The Invention of Tradition

The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, is a selection of essays by different historians. To quote the blurb: 

Many of the traditions which we think of as ancient in their origins were, in fact, invented comparatively recently. This book explores examples of this process of invention […]

There’s a great quote in the section on the British monarchy. This is Lord Robert Cecil in 1860, after watching Queen Victoria open parliament:

Some nations have a gift for ceremonial. […] This aptitude is generally confined to the people of a southern climate and of a non-Teutonic parentage. In England the case is exactly the reverse. We can afford to be more splendid than most nations; but some malignant spell broods over all our most solemn ceremonials, and inserts into them some feature which makes them all ridiculous… Something always breaks down, somebody contrives to escape doing his part, or some bye-motive is suffered to interfere and ruin it all.

150 years later, the British have bigger, more pompous and more gilt-ridden ceremonies than almost anyone, and we see ourselves as especially good at pageantry: the opening of parliament, coronations, jubilees, royal weddings and funerals, and all of it presented as though it was ancient continuous tradition. And in fact much of the content, at least for the coronation, is ancient: it’s just that between the early 17th and late 19th centuries, the preparation was generally half-arsed and the results shambolic. Apart from anything else, the symbolism was awkward; Britain was a democracy of a sort, and as long as the monarch was a partisan political figure people were reluctant to surround them with all the trappings of divinely-provided power. It was only once the monarch was reduced to a figurehead that we could safely put them in the centre of these grand pantomimes.

The book also has an essay about the Scots (all that twaddle about clan tartans) and the Welsh (druids and the Eisteddfod), but those stories were broadly familiar, so in some ways the bits I found most interesting were about the British inventing traditions out in the Empire. For example, in India, where they had the problem of how best to assert Imperial authority over a ‘country’ which was in fact hundreds of small kingdoms held together by force, and how to project Queen Victoria as the focus of that authority while she was thousands of miles away. And although the British had been in India for a long time by then, this represented a new focus, since it was only in the wake of the Sepoy Mutiny/India’s First War of Independence in 1857 that control of India was taken from the East India Company and taken over by the state.

So in 1876 they held the ‘Imperial Assemblage’ to mark Victoria’s accession to her imperial title as ‘Kaiser-i-Hind’ when Indian kings/princes/maharajas gathered with their entourages at a site near Delhi to take turns to approach a pavilion decorated in British heraldic imagery, and each was presented with a banner which had a coat of arms in the European heraldic tradition, designed for the occasion by a Bengal civil servant called Robert Taylor. It sounds like an extraordinary event: apart from the basic weirdness of it, the scale was immense; ‘at least eighty four thousand people’ attended in one role or another. Sadly I haven’t managed to find a picture of the event, but below is the banner presented to Rajabahadur Raghunath Savant Bhonsle, the ruler of Savantvadi.

banner presented to the ruler of Savantvadi

Thinking about all this reminded me of my own little moment of inventing tradition. When I was at university, there a couple of people at my halls of residence who wanted to start an all-male discussion club where the members would take turns to present a little speech on some interesting topic, and then everyone would drink sherry and discuss. A couple of friends and I took great delight in coming up with a ludicrously silly constitution for the club, which laid down arcane traditions and provided bizarre titles for the various officers. For example, every meeting was supposed to start with ‘the toasting of the Pope’: a different Pope each week, working through them in chronological order from St Peter onwards. There was no Catholic connection, pro or anti; I think it was just that the phrase ‘the toasting of the Pope’ was amusing. In the event there was one meeting and then the club fizzled out. And a good thing too, frankly.

Actually, though, the whole episode was rather fitting; after all, the University of Bristol itself is an institution whose landmark building is a vast Gothic edifice built not in the middle ages, or even at the height of the Gothic Revival in the mid C19th, but in 1915. Pretending to be older than it is — pretending to be Oxbridge, really — is what Bristol does.

Anyway, the book is interesting; some of the essays are better than others — Hobsbawm’s own contribution struck me as especially weak — but I’m glad I read it. A slight typographical gripe: irritatingly, quoted passages are marked only by the left margin being indented exactly as much as the first line of each paragraph is indented, which makes it extremely unobvious which paragraphs are quoted. I’m not suggesting that’s a reason to avoid the book; I was just irritated by it.

» img364, posted to flickr by Black and white archive, shows the 1953 Coronation celebrations in Edith Road, Smethwick. The banner is from the British Library.

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