The Invention of Tradition

Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger

I have been taught that Columbus discovered that the earth was round and not flat; and that he has been put to torture by the inquisition. That was not true; it was a nineteenth century invention. Apart from authors with a clearly allegorical intention, such as Lactantius, no educated person in Europe ever gave a hint of thinking that the earth was flat.

I have been taught that the Roman Catholic Church burned millions of witches during the Middle Ages. That was not true: it is a nineteenth century invention. There have been witch trials, but they belong historically to the Reformation, which is post-medieval, and they mostly occurred where the Roman Catholic Church had lost its influence. And they did not happen on the scale I was taught they happened.

I have also been taught that Christmas has been sneakily put coincidental with the Germanic Yuletide festival, and Easter with the Germanic Eostra festival, to put down the Germanic folk traditions. This is in itself ridiculous: to a Church that flourishes in a Greek
east no Germanic custom could have been of the slightest importance. This, too, is a nineteenth century invention. (While it is of course quite clear that the early Christians saw nothing wrong with celebrating the birth of the Sun of Justice as the troparion has it on the same day most people around them were celebrating something similarly themed.)

The monumental Wartburg which so splendidly medievally towers over Eisenach is for the greater part a nineteenth century fake. Not so much a restoring as a rebuilding to the taste of the times. The splendidly decorated rooms are very beautiful, and also very much nationalistic German nineteenth century fakes.

Scottish kilts, Scottish chieftains and Scottish clans are not a nineteenth century invention — they are a late eighteenth century invention. I never knew that until I bought the book I’m reading right now, The Invention of Tradition. This book puts the invention of kilts, of the Scottish and Welsh national cultures, the British Royal rituals on the dissecting table, and ends with a more wide-ranging review of invented traditions in Western Europe in the nineteenth century.

The tone of the book is condescending at its most polite, and easily descends into sneering. And of course, the nineteenth century is responsible for a host of abject beliefs, traditions and false facts that are still taken for a fact by almost everyone who hasn’t got specialist knowledge. The falsifications have become part of our popular culture, are promulgated at primary schools and in comics. No doubt this was intended, in at least some cases, and maliciously intended. Still, I cannot but think that the myth of the kilts is mostly harmless fun and does not call for such vehemence as Hugh Trevor-Roper expends on it.

After reading this book I’m left with the uncomfortable feeling that everything that I have not deeply studied may be a fraud. I know that no Batav barbarians came down the Rhine on logs to colonize the Netherlands. I also know that the beginning misconception that the middle east has always been Muslim and that St. Nicholas of Myra has celebrated the Sugar Festival in Turkey will in all probability take firm hold in the next twenty years. There appears to be some evidence to support the thesis that factory workers in the earliest stages of industrialization lived longer and were healthier than their village brethren which is the other way around from what I used to think; now I’m not sure about either position.

So, what else do I know for true that is false?