Marett, Robert Ranulph

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Marett, Robert Ranulph



Robert Ranulph Marett (1866–1943) was one of a number of classically trained scholars in England (Frazer, Andrew Lang, and Myres were others) who at the end of the nineteenth century were attracted to the then developing subject of anthropology. Marett’s own interest in anthropology was originally stimulated by his preparations for the Oxford University Green moral philosophy prize, which in 1893 was to be given to an essay on the ethics of savage races. At the time a tutor in philosophy at Exeter College, Marett won the prize, and so came into the orbit of E. B. Tylor. Marett was to spend almost his entire academic life at Oxford (from 1928 until his death he occupied the post of rector of Exeter College).

He remained essentially an “armchair” anthropologist, although he conducted some archeological excavations on his native island of Jersey. His major interests lay in the field of primitive religion. His theories of a “preanimistic” stage of religion were a development of Tylor’s concept of “animism,” but he insisted also upon the psychological component of religious belief. Unlike the heavy, comparative treatises of many of his contemporaries, most of Marett’s books were initially lectures and addresses. He excelled in the nicely illustrated argument which examines in brief compass a new idea, approach, or observation. Marett’s initial reputation was acquired through one such paper, delivered to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1899, “Pre-animistic Religion.” Coming at a time when the psychological component of behavior was receiving growing recognition, the central idea—that a diffuse religious feeling probably preceded Tylor’s postulated creed of “belief in spiritual beings”—was accepted by a number of English and German scholars and received the distinction of a lengthy discussion in Wundt’s Völkerpsychologie, where it was translated as “der Marettische Präanimismus.” The paper was included in Marett’s first collection of essays, The Threshold of Religion (1900), which contains many of his key and most original ideas.

Anthropology, a popular general account reprinted many times in the following decades, was published in 1912, and a second collection of essays and addresses, Psychology and Folk-lore, in 1920. Marett was invited to give the Gifford lectures at St. Andrew’s University in 1931/1932, and these were published in two volumes—the first, Faith, Hope and Charity in Primitive Religion (1932), dealing with religious sentiment in primitive societies, and the second, Sacraments of Simple Folk (1933), with primitive rituals. A final collection of essays, Head, Heart C Hands in Human Evolution, appeared in 1935, followed the next year by a biography of Tylor.

Marett viewed anthropology as a broad, coordinated study centrally concerned with “man in evolution.” He stated many times that anthropology is based on Darwinian theory, but his was a humanized Darwinism, which insisted upon the unity of human nature that underlies the diversity of behavior: “Darwinism is the touch of nature that makes the whole world kin” (1912, p. 11). In view of the importance which is generally ascribed to Tylor’s introduction into anthropology of the concept of “culture,” it is interesting to observe that Marett, Tylor’s pupil and great admirer, did not begin to make any distinctive use of this concept before he wrote the papers published in Psychology and Folk-lore (1920), by which time it was also being developed by other writers, notably in the United States. The methodologically more diffuse concept “custom” was, for Marett, more important; he viewed behavior in primitive society as essentially “custom-bound,” and primitive religion as “mobbish.”

Marett criticized Tylor’s and Frazer’s theories concerning religion and magic for their “intellectualism” and pointed out the absurdity of regarding the “savage” as a kind of “primitive philosopher”; yet, in his own theories he perhaps did little more than substitute notions of primitive faith or religious “feeling” for their notions of primitive creed or their postulated theories about nature. For Marett, the original “stuff” of religion was “supernaturalism,” a matter of emotion rather than of intellect; “that basic feeling of Awe, which drives a man ere he can think or theorise upon it, into personal relations with the Supernatural” ([1900] 1929, p. 15). Both magic and religion spring from this original, undifferentiated category of experience (which he called “magico-religious”), the former in practices antithetical to the common good, the latter in practices or beliefs in harmony with it. The concepts of taboo and mana gave Marett ethnographic evidence for such elemental apprehension of the supernatural, “mana” referring to it in a positive mode, “taboo” in a negative mode. This taboo–mana formula, delineating a belief in impersonal forces, Marett adopted for his own minimum definition of religion. He also referred to this wider category of belief by the term “animatism,” in order to distinguish it from Tylor’s “animism,” defining it as “the attribution of life and personality to things, but not of a separate apparitional soul” (British Association. .. 1912, p. 262).

The teaching of anthropology in Oxford had started in 1884, with Tylor’s appointment as reader, but he had extremely few pupils, and it was not until 1905, with the setting up of a committee for anthropology and the inauguration of a diploma in anthropology (in which Marett was actively concerned), that the subject obtained wider recognition in the university and a regular flow of students began. Marett held the post of reader in social anthropology from 1908 until 1934, when a chair was created, which Marett occupied for one year, until Radcliffe-Brown, who had already been appointed, was able to take up his duties. Despite his own lack of field experience, Marett held that the teaching of anthropology should be directed toward field work; the teaching of prospective colonial administrators was started at Oxford shortly after the diploma course was inaugurated, and a number of the students (including A. C. Horn’s, R. S. Rattray and C. K. Meek) later made important contributions to anthropology while holding appointments in the colonial service.

M. J. Ruel

[Other relevant material may be found in Magic; Religion; and in the biographies of Frazer; Mauss; Tylor.]


(1900) 1929 The Threshold of Religion. 4th ed. London: Methuen.

1912 Anthropology. New York: Holt.

1915 Magic. Volume 8, pages 245–252 in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. Edited by James Hastings. Edinburgh: Clark.

1920 Psychology and Folk-lore. London: Methuen.

1932 Faith, Hope and Charity in Primitive Religion. Oxford: Clarendon.

1933 Sacraments of Simple Folk. Oxford: Clarendon.

1935 Head, Heart £ Hands in Human Evolution. London: Hutchinson.

1936 Tylor. New York: Wiley.

1941 A Jerseyman at Oxford. Oxford Univ. Press. → An autobiography.


British Association for the Advancement of Science 1912 Notes and Queries on Anthropology. 4th ed. Edited by Barbara Freire-Marreco and J. L. Myres. London: Routledge. → The first edition was published in 1874; a sixth and revised edition in 1954.

Custom Is King: Essays Presented to R. R. Marett on His Seventieth Birthday, June 13, 1936. 1936 Edited by L. H. Dudley Buxton. London: Hutchinson. → Includes a bibliography of Marett’s scientific writings.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1965 Theories of Primitive Religion. Oxford: Clarendon.

Rose, Herbert J. 1943 Robert Ranulph Marett, 1866–1943. British Academy, London, Proceedings 29:357–370.

Wundt, Wilhelm (1900–1909) 1911–1929 Völkerpsychologie: Eine Untersuchung der Entwicklungsgeseize von Sprache, Mythus und Sitte. 10 vols. Leipzig: Engelmann.