Robert Ranulph Marett

Robert Ranulph Marett (13 June 1866 – 18 February 1943) was a British ethnologist. He was an exponent of what is sometimes called the Evolutionary School or more precisely the British Evolutionary School of Cultural anthropology. Founded by Marett's older colleague, Edward Burnett Tylor, it asserted that modern primitive societies evidence remnants of phases in the evolution of culture, which it attempted to recapture by comparative and historical methods. Marett focused primarily on the anthropology of religion. Asserting with Tylor the evolutionary origin of religions he modified Tylor's animistic theory to include the concept of mana. His anthropological teaching and writing career at Oxford University spanned the earlier 20th century prior to the Second World War. He trained many notable anthropologists. He was a colleague of John Myres and through him connected to the world of Aegean archaeology.

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Anthropology of religion
Oxford University Anthropology Diploma class of 1910–11, back row. In front are the triumvirate, the three anthropology professors, left to right: Henry Balfour, Arthur Thomson, and Marett.
Social and cultural anthropology


Family and education

Family background

Marett was the only son of Sir Robert Pipon Marett, poet and Bailiff of Jersey, and Julia Anne Marett. He was born in Saint Brélade. He belonged to a family, originally named Maret, that settled on Jersey from Normandy in the 13th century.[1] The Saint Brélade branch came finally to build a manor house for themselves, La Haule Manor (today a hotel).[2] They were substantial in wealth and position, contributing high-level magistrates to the government of Jersey. Robert's father had been Bailiff of Jersey. He was one of the founders of La Patrie, a patriotic newspaper. Earlier, Philip Maret, 3rd son of the 2nd Seigneur of La Haule, born in 1701, had emigrated to Boston, where he became a merchant captain. His subsequent family participated in the American Revolution and the War of 1812.[3]

Robert's mother, Julia Anne, also bore the name of Marett before marriage. She was one of the eight children of the Janvrin sisters, Esther Elizabeth and Maria Eliza, by one Philip Marett, who was not in Robert Pipon's immediate line. Philip was a name often used by the Maretts. Thus Julia Anne was only a distant cousin of her husband. The house, however, came into Robert Ranulph's possession through his mother. Her mother was Maria Eliza Janvrin. She and Robert Pipon had four children, Robert Ranulph, Mabel Elizabeth, Philippa Laetitia, and Julia Mary. Robert Ranulph may have been an only son, but he had three sisters and a large number of cousins. He came from a large-family environment.[4] The family was Anglican.[5] Cyril Norwood said of him, in a review of his autobiography in 1941:[6]

Born of good family, reaching back through many generations of service in Jersey, he was brought up in a good home with wise and cultured parents in a beautiful place set fair in the freedom of sky and sea. Nature in her kindness endowed him with good brains, good memory, lively imagination and abounding physical vigour.

Primary and secondary education

For his initial educational years the young Robert was taught in a dame school of the area.[7] Then he was placed in St. Aubin’s School, a private grammar school founded in Maison Martel, the former home of the Martel family, merchants, in Saint Aubin, Jersey, not far from La Haule Manor. It had been founded in 1813 by Esther Brine and her husband, Philip le Maistre, a schoolteacher. The Brines, rope-makers, had purchased the mansion from the Martels. In 1867 they reported a student population of about 50 boys, half boarders, and half day.[8] For the wealthy on Jersey, this school was the only path to secondary school.[9]

St. Aubin’s had an international reputation. Robert attended between ages 9 through 14, 1875–1880. Since 1873, on the death of Le Maistre, the headmaster and owner was John Este Vibert, who had a military frame of mind. Many future military officers came from St. Aubin’s. Vibert was also a scientist, a member of the Royal Meteorological Society. He manned a weather station in the building.[10]

Marett went on to secondary school at Victoria College, Jersey. It was founded in 1850 on recommendation of Queen Victoria. Marett was there from age 14 to 18, 1880–1884. He commuted daily by the train line which existed for several decades across the south of the island.[11] In secondary school, as in university afterward, Marett was gregarious and popular. He played sports. Later in life he golfed and went shooting. Less formally he loved to party and prank. He was a joiner. He joined the Jersey Militia, mainly a social club, being made a lieutenant at age 17. He also read avidly in La Haule's extensive library. He took a great interest in natural history.[12]

After finishing school in 1884, he planned to start at Balliol College, Oxford University in autumn, but his father’s lingering illness delayed him. His father died on November 10. According to the British law of primogeniture, he inherited the entire estate. For the time being, he was not interested. There were no practical changes in the management of the estate. His mother and three sisters continued living in the many-room home, assisted by servants. His mother died in 1901. The three sisters never married. They were still in the house, all over 70, when the Germans occupied it in 1940. Leaving for Oxford, Robert never returned on a permanent basis. His own family did eventually move there, but for him, it was only a part-time home, which he occupied mainly in the summer. It was an ideal summer home, sparsely populated, located on the shore, spacious and luxurious, but without such amenities as electricity.

College education

Though well-to-do, Marett applied for financial assistance, the award of which was based on excellence, typically demonstrated in an examination. In British English, he won an “exhibition” from the Council of Legal Education (today’s Inns of Court School of Law), a modest financial award, in this case for the study of law. The award made him an “exhibitioner.”[13] He had to join the Inner Temple, one of the four groups of a professional association of barristers called the Inns of Court. It was (and is) primarily an educational institution qualifying lawyers to argue at the bar; that is, professionally in court.

There was an overlap with Marett’s interest: Roman Law. Marett majored in classics, the study of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Anthropology as an academic subject did not exist at the time; in fact, Marett was to be one of its first professors, the first at Oxford. As required by membership in the Inner Temple, he had finally to pass a “bar examination” in Roman Law, which he did in 1891. This success did not qualify him in any way to practice law. He was never a lawyer, and was never interested in the government of Jersey, as his father had been.[14]

Marett received notice of his grant in November. It was too late to begin in autumn. He therefore petitioned to begin with the Hilary term. He had enrolled in a Classics curriculum called Literae Humaniores (Lit. Hum.). It is divided into two sequential parts, Honour Moderations, or “Mods,” a study of the ancient Greek and Latin languages, and then courses selected from a variety of classical topics, with the requirement that eight papers be written. This part is called “Greats.”[15]

Marett was finished with his Mods by 1886, with a First. Going on to the Greats, he won the Chancellor’s Prize for Latin verse in 1887, which was a modest sum contingent on submission of some New Latin verse composed by the recipient.[16] He had nearly completed the Greats by 1888, concentrating on philosophy. British degrees at the time were designed for three years.[17] However, this specific curriculum was four years.

He still had more work to do when, in early 1889, he was struck by meningitis walking home from class. Knowing he was in a possibly life-threatening condition, he intruded on the first doctor’s office he saw, and was lucky enough to be diagnosed immediately by an experienced physician. He was then unable to attend Oxford for the rest of the term. When he had recovered sufficiently, he was sent to Switzerland for final treatment. In July he was granted the degree of Bachelor of Arts (BA) in absentia with a First anyway. He still needed to pass the Bar in Roman Law.

In Switzerland, he had the best of academic intentions. He was learning French and German. He enrolled at the University of Berlin in philosophy, which he studied for a year. However, being a young man of wealth, whose father had been known internationally, he had informal access to the upper echelons of society. He associated with Junkers. He had lunch with the Kaiser. Among the Americans abroad he met Buffalo Bill. His planned educational experiences were rapidly developing into a Grand Tour. At the end of the year (1890) he refused to go home. Touring on to Rome, he fell in with the society of Lord and Lady Dufferin, inveterate party-goers. Socializing was their stock-in-trade. Lord Dufferin was then the British ambassador to Italy. The 24-year-old Marett was dazzled. He described the year as “rapturous.”[6] He toured Italy, Greece and France in the company of notables, making friendships that would last the rest of his life.

At last the time came to go home. In 1890 he still had the Bar Exam to take. He found some tutoring work at Balliol and was secretary to Toynbee Hall while he studied for the exam, took, and passed it.[18] When the results were announced in early 1891, he was free to begin his professional career. He was awarded the Master of Arts (M.A.) later that year without additional work or examination, as is the custom at Oxford.[19]

Academic career

Philosophy tutor

Marett’s first professional position was as a Fellow at Exeter College, another college of the university, in philosophy, starting in the fall of 1891. “Fellow” in the British system has a broad range of meanings from graduate student to a senior research associate, depending on the definitions of the institution. At Oxford in Marett’s time, fellow meant in essence a member of the faculty with the same basic privileges as any. Today it is necessary to ask exactly what Marett did to be paid as a fellow.

Exeter College, which was a small one in population, was undoubtedly being governed by the statutes of 1882.[20] It provided for a Governing Body consisting of a Rector and two types of Fellows, Ordinary and Tutorial. Some in addition had special duties, such as the Bursar. Hiring was by vote of the Governing Body. There is a brief memo in the ‘’Register for Exeter College’’ for 1890 that he was a “Tutorial fellow Ex. Coll.,” presumably “Exeter College.”[21] He was a tutor of philosophy, then, in the Oxford Tutorial System. He met with students regularly singly or in small groups to suggest reading for them and check their previous reading. Americans have never had this system.[22]

As to how he may have obtained the position, he says in his autobiography that all he asks of the historian is that he be classified as “even the least of ‘Jowett’s men’”, referring to the long-standing Master of Balliol College, the influential philosopher, classicist and Gladstonian partisan, Benjamin Jowett.[23] The aforesaid men dotted the Houses of Parliament and British society in general like stars in the sky, all promoting British liberalism. A word or two from Jowett might easily have influenced the Governing Body.

However he got the position, Marett resolved to set himself on the path to success. He applied for the T.H. Green Moral Philosophy Prize in 1893, a monetary award offered once every three years by Balliol College, for the best paper on moral philosophy.[24] Marett won it with The Ethics of Savage Races, which was never published. Edward Burnett Tylor, however, founder of Cultural Anthropology, was on his examining committee for the paper. The relationship between the two men continued.[25] Marett now had demonstrated the ability to think creatively. He obviously had a career in philosophy and religion ahead of him. He was made sub-rector.[26] Jowett died that year, but Tylor’s opinion would have been crucial.

Marriage and family

Having established himself at Exeter, Marett entered a plateau, despite his anthropological paper. In 1896 he was already 30. Personal biology was on his mind. A new women’s college had entered the Oxford system, Somerville College. It was of great interest to the unmarried dons of Oxford, such as R. R. Marett. He managed to meet one of its students, the youngest daughter, Nora, of the British explorer of Africa and subsequent Vice Consul to Zanzibar, John Kirk (1832–1922). A Scottish physician, he had been with David Livingstone when Henry Morton Stanley asked, or at least is said to have asked, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

Livingstone and Kirk were both dedicated to the suppression of the slave trade in Africa, a cause championed by British liberals. It presented a political paradox. Slavery could only be stopped by military opposition to the slavers. If British forces did intervene, the government was accused of building a colonial empire. This contradiction brought down the second premiership of William Gladstone in 1885, when he did not go to the assistance of Charles George Gordon at Khartoum. The latter was attempting to defend the city against Muhammad Ahmad, slaver and new Islamic messiah. Gordon was killed. The tide turned in Britain in favor of empire. After the Battle of Omdurman, 1896, the region was brought into the empire as the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.

Earlier Kirk had come home from Africa to recover from exhaustion. He accepted a medical position in Zanzibar in 1868. That same year the government offered him the post of Vice-Consul there. On the strength of his new income and importance, he married his fiancée, Helen Cooke (1843–1914), and together they had a son and five daughters, one of which was Nora (1873–1954).[27] A liberated woman for the times, she attended the new college that would bring women to Oxford, where she met Marett. Alike in political views and sentiments, they loved each other dearly, but Marett’s contract with Oxford stipulated that he must not marry for a certain number of years. Those were up in 1898. He was 32, she 25. In the first decade of the 20th century they had four children: John Ranulph (1900–1940), Philippa Suzanne (1904–1991), Joya Elizabeth (1905–1979), and Robert Hugh Kirk (1907–1981).

He died in Oxford.


He succeeded E.B. Tylor as Reader in Anthropology at Oxford in 1910, teaching the Diploma in Anthropology at the Pitt Rivers Museum. He worked on the palaeolithic site of La Cotte de St Brelade from 1910–1914, recovering some hominid teeth and other remains of habitation by Neanderthal man. In 1914 he established a Department of Social Anthropology, and in 1916 he published "The Site, Fauna, and Industry of La Cotte de St. Brelade, Jersey" (Archaeologia LXVII, 1916). He became Rector of Exeter College, Oxford. His students included Maria Czaplicka, Marius Barbeau, Dorothy Garrod, Earnest Albert Hooten, Henry Field[28] and Rosalind Moss [29]

Marett’s thought

Marett's evolutionism

Marett's phases of religion

E.B. Tylor had considered animism to be the earliest form of religion, but he had not had access to Robert Codrington's linguistic data on the concept of mana in Melanesia. Codrington wrote after Tylor. Consideration of mana led Marett to retheorize Tylor's history of religion, adding an initial phase, pre-animistic religion, called pre-animism by others. A new common thread must be found to unite the three phases. Marett suggested the supernatural, or "power of awfulness" (in the original sense of the word). Marett's analysis of the history of religion was presented in The Threshold of Religion (1909), and was refined in Anthropology (1912), and Psychology and Folklore (1920).

Book, articles, and lectures

  • Origin and Validity in Ethics (1902)
  • The Threshold of Religion (Second, Revised and Enlarged ed.). London: Methuen and Co. Ltd. 1914 [1909].
  • The Birth of Humility (1910)
  • Anthropology. New York; London: Henry Holt and Company; Williams and Norgate. 1912.
  • Progress and History (1916)
  • Psychology and Folk-lore. London: Methuen and Co. Ltd. 1920. Compendium.
  • The Diffusion of Culture (1927)
  • Man in the Making: An Introduction to Anthropology (1928)
  • The Raw Material of Religion (1929)
  • Faith, Hope and Charity in Primitive Religion (1930–1932)
  • Sacraments of Simple Folk (1930–1932)
  • Head, Heart and Hands in Human Evolution (1935)
  • Tylor (1936)
  • Man in the Making (1937), New Edition
  • A Jerseyman at Oxford (1941), autobiography

See also


  1. Payne, James Bertrand (1859). Armorial of Jersey (Reprint ed.). RIPOL Classic. p. 278.
  2. Marett births on Jersey were mostly at the same place, La Haule, in the village of Saint Aubin, Jersey, part of the parish of Saint Brélade. St. Aubin is on the southwest side, on the west of St. Aubin’s Bay. Eastward along the beach, is a projection, La Haule Slip, which originally joined the estate. The coastal road, originally running around the north side of the estate, has been made to run between the estate and the beach. The location is informally called ‘’blanc pignon’’, “White Gable,” from the sailing directions for entering the port of St. Aubin, a fishing village. The bay is shallow. The fishermen were to take a bearing on the “white house” located on what became “upper blanc pignon” on the slopes. La Haule is in “Lower Blanc Pignon,” of interest mainly for the meteorological station there. The location of the original white house is obscure; the directions indicate there was more than one. La Haule also is said to be “the village of La Haule,” but if there ever was such a village on Jersey (there are some in France), perhaps before the manor, it has been lost. Chandler, John (1847). The seaman's new guide, revised by J.S. Hobbs (24th ed.). London: Charles Wilson. pp. 122–124.
  3. Baldwin, Simeon E. (1890). A Brief Memorial of Philip Marett. New Haven: Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor, Printers. p. 3.
  4. "Robert Pipon Marett". Ancestry. Retrieved 18 February 2015.
  5. Wheeler-Barclay 2010, p. 244
  6. Norwood, Cyril (September 6, 1941). "A Jerseyman at Oxford" (PDF). Nature. 148: 266–267. doi:10.1038/148266a0.
  7. The term went out of use in the United States in the 20th century, being replaced by day care.
  8. Fry, Herbert (1867). Our Schools and Colleges. Containing the principal particulars respecting endowed Grammar Schools, ... as also information respecting Colleges and Universities. London: R. Hardwicke. p. 146.
  9. Parish schools were of poor quality, and the Elementary Education Act 1870 in Britain, appropriating and funding them for public education, was not to be realised on Jersey for many years. The current roster of primary schools is entirely later 20th century.
  10. Venn, J.A. (1954). "Part II From 1752 to 1900: Volume VI Square-Zupitza". Alumni Cantabrigienses; a Biographical List of All Known Students, Graduates and Holders of Office, From the Earliest Times to 1900. Cambridge: University Press. p. 288. The school and the station came to an end with his early death in 1886. The house was sold, to become later the Hotel La Tour, renamed from a modification that added a mediaeval tower. Since 2013, its destruction has been planned to make way for luxury housing.
  11. With the advent of the automobile, the train fell into disuse. The Germans restored it during World War II. Today most of the rail-bed is a pedestrian path, while there are no traces of the stations.
  12. Poole, Austin Lane (August 29, 1941). "Enjoying Life". The Spectator.
  13. American English does not have the word. There were no exhibitions of any sort as Americans understand them. Etymologically the word means “showing.”
  14. The results of the Bar Exam are given in "Bar Students' Examinations, Hilary 1891". The Law Journal. XXVI – 1891: 72. January 24, 1891. Many of the cursory sources in American English, confused by the language, draw the wrong conclusions. Marett did not major in law at Oxford. He was never qualified to argue at any bar, let alone the bar in Jersey. Although Jersey’s government consisted mainly of barristers working in London, Marett had no interest in being one of them. By an accident of culture, the Council of Legal Education was willing to support the history of law, Roman in this case. Proof of excellence was expressed as “a bar exam.”
  15. Classics in British English is verbally and conceptually different from the American version. There is a certain commonality of subject material, but ideas about what should be included vary somewhat.
  16. "University Scholarships and Prizes". The Oxford Magazine: 166. May 4, 1887.
  17. American English sources are apt to describe Marett’s progress as though he had a double major, or earned two degrees. There are many differences in the educational system, but the British division into the two levels is based on the fact that some mastery of Greek and Latin is a prerequisite for reading authors who wrote in Greek and Latin. There was one major, one degree, and both levels were required to obtain it.
  18. Toynbee Hall was a charitable institution in the East End of London dedicated to supplying services to the poor and ideologically reforming society in the direction of removing barriers between rich and poor. In college, Marret was a liberal. He belonged to the Russell Club, an organization of obscure origin supporting liberalism in Britain. That meant support of the Liberal Party (UK) under William Gladstone, who was generally for social reform and against empire. At Oxford the club later merged with another to form the Oxford University Liberal Democrats.
  19. A British custom, now rare, practised by some universities. The degree was awarded automatically to B.A. holders who had some further association with, or —more commonly— donated to, the university. The prevailing sentiment today is that the M.A. should be a degree earned by study and examination. Proposed legislation to that effect failed of being passed, and the practice remains extant today at both Oxford and Cambridge with graduates receiving a written invitation to pay a fee to receive the M.A. approximately one year after graduating.
  20. Kirwan 2005, p. 1
  21. Boase, Charles William (1894). Registrum Collegii Exoniensis: Register of the Rectors, Fellows, and Other Members on the Foundation of Exeter College, Oxford. With a History of the College and Illustrative documents. Oxford: Oxford historical society at the Clarendon Press. p. 198.
  22. Drawing the wrong conclusions from British English, some commentators postulate a fellowship in 1891 followed by some sort of tutorship in 1893. The evidence is that Marett was never in the “Ordinary” position, but started as a Tutor.
  23. Marett 1941, p. 74
  24. The prize was created under a bequest of Thomas Hill Green, White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at Balliol. He died in 1882. It was Green who created the fund in his will, not his wife in memoriam, as some assert. The candidates must submit and be examined on a paper on moral philosophy. The M.A. was a prerequisite; that is, the candidate must be associated with Oxford. Richard Lewis Nettleship; Charlotte Byron Symonds Green (1906). Memoir of Thomas Hill Green: Late Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and Whyte's Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Oxford. London: Longmans, Green. p. 249. Although some notable persons won the prize initially, it fell into disuse and became a source of financial aid for graduate students. Ultimately so few applied that the university turned it into a scholarship fund "University Agenda". Oxford University Gazette. 24 September 2009.
  25. Jones, Robert Alun (2013). The Secret of the Totem: Religion and Society from McLennan to Freud. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 163–154. Jones speculates that Tylor already had Alzheimer's disease, but Tylor was only 34. He did not die until 1917, some 24 years later. Such a view reduces the entire relationship, which began in 1893, to an intellectual caretaker capacity on the part of the younger man, apparently unnoticed by anyone else, an unlikely view. Marett claimed in his autobiography that Tylor’s memory was already troubling him: Marett 1941, p. 117 Merely not being as skillful at 34 as you were at 24 does not imply Alzheimer’s. A critic of Tylor, Marett may have been over-competitive.
  26. A second-in-command-to the rector, who was in charge of the school. The terminology for the heads of colleges varied somewhat according to tradition. Jowett was the Master of Balliol, but Exeter had a Rector. There was only one sub-rector at a time, but he might change, and sub-rector did not necessarily lead to Rector. Rectorships were originally for life.
  27. "Sir John Kirk". Livingston Online. Archived from the original on February 27, 2015. Retrieved February 26, 2015.
  28. Field 1952. p. 35
  29. James, TGH. "Moss, Rosalind Louisa Beaufort (1890–1990)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 19 October 2013.


Academic offices
Preceded by
Lewis Richard Farnell
Rector of Exeter College, Oxford
Succeeded by
Eric Arthur Barber
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