On the Ethnology of Britain

The Journal of the Ethnological Society of London (1870)
Scientific Memoirs III

[551] THE President commenced his observations by a reference to the earliest information given by ancient writers concerning the inhabitants of these Islands. This information relates partly to the physical characters of the natives, and partly to their language. Much unnecessary confusion has arisen from not keeping these two subjects distinct from each other; and, in accordance with Professor Max Müller, the President strongly insisted on the necessity of pursuing the study of language apart from that of the physical characters of a people.

Julius Caesar, like many other men of his time, is somewhat reticent on such subjects; but Tacitus, who wrote a century later, gives much fuller information. These early accounts show that probably in the time of Cæsar, and certainly in that of Tacitus, there existed in these islands two distinct types of population:–the one of tall stature, with fair skin, yellow hair, and blue eyes; the other of short stature with dark Shill, dark hair, and black eyes. We further learn that this dark population, represented by the Silures, bore considerable physical resemblance to the people of Aquitania and Iberia; while the fair population of parts of South-East Britain–the present counties of Kent and Hants–resembled the Belgæ who inhabited the North-East of France and the country now called Belgium These Belgæ, again, were closely akin in physical characters to the tall fair people who dwelt on the east bank of the Rhine, and were called Germani.

These two distinct ethnological elements probably coexisted in [552] these islands when the country was discovered by the Romans; and the subsequent invasions to which Britain has been subjected have not introduced any new stock, but have merely affected one or other of the preexisting elements. During the four centuries of Roman occupation, people of many nationalities were introduced in the legions; but at the present time it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether their influence tended to strengthen the fair or the dark element in our population. It is certain, however, that the subsequent invasions, by people speaking dialects allied to the Low Dutch; from the shores of North Germany bordering on the Baltic and the North Sea, strengthened the fair type, without introducing any new stock; and the Danes also assisted in giving prominence to the fair modification. The ethnological influence of the Norman conquest was to form the subject of the paper to be read in the course of the evening; but the speaker observed that, whatever may have been the effect of that invasion, it certainly did not introduce any new element into our population

Reference to the Continent shows, that over the northern and central portions of Europe there stretches a wide area occupied by a fair, tall population similar to that which, as far back as our history extends, has existed in Britain. On the contrary, in Spain, in Southern France, and on the North of the Mediterranean, there are certain people who may be referred to the same dark type as that represented in Britain. Hence it may be said that a fair population exists in the north and centre of Europe, and a dark population in the south.

Evidence may be adduced to show that the language spoken by both these types of people in Britain, at and before the Roman conquest, was exclusively Celtic. This evidence is furnished not only by the statements of Cæsar and other early writers, but also by the testimony of ancient monuments and local names. Probably the Cymric dialect of Celtic was spoken throughout Britain, whilst the Gaelic dialect was confined to Ireland.

While the two physical types of people in Britain thus spoke one language, it was otherwise with the corresponding types on the Continent. The inhabitants of Northern and Eastern Gaul spoke Celtic–probably Cymric; but the people to whom the fair portion of the population of Gaul was physically allied, and who dwelt on the right bank of the Rhine, spoke Teutonic dialects. Different as the Teutonic and Celtic languages are, philologers declare them to be cognate, both belonging to the Aryan or Indo-European family. But philologers are unable to refer to this group the languages spoken by the [553] ancient population of Aquitania and Iberia. There we have a large area occupied by the Basques or Huskarians, who speak a language which has no affinity with any other known Eur-Asiatic language. At the present day the Euskarian area has been so largely encroached upon that it is reduced to a portion of its primitive dimensions. And it is to this circumstance, possibly, that we must ascribe the fact that a large proportion of the modern Basques are fair people. Looking at the characters of the present inhabitants of the old Euskarian area, however, it can hardly be doubted that the Euskarian-speaking people were essentially dark. Thus, on the Continent there were two types of people speaking distinct languages, while in Britain there were two corresponding types speaking one common language.

Considerable changes in this language, however, were consequent upon the foreign invasions. The Saxon invaders brought with them their Teutonic dialects; and these to a great extent supplanted the preexisting Celtic. Hence at the time of the Norman conquest, Celtic was but little spoken in the east and southern parts; but it long retained its place in Wales, Cornwall, and the western parts of England. At the end of the tenth, or beginning of the eleventh century, we had therefore a primitive population, consisting of the dark stock in the west and the fair in the east, the latter replaced to some extent by another fair stock speaking a different language. Such was the state of the country at the period of the Norman Invasion.



1.   THH Publications
2.   Victorian Commentary
3.   20th Century Commentary

1.   Letter Index
2.   Illustration Index

Gratitude and Permissions

C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University

§ 1. THH: His Mark
§ 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake
§ 3. A Sort of Firm
§ 4. Darwin's Bulldog
§ 5. Hidden Bond: Evolution
§ 6. Frankensteinosaurus
§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution
§ 8. Matter of Life: Protoplasm
§ 9. Medusa
§ 10. Liberal Education
§ 11. Scientific Education
§ 12. Unity in Diversity
§ 13. Agnosticism
§ 14. New Reformation
§ 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible
§ 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis
§ 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons
§ 18. Emancipation: Gender and Race
§ 19. Aryans et al.: Ethnology
§ 20. The Good of Mankind
§ 21.  Jungle Versus Garden