Testament of an English Eccentric

The Temple and the House

by Lord Raglan
Norton, 218 pp., $6.00

Lord Raglan
Lord Raglan; drawing by David Levine

Fitzroy Richard Somerset, 4th Baron Raglan, born 1885, died 1964, was great-grandson of the ill-fated British Commander-in-Chief in the Crimean War and his tall, lanky, cavalry-officer appearance had such a strong flavor of the Charge of the Light Brigade and of Don Quixote battling with windmills that it was hard to take his very considerable scholarship at all seriously. He stands out as the last survivor of a notable but now extinct species, the English amateur gentleman anthropologist. He happened to live in an age when professionalism had become the dominant value in every branch of academic life and perhaps his work has been undervalued in consequence.

One characteristic of significant amateur scholars is that they tend to flog their good ideas to death without ever bothering to see where the idea might lead to if presented in a slightly different shape. This was notably true of Raglan. His particular obsession was that almost every imaginable aspect of culture is a survival from some ancient form of ritual. The source of this notion is rather complex. It ties in with Jane Harrison’s thesis that myth originates as a description of ritual drama rather than the other way around, and it also has hangover elements from the simple-minded nineteenth-century doctrine that all mysterious oddities of human custom are fully explained once you show that what now seems quite absurd would have made perfect sense in a different context, at a different time (evolutionism), or at a different place (diffusionism). It cannot be said that this bee in Raglan’s bonnet ever did very much to further the progress of anthropological understanding, yet in his own peculiar way he was a very perceptive man who often got much closer to the heart of things than his more orthodox and more orderly-minded contemporaries. He possessed a necessary (though not sufficient) element of true genius in that he would repeatedly ask awkward questions about matters which everyone else took entirely for granted.

For example, the central question underlying this present posthumous work is: “Why do men live in houses?” Most of us would suppose that the answer was simple—“to keep themselves dry and warm.” Not a bit of it, says Raglan. Study the facts closely and you will quickly be persuaded that any such answer is naive. On the contrary, the facts (as observed by Raglan’s eyes) show clearly that the human house is really a temple with the marriage bed at the focus—the house is the ritual embodiment of the sacrament of marriage, which is the foundation stone of kinship and the family and hence of society itself. Fanciful? Ridiculous? Well yes, well no. There may be wisdom in such fantasy. Generations of social anthropologists have kept returning to this same theme; incest, exogamy, consanguinity, affinity, these are the key concepts around which human beings everywhere have built their societies, these are the fundamental girders out…

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