Who are the Fenns? (Edward Gibbon answers)

I quote:

With this narrative we might be reasonably content, if the penetration of modern learning had not opened a new and larger prospect of the antiquities of nations. The Hungarian language stands alone, and as it were insulated, among the Sclavonian dialects; but it bears a close and clear affinity to the idioms of the Fennic race, of an obsolete and savage race, which formerly occupied the northern regions of Asia and Europe. The genuine appellation of Ugri or Igours is found on the western confines of China; their migration to the banks of the Irtish is attested by Tartar evidence; a similar name and language are detected in the southern parts of Siberia; and the remains of the Fennic tribes are widely, though thinly scattered from the sources of the Oby to the shores of Lapland. The consanguinity of the Hungarians and Laplanders would display the powerful energy of climate on the children of a common parent; the lively contrast between the bold adventurers who are intoxicated with the wines of the Danube, and the wretched fugitives who are immersed beneath the snows of the polar circle. Arms and freedom have ever been the ruling, though too often the unsuccessful, passion of the Hungarians, who are endowed by nature with a vigorous constitution of soul and body. Extreme cold has diminished the stature and congealed the faculties of the Laplanders; and the arctic tribes, alone among the sons of men, are ignorant of war, and unconscious of human blood; a happy ignorance, if reason and virtue were the guardians of their peace!

Gibbon’s lofty style here both praises and chastises as was ever his way, but what he says gives an interesting look into what his time thought Northern Europe was like.

Not only do I find it noteworthy that Gibbon in his overviews of the world that brought Rome down also decided to mention this lone northern folk, but I also think it exemplary that he did some serious research into how all of it fit together. It is truly heartening to see that the age-old connection between the Finns and Hungarians was honoured by Mr Gibbon, even if seems to do neither side much glory here. Indeed, it makes me quite keen to find out more about the “arms and freedom” that constitute an “unsuccessful passion of ruling”…

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