Aspects of Philology and Racial Theory in Nineteenth-Century Celticism - the Case of James Cowles Prichard

By Augstein, H. F. | Journal of European Studies, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Aspects of Philology and Racial Theory in Nineteenth-Century Celticism - the Case of James Cowles Prichard


Augstein, H. F., Journal of European Studies


Modern European debates about the cultural standing of different nations have hinged largely on ideas of their distant ancestry. The ghosts of the Goths and Teutons, Franks and Gauls, Anglo-Saxons and Celts have been seen in their German, French and British descendants. Until well into the twentieth century any discussion of the nature and lineage of European peoples involved making statements about their national character, and their respective vices and virtues, cultural spirit and political prospects.

In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain the debate focused on the antagonisms between the English, Irish, Welsh and Scots.(1) During the age of the Enlightenment Celtic traditions were seen as evidences of early cultural refinement, witness the Ossianic controversy in the late eighteenth century. Some argued that the Celts were part of the Germanic stock and, therefore, culturally superior; others, like the geographer and antiquarian John Pinkerton, maintained that the Celts were entirely distinct from the rest of mankind, denouncing them as 'mere radical savages, not yet advanced even to a state of barbarism'.(2)

While eighteenth-century debates on the Celts have been the focus of several studies, relatively little attention has been paid to the discussions in the nineteenth century.(3) This paper will trace the development of the Celtic problem as evinced in the writings of the Bristol doctor and ethnologist James Cowles Prichard (1786-1848). Prichard's views will be placed in context of the debate on the Celtic nations which, after the turn of the nineteenth century, put increasing emphasis on the biological argument of race. Prichard did not participate in this. Instead he observed with dismay how nationalist discourse gradually turned into a debate about race. His attitude towards the Celtic question highlights an important aspect of the history of the rise of racial theory.

Born in Herefordshire of Quaker parents, Prichard spent the greater part of his childhood in Bristol where his father ran a business in the iron-trade.(4) Refusing to follow in his father's footsteps, he chose to study medicine at Edinburgh University which was open to religious dissenters. In 1810 he converted to the established church. He was exceedingly devout and leaning towards evangelicalism. It is fair to say that his religious outlook greatly influenced his scholarship.(5)

In 1811 he returned to and settled in Bristol, setting up in private practice; subsequently he became a physician to St. Peter's Hospital - a combined poorhouse and lunatic asylum - and to the local infirmary. Yet his interest in medical matters was overshadowed by an intellectual preoccupation with the biological and cultural development of mankind. Starting with his doctoral dissertation in 1808,(6) Prichard strove to prove monogenesis, that is, the unitary origin of mankind. It was his way of bolstering the doctrines of the Bible. Living in an age of religious crisis and widespread fears of secularization accompanying the French Revolution, he attempted to reassert Christianity by scientific means. If monogenesis could be proved, Prichard believed, it would show that the whole of mankind was subject to divine laws and divine dispensation. Hence he delved into a subject which was rather new: the physical history of mankind, by which he meant the process in which the peoples of the earth had developed out of the first primeval couple. Thanks to Prichard's efforts, the science which attempted to trace back contemporary populations to their primeval ancestors became known as 'ethnology'. This term had been introduced by eighteenth-century German scholars, Prichard adopted it.(7) By the 1820s he had become 'a leading student' in the field.(8)

In 1813 he published an extended version of his doctoral dissertation: Researches into the Physical History of Man,(9) in which he announced that the question of Celtic origins required further investigation. …

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