in bringing together scholars both from within and outside the universities and provided a meeting ground for different disciplines which he greatly valued. He became a familiar figure on the council, to which he was first elected in 1930, and his outspoken but constructive views and pithy comments were much appreciated. He regularly attended Institute meetings when he was in London and contributed to MAN many reviews which often strongly reflected his personal views. During the last war he gave the Institute valuable assistance in providing storage for its records and a part of its library. For a number of years he made arrangements for the Institute’s annual dinner to be held at the House of Lords.

Lord Raglan was mainly concerned with problems of the origins, survival and diffusion of religious observances and ritual symbols. Convinced that effective invention and cultural elaboration occurred only rarely and in centres of high civilization, he documented from very wide reading his view of the inertia and degradation of custom and the widespread diffusion which had perpetuated early doctrines and ritual forms. This led him to some extreme assertions that overlooked evidence for innovation and stressed similarities of form at the expense of differences in context and meaning. But he was able to point to many examples of elements in later European ceremonials and custom which had remote origins. And he had a keen eye for unsupported assumptions and dubious analogies which he saw in some ad hoc explanations of custom and attacked with pungency and humour in his writings on such topics as the historicity of tradition and pedigrees or psychological explanations of ritual observances.

In his first book, Jocasta’s Crime (1933), a study of the Oedipus myth and a critique of current theories concerning incest prohibitions, he did not claim to have proved his own speculations which attributed incest prohibitions to the persistence of rules adopted to establish exogamous relations between moieties in a primaeval community. But he made some sound criticisms of other views then current and stressed the error of regarding familial incest prohibitions in isolation and the need to consider them in connexion with other observances between the sexes and to relations within and between kin groups. In a later study, The Hero, published in 1936, some part of which had been presented as a Presidential Address to the Anthropology Section of the British Association in 1933, he found a subject very appropriate to his interests and approach. Demonstrating similarities in thematic elements among Classical and later European heroic myths and internal evidence for a continuity of tradition in them, he sought a connexion between these myths and early rituals of kingship. He criticized very effectively some of the assumptions then current in attempts by various scholars to euhemerize these myths as distorted records of historic events. He was President of the Folklore Society from 1945 to 1947, and contributed to its journal a number of papers concerning survivals in folklore of themes derived from early mythology and ritual. This year he published in The Temple and the House a study of household and marriage observances to show their derivation from early cosmological and other rituals associated with temples and palaces, and he was actively engaged at the time of his death on a book which dealt with ceremonial aspects and ritual sources of class differences in early societies.

Since his outlook stemmed from the concern of earlier anthropologists in the origins of elements of ritual and belief and the evidence for the wide diffusion and survival of early forms among later peoples, he paid less attention to the concern of later field research with the functions and meanings of myth and rite in contemporary societies or with particular processes of cultural and social change. While this led him to some assumptions and conclusions which were not generally accepted, his lively and trenchant style secured considerable attention to his views. His approach to the interpretation of mythical elements in ancient literature contributed valuable criticism and ideas to these studies. Here he found much in common with Dr. A. M. Hocart with whom he established close relations and he collected and edited a number of Hocart’s articles and manuscripts for posthumous publication.

Lord Raglan took an active interest in historical and archaeological studies in Wales and the Welsh Border. He collaborated with Sir Cyril Fox in a detailed and comprehensive study of the mediaeval and renaissance houses of Monmouthshire which was published by the National Museum of Wales. He served on the Council of the Museum for many years and was its President from 1957 to 1962. He welcomed visits to his home in Monmouthshire by scholars who shared his interests and, although sometimes laconic and seemingly reserved, quickly established friendly personal relations. As many Fellows of the Institute will know, he was never put off by opposition to his views, and his forthrightness was much appreciated, not least by those with whom he disagreed. He gave valuable advice on many aspects of the Institute’s activities, being always ready to give practical help and generous in his appreciation of the work of others.


This obituary first appeared as: Forde, Daryll. 1964. 'Lord Raglan: 1885-1964'. Man Vol. 64, pp. 181-182. Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

FORDE, DARYLL. 1964. 'Lord Raglan: 1885-1964'. Man Vol. 64, pp. 181-182. (available on-line: http://www.therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/lord-raglan).