The Invention of TraditionJuly 23, 2015
The fact that traditions endow our lives with meaning seems to be something beyond dispute, even if these traditions have been invented to promote a specific end. The Invention of Tradition, which is a collection of essays edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, sets out to show us the extent of how traditions have been used throughout history in the promotion of certain causes, ideas, or narratives. Primarily set in the 19th and 20th centuries, the book argues that many of the traditions we associate with today, are actually inventions of a not to far past. The logic of the book in describing the process of invented traditions seems to run roughly along this path: A) There is a historical fact, something that has happened in history. B) A tradition is invented, surrounding this historical fact and interpreting it in a certain way so as to favour the intention of the creator of the new tradition, and finally C) The promotion of the new invention.
Eric Hobsbawn presents us with a definition of ‘invented traditions’ in his opening chapter, stating that:
‘Invented tradition is taken to mean a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past. In fact, where possible, they normally attempt to establish continuity with a suitable historic past.’
These ‘invented traditions’ can be both constructed or emerge in a more complex manner, but Hobsbawm nevertheless seems to suggest a clear motive for the creation of said tradition. The ‘invention’ is born when a certain fact of the past, or ‘suitable historic past’ in Hobsbawm’s own words, is joined by certain ways of commemorating the past, so as to remind ourselves of what has happened. These practices, ceremonies or rituals, are joined by the attempt to impose certain values. I am reminded by a saying, that ‘once is a one-time thing, twice is a custom, and thrice is a tradition,’ implying that in the very essence of a tradition is the ‘norms of behaviour by repetition.’
An example of this invented tradition is presented already in the second chapter, where the distinguished historical scholar Hugh Trevor-Roper in The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland, argues that the highland image we have of bagpipes and tartan kilts, is an invention. The historical fact is the ancient history of the Celts and immigration. He proceeds to say that ‘the creation of an independent Highland tradition, and the imposition of that new tradition, with its outward badges, on the whole Scottish nation, was the work of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.’ Notice the words creation, imposition and outward badges. The whole idea first presented by Hobsbawm seems to be present here, namely that the tradition is invented, was ‘imposed’ implying a set of values and norms, and the ‘outward badges’ being a symbolic nature. One example of the invented Highland traditions presented by Trevor-Roper has to do with two English brothers who worked as manufacturers, and how they essentially fabricated the whole idea of certain tartan patterns representing specific clans. Here we come to the promotion of the tradition, as the brothers worked hard to promote the idea. They were ‘scholarly men who won converts by their transpicuous innocence.’ Another part of Trevor-Ropers paper is that a certain Macpherson invented an ‘indigenous literature for Celtic Scotland and, as a necessary support to it, a new history.’ It seems that he created this for what would seem as nefarious reasons, e.g. making a lot of money.
Yet another example of an invented tradition in the collection of essays is that of the British Monarchy, dealt with by David Cannadine. The historical fact is of course the monarchy itself, an institution dating back millennia. The invention, however, is the ritual surrounding the institution of the monarchy, one example being the coronation. Cannadine explains that the meaning may alter, although the practice itself is ancient. In a static age, the coronation will signify a ‘genuine reflection of, and reinforcement to, stability and consensus.’ In a period of change or conflict, on the other hand, it will present an entirely different picture, being formed to give the impression of ‘continuity, community and comfort.’
The book is interesting in so far as it argues from a historical point of view, but it does not say much about the actual meaning of tradition other than that traditions can have many meanings. Traditions, the book seems to suggest, only represent what the institutor of the tradition wants it to mean. A tradition may very well be invented, but this must not necessarily always be the case. The philosopher Roger Scruton has argued that tradition is ‘the residue of critical conflicts, that which remains when the sounds and fury has dwindled to a schoolroom murmur.’ Scruton has also argued that tradition is a form of conveying information, a source of knowledge resounding through the ages. In other words, the fact that a tradition is created is not of the essence, it is what the tradition tells us. If we take the example of coronation mentioned above, Scruton says that as one of the powers of tradition, it enacts the whole history of the nation, making history into reason, and ‘the past into a present aim.’ The second power of tradition is that it is something that arises from every organization in society.
Hobsbawm clearly distinguishes between ‘custom’ and ‘tradition.’ The tradition is characterized by imposed practices, and custom grows out organically as, for example, in ‘traditional’ societies. To clarify, he gives us the example of a judge. What the judge does is custom, whereas the wig, robe and other ‘formal paraphernalia,’ constitute the tradition. This distinction, however, is not as clear as it would seem at first glance. The wig and robe are a symbol of what the judge does, distinguishing office from person. The tradition in this case is closely tied to the custom, although it may undoubtedly vary between countries. What we find is that the tradition (as in the outer appearance of the judge) may be invented, but it is historically linked to the custom so as to transfer the knowledge of a man as a representative of law and order.
If we return to Scruton’s definition of tradition as the residue of critical conflicts, I think much of that which is written in The Invention of Tradition will appear in a new light. One could argue that many of the examples in the book are not actually an arbitrary invention by one or more people as a means of reaching private ends, but that these traditions appeared only after a long time of dispute as to exactly how things should be. The example of the tartan kilts only makes sense when considering some of the obstacles the previously mentioned brothers encountered. Trevor-Roper clearly gives one example when Walter Scott’s authority stood in the way of the publication of a manuscript the brothers had entitled Vestirarium Scotium. The argument could be extended to the example of coronations as well, as a monarch may want to use it as a tool to promote a certain image of him or her self, although many other voices can have a say as well, such as the Church, advisers and the public. The tradition of coronation therefore may have altered meanings, and the invention lays in the fact that it is promoting certain norms, but the critical reception of contemporaries and posterity are as important.
My criticism of the general argument presented in this book is this: there are many voices to be taken into account when considering the ‘invention of tradition,’ and a tradition may very well be invented, but to simply imply that traditions are a push of an ideological agenda is not convincing. The argument also consists in stating that the ‘traditions’ stand in the way of seeing the past clearly, and consequently we are only seeing that past through the invented traditions, usually invented by those in power. I could not disagree more, for these traditions even if they are invented, constitute a part of the past and show us some of the ideas prevailing at a given time in a given context. Through knowing the invented traditions, we may come to know the actual historical facts, but the inventions may in themselves be a source of knowledge.
Peter Burke has pointed out in a review of the book in an article for The English Historical Review, that the articles do not answer if the process of invention themselves are new or traditional. Some of the traditions may have come about not as something planned, but as a misunderstanding, such as the examples presented in the book of the British presence in India and Africa by Bernard S. Cohen and Terence Ranger respectively. But even here we realize there is more to the picture than merely a plan or a misunderstanding – a dose of scepticism and experimentation emerges as when Cohn writes ‘the British experimented with varying forms of ritual to mark public occasions.’
We read in the introductory chapter by Hobsbawm, that not only is there a distinction between custom and tradition, but also between ‘invented tradition’ and a ‘genuine tradition’, and when the old ways are alive ‘traditions need neither be revived not invented.’ The distinction does not seem absolute to me. On the one hand it could be argued that all traditions are invented to a certain extent, in so far as we have an interest in keeping them alive. On the other hand it could be claimed that no traditions are invented, they are born and developed organically in a process of critical reflection. It would seem as if the suggestion presented in this collection of essays is that an invented tradition clearly has an agenda, a thought that fits well with the narrative against ‘cultural nationalist historiography,’ which forms a part of Hobsbawm’s own wider agenda
Finally then it should be said that this book has the fundamental merit of sparking debate, not only at the time of its publication but surely still today some thirty years later. The book is a collection of essays written by historians and anthropologists, which gives the discussion of the topic of traditions a very specific perspective. Tradition still splits people between those who retain a great reverence for the past, and those who cannot or will not acknowledge the significance of present traditions brought about in many ways by past grievances. The fact that historical events at one point in history became traditions is secondary.
Karl Gustel Wärnberg, Juli 2015
 Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (ed.), The Invention of Tradition, (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press 1985), P. 1.
 Ibid, P.16.
 Ibid, P. 17.
 Ibid, P. 105.
 Roger Scruton, Culture Counts, (New York: Encounter Books, 2007), P. 4.
 Roger, Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism, (United Kingdom: St. Augustine’s Press, 2002), PP. 30-36
 Peter Burke, Reviwe of ”The Invention of Tradition” by Eric Hobsbawm; Terence Ranger The English Historical Review, Vol. 101, No. 398 (Jan., 1986), PP. 316-317.
 Hobsbawm & Ranger, P. 177.
 Ibid. P. 8.