What do you get if you cross an anthropologist, a psychologist and an historian?

extract from the title page of "The Golden Bough"


While clearing out my books at home recently I rediscovered John Buchan’s ‘Dancing Floor’, Naomi Mitchison’s novel ‘The Corn King and the Spring Queen’, T S Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’ and ‘The White Goddess’ by Robert Graves, all of them influenced by the extensive work carried out by anthropologist Sir James Frazer (1854-1941) FRS 1920. Although he wrote a great many books about the classical world, it was the unique body of work which he published as ‘The Golden Bough’ for which he is remembered. This was initially published in two volumes in 1890, expanded to three in 1900, to twelve between 1906 and 1915, then revised and published in a single abridged edition of 1922. The Society holds the 12 volumes (with a thirteenth published in 1936) and the 1922 abridged edition, but sadly not the first edition. It achieved the astonishing feat of an academic book continuously in print, and was also a bestseller in spite of the outrage of many of his academic contemporaries.

Frazer himself said ‘When I first put pen to paper, to write The Golden Bough I had no conception of the magnitude of the voyage on which I was embarking; I thought only to explain a single rule of an ancient Italian priesthood.’  A painting by Turner with the same title refers to the event. It is a truly remarkable work, sending Frazer on an enormous fact finding journey of man’s early beliefs and rituals. He felt it demonstrated that the legend of the sacrifice of a sacred king who died at the harvest and was reincarnated was central to the world’s mythologies. More than that, he felt it demonstrated an evolutionary theory of belief, that man progresses from magic to religious belief to scientific thought in order to explain the world.

Turner's painting as frontispiece to "The Golden Bough"


Frazer was a Glaswegian who having studied physics under William Thompson, Lord Kelvin, came to Trinity College Cambridge. Here he met the dispossessed minister and professor of Aberdeen, William Robertson Smith, one of the pioneers in the study of comparative religion, who had a great influence on him, so much so that he dedicated the first edition of ‘The Golden Bough’ to him. It was Smith who commissioned Frazer to write two articles for the Encyclopaedia Britannica on totems and on taboo. Frazer subsequently wrote a book on each subject, and was a great influence on Freud whose own work came out in 1913.  However, it is hoped that Freud was unaware of the comment by Frazer  “ I have got a new book, Totemism and Taboo, the translation of a German or Austrian psychologist, who borrows most of his facts from me and tries to explain them by the mental processes, especially the dreams, of the insane! Not a hopeful procedure, it seems to me, though he seems to have a great vogue with some people.”

Freud survived this criticism and was elected as a Foreign Member of the Society in 1936, although with a lesser number of proposers. He did, however, achieve the significant honour of having the Charter Book, which all Fellows sign, being brought to him; in the Council Minutes of 16 June 1938 authority was given for the Charter Book to “be taken to the house of Dr Sigmund Freud (Foreign Member) in order that his signature might be made therein”.

Photograph of Sigmund Freud with the Royal Society's Charter Book

Frazer’s attempt to explain the world around him after amassing so much information, led to his election in 1920, with no less than twenty Fellows supporting his candidature, with physicist J. J. Thomson the first proposer, and the proposers split equally between the physical and the biological subjects.

With Frazer at the same meeting, and supported by the same proposers, was elected the historian, educator and Liberal politician Herbert Albert Laurens Fisher (1865-1940). Known as the author of, among other publications, ‘The History of Europe’ he was also a member of the Royal Commission on the Public Services of India of 1912-15, and Vice Chancellor of the new University of Sheffield, as well as MP for Sheffield Hallam. Under Lloyd George he was President of the Board of Education, and it was he who was responsible for making school attendance for children under 14 compulsory under the Education Act of 1918. His later years were spent at New College Oxford and on his death in 1940 his library and clothes remained there. Some of his clothes were used in 1943 as part of Operation Mincemeat. This was a British Intelligence operation using the body of a man to be dropped at sea with false information; as he was required to be a man of means, he needed quality underwear which was difficult to obtain with rationing. Fisher would undoubtedly have been delighted that his donated clothing succeeded in misleading German Intelligence.

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