Customer Reviews: The Invention of Tradition (Canto)
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on February 13, 2001
The basic thesis of all essays in "The Invention of Tradition" is that many of the mass, public traditions in various societies of the world (from Scottish kilts to the very concept of tribes in Africa) are well-crafted ("invented") constructs of the 18th/19th centuries, and are not as ancient or immemorial as they are generally believed to be. Parenthetically, the very expression "invention of tradition" is somewhat redundant, since all traditions, as products of human behavior and human imagination rather than the result of natural forces, are invented in one way or another. All of the essays in the book show how this is so, providing an excellent analysis of the origins of these traditions. As such they are very valuable contributions to contemporary social/political history. However, although the tone of the book is that such "invented traditions" were frequently almost imposed and/or used as instruments of political manipulation, it can't be denied that they also very often gave expression to very real feelings - as editor Hobsbawm concedes in his concluding essay. Thus, rather than demonstrating some sort of arbitrary "invention" and manipulation, Prys Morgan's chapter on the Welsh also shows how previous traditions in Wales were revived, reformulated and continuously adapted from the late seventeenth century on to meet various political, social and cultural challenges, thus making the process of invention seem quite "natural." On the other hand, Terence Ranger's essay on Africa is almost disturbing in that it seems to imply that almost every aspect of African politics and society today were bequethed by the continent's former European colonial masters. Hugh Trevor-Roper's chapter on Scotland is useful in that it pinpoints the exact origins of the "highland tradition" and all outer, visual identity markers used by the Scots, but the overall implication seems to be that now that the sham is revealed, the Scots should discard their kilts and bagpipes in shame. It would have been more useful if he had provided an explanation of why Scottish patriots, and others, so eagerly accepted these "invented traditions," and why they are so deeply entrenched and stronger than ever today. This goes for the entire book: it's main value may be in (unitentionally) showing how all traditions are in fact invented in one way or another, and that they become traditions because, at least at the time of their inception, they serve strongly felt political, social, cultural or even economic needs.
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on July 28, 2000
The principle argumentative thread running through each of this book's essays is that the traditions Europeans hold dear about their respective cultures date back merely to the turn of the 20th century. Far from legendarily old, things like Scottish tartans and the English monarchical love of pomp and circumstance date back only to the Victorian era. More to the point, many traditions aren't even native to the land which celebrates them. Tartans, the book concludes, are actually northern English ideas, and the "British" love of pageantry comes more from India than from anything deeply rooted in the gardens of the House of Windsor.
But so what? What is the importance of discovering the "truth" of a legend? Does it make us less reverential of it? Judging by the continued popularity of Santa Claus, no. Traditions, after all, aren't really about truth. Many traditions are simply lies that have been repeated enough that they become ennobled. The point isn't that they were once lies. The point is the journey they have made from lie to legend.
That is what is so intriguing about this book. True, there are other, more political subtexts in these essays-some of the authors clearly don't LIKE that the lies have become cultural "truth"-but all of the essays tell of the trek each of these myths made. Far from the "inconsequence" that another reviewer has mentioned, these essays deepen our understanding of cherished myths and even make them more endearing.
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on November 3, 2007
The Invention of Tradition is a collection of essays. The majority of the essays in the volume focus on the creation of mythical pasts to fill a space in the social fabric opened by changes in power relationships. Prys Morgan captures the essence of these creations, in his chapter on the hunt for a Welsh past, when he notes that Welsh scholars and patriots, in their efforts to preserve things Welsh in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, "rediscovered the past, historical, linguistic and literary traditions, and where those traditions were inadequate ... created a past which had never existed." (p. 44)

The question, of course, is inadequate for what? And the answer is that Welsh culture proved inadequate to stave off English encroachment and so traditions that privileged Welsh culture, and at the same time allowed it to be consumed by the English, were invented. The Welsh gave themselves a grandiose past based on association with the Celtic race. Similarly the Welsh language was discovered to be the tongue of the ancient Gauls and Britans. The Druids were studied and emulated one result of which was the (re) introduction of cremation. Another result, not mentioned by Morgan, was the creation of societies with grand names such as the Ancient Order of Druids and Oddfellows, that were tied to London through their involvement in the insurance business. The London connection was all important. The first Welsh societies were established in London, the Ancient Britons in 1715 and the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion in 1751. These societies propagated a view of the Welsh as the primary people of Britain. Another English contribution to the production of Welsh traditions was the tourist trade of the late eighteenth century that was important in establishing Welshness as something unique to be consumed by fashionable society. (p. 69, p. 71, pp. 62-66, p. 58, & pp. 79-80)

London also played an important part in the creation of the Highland tradition of Scotland. Hugh Trevor-Roper relates the three stages of the creation and adoption of that tradition. First, the creation of cultural independence from Ireland culminating in the invention of a history that inverted the relationship between the two and claimed "mother-nation" status for Scotland. Second, the creation of the new Highland traditions of kilt and clan tartan. Third, the adoption of these traditions by other Scots of various descent. It was the creation of the Highland Society in London in 1788 that did much to ensure the proliferation of the new tradition. In 1807 the Society published the Ossian, the text created by James Macpherson to establish Scottish antiquity's superiority to Ireland. The Society also secured the repeal of the law forbidding the wearing of Highland dress thereby paving the way for the introduction of the kilt as the Scottish national dress. The kilt as Trevor-Roper points out was invented by a Lancashire Quaker, Thomas Rawlinson, sometime around 1727. Likewise the distinctive clan tartans were invented by, or more correctly manufactured by, the combine of the firm Wilson and Son, the Highland Society and the brothers Allen-Hay-Sobieski Stuart, the latter being brothers with pretensions to nobility, nay royalty. The whole sorry business achieved historical legitimacy when the Celtic Society of Edinburgh, through the offices of Sir Walter Scott, stage managed George IV's state visit to the Scottish capital in 1822. The Highland chiefs were inveigled to wear the previously low rent kilt, in their clan tartan, supplied and authenticated by Wilson and Son and the Highland Society. (p. 16, p. 26, pp. 21-22, & pp. 30-35)

Unfortunately neither Morgan nor Trevor-Roper explore the London connection beyond noting its immediate role. Trevor-Roper seems intent on skewering the pretensions of the Scots in claiming a tradition and so misses, or does not adequately explain the significance of a distinct tradition for a Scottish elite. The evidence he does offer suggests that, far from being dupes, the Scots manipulated the tradition to establish a power base, both in Scotland and London, that otherwise would have been unavailable to them. It is ironic that Trevor-Roper's scrupulous dissection of the invented Highland tradition appeared in 1983 the year in which he, however briefly, authenticated the forged Hitler diaries in which he as a director of The Times of London had a financial interest. (Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Times, April 23, 1983, p. 1b. He reconsidered April 25, 1983, p. 2a and retracted and self-criticized May 14, 1983, p. 8b)

David Cannadine recovers the recent invention of the pomp and splendor of the Royal ceremony that turns London into a grand stage for a son et lumiere. His account relates how the British monarchy was recreated in the modern world through the judicious use of technology and appropriate symbolism. (

Eric Hobsbawm's chapter on "Mass-Producing Traditions: Europe, 1870-1914 displays the interlocking of tradition and society in this period. He locates the state at the center of these activities through its creation of rules and regulations that associated particular traditions with nations. Traditions were invented and mobilized to ensure the loyalty of mass electorates to bourgeois rule. Hobsbawm is tentative in his conclusions as to what so much invented tradition means. He sees a shift in the presentation of tradition from the static representation of masonry and statues to the fluid ritual acted out for the benefit of the watching mass public. He also sees a top down diffusion of social practices, with the occasional inversion, which were refined according to the new social basis. He gives the representative example of football. Finally he makes some comments on the difficultly of separating "invention" and "spontaneous operation" of tradition given the significant social utility of tradition. (pp. 304-307)
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on February 2, 2015
This is UNBELIEVABLY dense and if you don't have a wicked case of Anglophilia (I don't) I doubt you will find this very engaging. That is all the more a shame because the authors are clearly subject matter experts and bring a lot of interesting information to the table. For me, this didn't make up for the mental effort required to keep up with obscure Welsh words (see "eisteddfodau") and names in order to hold onto the big picture.
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on June 8, 2000
This book, edited by the famous Marxist historian Erich Hobsbawm and the African specialist Terrence Ranger, is a collection of historical essays dealing with the invention of national or imperial traditions. Hobsbawm writes about Europe 1870-1914, Ranger about colonial Africa, Hugh Trevor-Roper about Scotland, Prys Morgan about Wales, David Cannadine about the British monarchy, and Bernard Cohn about imperial India. All are historians except for Cohn, an anthropologist, and all write about the nineteenth century.
All seven essays (Hobsbawm wrote two) are well written and clearly show the invention of traditions as a means of 'inculcating certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition'. In his heart Hobsbawm obviously wants to show that these new traditions are lies and that he and the other writers have done us a great service in uncovering them. Yet while many of these traditions were invented, many of their inventors would not lie about their young age (with the exception of the amazing brothers Allen of Scotland), and all of those traditions that resonated among people did draw from older, 'real' traditions. These qualifications, which Hobsbawm partially admits, heavily qualify the strength of his arguments, thus making the book an interesting but somewhat inconsequential collection of essays.
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on October 26, 2000
Hugh Trevor-Roper's contribution to this book is priceless. In his chapter "Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland", he details for the reader where the supposedly "ancient" costume of Scotland came from. The kilt was invented by an English Quaker about 1726 to allow his Highland workmen to more easily move while smelting the iron ore he was extracting. The kilt was thus an expression of the Industrial Revolution rather than an ancient freedom of the heather.
The "setts" of tartans purporting to show a particular pattern of plaid belonging to a particular Highland clan is an even more recent invention. The concept of a unified group wearing the same tartan began with the English formation of the Highland regiments in the 1740s and later. The Scottish cloth industry recognized a good thing when they saw it and with the help of the Scottish Romantic movement and with promotion by Sir Walter Scott, by the 1820s, Clan/tartan pattern books (which often disagreed with one another) were happily catering to this invented tradition.
Invented by mis-guided or plainly fraudulent "antiquarians", the concept of particular tartan patterns being associated with a specific Clan is one of the long-running jokes played by the Scots on the rest of the world. Rather like the game of golf.
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on August 2, 2011
This collection of essays, edited by Marxist professor Eric Hobsbawn, is dedicated to the 'modernist' theory of nationhood. It contains essays from across the political spectrum, dedicated to the idea that symbols of national identity are something fabricated (after the French and/or Industrial Revolutions) often using modern media of communication, including newspapers, state education systems and more recently TV and radio.

Hobsbawm's take is that the fabricators were the 'bourgeoisie' (capitalists) and the workers who 'have no country' were thus manipulated to create uniform 'national' markets and will soon be 'betrayed' further by global capitalism as markets widen. Informed views which are less committed to the 'modernist thesis' in general and Marxism in particular are the prolific AD Smith's Nationalism and Modernism and Tom Nairn's more populist Faces of Nationalism.

One of the essays, Hugh Trevor-Roper's essay on the Highlands, had a life of its own in the debate on Scottish devolution. The idea in its starkest form was that 'highland dress' - having been abolished in one version in 1746 following the second Jacobite rebellion - was 'in fact' not invented until the 1780s, perhaps on the inspiration of an English factory owner. Turnbull & Beveridge's response in Scotland After Enlightenment was that there were obviously several forms of dress at issue and that, although witty, the point was not really relevant to a practical civic project of democratic renewal.

A notable limitation is the predominance of historians: there's nothing from social psychology for example. All in all, I found the book worth reading, but obviously one-sided and tendentious in its selection of contributors and facts.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon August 29, 2012
This well known collection of essays discusses the manufacture of historic traditions within Britain and some of its colonies. Part of the appeal of this book is the interesting, and to our eyes, sometimes comical detail about how these traditions were developed. The narrative in HR Trevor-Roper's mordant essay on the synthetic character of the Scottish Highland tradition is a good example. The great impact of the European Romantic movement is quite clear. In the first great Imperial Durbar in India, important Indian nobility were assigned European style feudal crests and the Viceroy entered the audience chamber to the sound of music from Tannhauser. As the authors make clear, particularly in 2 essays by Eric Hobsbawm that bookend the text, these invented traditions serve deeply felt psychological and social needs. Many of these traditions were manufactured during periods of great social change. Many were apparently, though unconsciously constructed to bolster social bonds in periods when traditional institutions were decaying. Overall, a nice combination of analysis and interesting detail.
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on September 14, 2014
The ideas are fascinating. The writing is about as turgid as academic prose can get. But no one said it would be easy ...
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on October 27, 2013
language is a bit difficult .and occasionally esoteric; could be more succinct, but interesting and challenging. Academic in the approach.
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