It’s Not Just Cornwall That Has ‘Invented Traditions’

The Seminal 1983 Text from Hobsbawm & Ranger

One of the criticisms that English people have of Cornwall’s notion of a separate culture and identity is the claim that the revived Cornish language and Cornish cultural materials are nothing but a recent constructed phenomena with a questionable relationship with history.

Something that these people often forget is that many of their own ‘badges’ of cultural identity have exactly the same tenuous links with ‘reality’ and ‘authenticity’ – something which Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s ‘The Invention of Tradition’ discusses in great detail.

Hobsbawm was a British Marxist historian who specialised in the areas of industrial capitalism, socialism and nationalism. His fellow editor of this work, Terence Ranger, who died earlier this year, was an African historian, who had a particular interest in the former British colony of Zimbabwe.

For Hobsbawm, invented tradition “is taken to mean a set of practices normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with he past” (p1).

So often has Cornwall’s ‘reinvented’ language, based on the work of Henry Jenner in 1904, Robert Morton Nance (1929) and Dr. Ken George (1980s), and associated cultural material such as the Cornish tartan been derided for being ‘inauthentic’ or just plain ‘new’, you could be forgiven for thinking that other parts of Britain couldn’t possibly have any ‘invented traditions’ of their own!

Except, Hobsbawm and Ranger’s text debunks that myth pretty early on! Indeed, David Cannadine’s chapter on The British Monarchy presents an argument that you would never hear in the media or read in the Daily Mail – that the well worn cliché that Britain performs Monarchist pageantry in a way that no other country could possibly ever hope to achieve is not something that is an unique to the British psyche, but simply the fact that “Britain’s former rivals in royal ritual – Germany, Austria and Russia had dispensed with their monarchies, leaving Britain alone in the field” (p108). Therefore the ‘money no object’ royal pageants became something which could be construed as taking the ideas from the parades of defunct monarchies and passing them off as our own.

Equally illuminating is the argument put forward by Bernard S. Cohn on Victorian India –  a period which was supposedly part of the halcyon days of the British Empire. In his work, Cohn suggests that many of the associated ‘authentic’ objects of the Cultural Raj era were actually about as far from being truly authentic as you could get! He states: “Art schools were founded in major cities where Indians could be taught to produce sculptures, paintings and craft products that were Indian in context, but appealing and acceptable to Western tastes” (p183). Even the grand ceremonial dresses that the Indian soldiers were to wear, with turbans, sashes and tunics were, for Cohn, a British representation of what an Indian should wear. Before 1860, Indian soldiers wore Western style uniforms, but with the British taking an increasing grip on the native identity, “the British rulers were increasingly defining what was Indian in an official and objective sense” (p183).

Key elements of the cultural identity of other parts of the United Kingdom are revealed in Hobsbawm and Ranger’s text to be nothing more than ‘invented traditions’. Whether it be famous Scottish folk songs that Hugh Trevor-Roper reveals were based on Irish ballads, and, of course that most Scottish of institutions, the kilt. The name of this item of clothing, Trevor-Roper claims, did not appear until fully twenty years after the Act of Union. “Unknown in 1726, (the kilt) suddenly appeared a few years later; and by 1746 it was sufficiently well established to be explicitly named in the act of parliament which then forbade the Highland dress. Its inventor was an English Quaker from Lancashire, Thomas Rawlinson” (p21).

The Scots are not the only Celtic nation whose beloved and iconic traditions are revealed to be ‘inventions’ in the book. Prys Morgan identifies Iolo Morganwg (or, to use his birth name, Edward Williams) as the man who “only put his personal stamp on what was quite generally believed and commonly accepted in Wales” (p64). It was Morganwg who “made” the Gorsedd and Eisteddfod. The latter of which re-appeared in 1700, and took on the form of Morganwg’s personal interpretation of the early events. Morgan highlights a further example of a one man cultural resurrection, by the “construction of miniature Stonehenges all over Wales for holding open-air druidic ceremonies” (p66). Morgan’s chapter goes on to accuse Morganwg of creating a “discredited mythology” that led to Welshness being rejected by a large number of Welsh people. He provides examples of an invented “homogenized national costume” (p80), and states that “the three ostrich plumes of the Princes of Wales, which had originally belonged (together with the motto Ich Dien) to Ostrevant in Hainault, and were taken by the Black Prince because his mother was Queen Philippa of Hainault. They are the perfect specimen of borrowed plumage. London Welshmen made a display of them, as at the ceremonies of the Ancient Britons, to show the Hanoverians that the Welsh were loyal, unlike the dangerous Irish or Scots” (p89).

So, next time you hear someone from another part of the British Isles deride Cornwall’s ‘new’ language, or ‘inauthentic cultural items’ – just remind them that some of their own cultural sources of pride are not quite as authentic as they may believe!

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3 comments

  1. mervdavey · November 27, 2015

    Hobsbawm – my favourite Marxist philosopher – in another publication he is actually quite approving of Cornish tradition “the Cornish are fortunate to be able to paint their regional discontents in the attractive colours of Celtic tradition, which makes them so much more viable”. Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780, (Cambridge, UJniversity Press 1992), p.178

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Angela Angove · November 27, 2015

    Well put Merv.I’m sick to death of justifying my Cornish ness to the opressers, and there still at it.

    Like

    • ivorthought · November 30, 2015

      This is the old philosophical problem about what is knowledge and from where does it originate. Some would argue that If any cultural or historical perspective is to be believed it must be based on irrefutable empirical evidence. This perspective in itself can be immediately questioned by the considering the reliability of any evidence which is used to support an historical or cultural proposition. If any proposition requires a justification , that justification itself requires support, which means that any proposition whatsoever can be endlessly , or infinitely questioned [ the infinite regression argument], finding no ultimate source of truth. So , it would seem that no one can logically argue that any cultural perspective is more accurate than the next, let alone suggest that someone else’s cultural identity is less valid than one’s own………….. So……………..Watch out cultural oppressors, wherever you might be!!!!!!! [At least look at some basic philosophy]

      Like

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