The invention of tradition

CP Snow once said that all ancient British traditions date to the second half of the 19th Century, and his only error was to limit this claim to Britain. The great majority of real traditions having been swept away or reduced to irrelevance with the rise of capitalism, the 19th century saw the rise of a whole set of new ones, which were then fixed in shape by the system of nation-states, each with their own newly-codified language and officially sanctioned history that took shape at the same time[1]

Via Barista and an interesting link on the theatrical origins of the ninja, I came to this great piece by Craig Colbeck on Karate and Modernity, a lot closer to my own interests than black-clad stage assassins. Although the jargon is a bit heavy going in places, there’s a pretty clear argument to show that the Okinawa karate tradition developed in the late C19 and was derived from China.

Living in the 21st century, and in Australia, I can’t say I’m too worried about the invention of tradition. Anything more than 100 years old is old enough for me.

OT PS: At my local shops at the weekend, I passed a woman (20s?) wearing a T-shirt that stated “Kickboxers are Nancy Boys”. I was struck by the rather antique slang (unless it’s come back in while I wasn’t paying attention), but also a bit bemused by the subtext. Worn by a man, the implication would presumably be one of aggressive bravado, but I don’t know what it means worn by a woman. And what about women kickboxers?

fn1, This process began a bit earlier in Britain and France and still hasn’t reached finality, but the crucial period, including German and Italian unification and the creation of the US in its current form, took place between 1850 and 1900.

12 thoughts on “The invention of tradition

  1. I’ve occasionally used the term Nancy Boy. I think I picked it up from an old B&W American movie. I’ve never heard anyone else use the term though.

  2. Scientific Japanese whaling is another from the same period, as an industrial effort its always a part of the marketing in fixed society to make everything shiny and old, otherwise its not real to the potential consumer.

    High country cattlemen in our Australian Alps is another ‘tradition’.

    And to think my family sold the family village in Poland in 1812. Tradition my arse.

  3. Nancy boy is still common currency in my clique’s parlance.

    Tradition doesn’t mean anything to me – either something’s inherently worth doing, or it’s history. It can be interestign and informative history sure, but it’s no form of justification.

    Alpine cattle grazing v Japanese whaling is a good one. In 2005 the Federal Dill for the Environment was busily protesting at whaling while at the same time leaping into the saddle to try and protect alpine grazing. There are conclusively far more species threatened by ongoing cattle grazing than by whaling.

    But of course he’s a politician.

  4. Snow exaggerated, in that many traditions were reinvented and reinterpreted to the point of novelty in the 19th century (thesis + antithesis = synthesis, anybody?). Nevertheless, things like Harvest Festivals and maypoles did have ancient antecedents if not full blown direct ancestors. And it was hardly an error not to address others’ customs, when only concerned about one particular topic.

    Mountain cattlemen really do constitute a case in point. Have a look at how many of them have Goidelic names. It was far easier for people of those stocks, with their vaguely remembered traditions, to revive viable pastoral practices in a new time and place than it was for people with a different background. I think you can even discern that in MacArthur, what with his recent family’s exposure to settling in colonial circumstances in the West Indies as well.

  5. The mountain cattlemen are protecting a fine, “old” (that is, about a century and a bit, which counts as old in Victoria) “tradition” of getting cheap agistment at peppercorn rates subsidised by the taxpayer.
    The “mountain man” who’s making the most noise at present owns a QV apartment in Melbourne, comes into the city regularly for footy games, and drives a 4WD on musters owing to his bad back (which recently and miraculously recovered enough for him to participate in an anti-alpine National Park- riding stunt). Traditional, my arse.

  6. “CP Snow once said that all ancient British traditions date to the second half of the 19th Century”

    Maybe things have been (re) interpreted, contextualised, resituated but like all generalisations, its only partly right!

    There is a stream of ethics, behavioural examples, societal norms and other things which can be thought of as “traditions’ in Western European society reaching back to pre-history, including (from my unscientific 2 minutes of consideration):

    . Greek myths and legends
    . Roman empire “cohesion” stories and “official histories’
    . Judaeo/Christian dogma
    . popular literature / yarn spinning (like Shakespeare)
    . the rationalist movement

    These and similar have been assimilated both geographically and generationally, but they leave a trace (for better or worse) in today’s society.

  7. It wasn’t C. P. Snow who said anything quotable on ths topic, it was Eric Hobsbawm.

    Eric Hobsbawm didn’t say “all” ancient British traditions, he said “many” …

    When he wrote this, Hobsbawm was referring mostly to the rituals and ceremonies that surrounded the Royal Family.

    Hobsbawm explicitly excluded from his discussion elements of British popular culture that he called “customs”.

    Hobsbawm said these things in the intro to “The Invention of Tradition.”

  8. I think Helen missed my point about what is traditional among mountain cattlemen. Also, they are not subsidised; they do not receive either a cash or funds flow to assist them in their activities. They do (as noted) pay little for what they are getting – but that is no more a subsidy than a tax cut is giving money to taxpayers.

    That sort of reasoning condemns (say) commoners’ rights as depriving the state of something it could take and apply differently – it amounts to a justification of enclosures in past times. But the fact is, the state did not create the land that mountain cattlemen use, and the rents it receives do not in any way reflect a service provision it supplies in respect of them.

  9. I can never say the word ‘Tradition’ without immediately putting on the Topel voice from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’: ‘TRADITION!’. As Winston Churchill said when the admirals said that it would be against RN tradition: ‘Rum, sodomy and nancy boys!’

    Actually, I thought ‘nancy boys’ was old London slang from the 1920s.

    Are ‘certain traditions’ worth maintaining, or is their maintenance too self-conscious, too camp, too phony?

    PM Lawrence has said ‘Mountain cattlemen really do constitute a case in point. Have a look at how many of them have Goidelic names’. What does ‘Goidelic’ mean?

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