DÉMEUNIER, Jean-Nicolas (1751-1814)
L’esprit des usages et des coutumes des différens peuples, Ou observations tirées des voyageurs & des historiens.
[London, Paris]: A Londres, et se trouve à Paris, Chez Pissot, 1776. First edition. Three volumes (complete). Octavo, original full mottled calf, decorative gilt-stamped spines with raised bands (joints cracked but holding, spines worn at head and tail, with head portion missing on vol. 3, later manuscript shelf labels), marbled endpapers and edges, pp xvi, 415; viii, 365; viii, 336; half titles, title woodcut vignettes, head and tail-pieces; ownership signature of “C. Francis, 1836” and rubber ink and blind-embossed stamps on first and last few pages (Harvard College Library, duplicate; Connecticut Theological Institute), including titles; clean and sound throughout, a good set.
The sources for the young Démeunier’s work (he was just 25 years old at time of publication) were largely contemporary travel and voyage accounts in English which he had worked on as a translator, for Démeunier himself had not travelled outside his native France. (Démeunier would later translate and publish the voyage narratives of Vancouver and Cook). Encyclopaedic in its scope, and arranged thematically rather than by region, L’esprit des usages et des coutumes des différens peuples was commercially successful in its own time, being reissued in 1785 and again in 1786. In the mid-20th century Démeunier’s groundbreaking approach to the subject of human geography began to receive greater recognition from scholars, to the extent that he was hailed as the father of social anthropology by Radcliffe-Brown (1958).
‘… as [Démeunier’s] table of contents indicates, his work implies a certain conception of the internal unity of every social group which might have provided ethnographers with a complete framework of inquiry. Indeed, he sought to classify usages not according to their similarities or differences but according to their social functions….Man is primarily a being who subsists and perpetuates himself; therefore Démeunier first of all considers what and how he eats his food and his table manners; then the condition of women, forms of marriage, birth customs and education of children. Man is also a being who lives in a group; therefore it is appropriate to deal with the different parts of the social body-chiefs and sovereigns, warriors, masters and slaves, distinctions of rank and property. Man is a being with symbolically expressed relations which he regulates. … Démeunier mentions the different conceptions of beauty and adornment, of modesty; then he deals with domestic usages as well as penal laws and their administration. Ultimately, man is mortal, and the work ends with considerations on homicide, suicide, human sacrifice, sickness, medicine, death and funerals.’ (Diamond, Stanley. Anthropology : ancestors and heirs. Walter de Gruyter, 1980, pp. 48-50).