The Invention of Tradition

(and reference to Welsh and Unitarian inventions)

Tradition in pre-industrial and pre-urban societies is a normal and overarching condition of interlocking customs that represent in their parts a world view and social forces in some balance. Custom is practice and often a means by which matters work, so it must fall within the world view, its structures and represent these. Custom acquires symbolic and communicative power in these traditional settings and this reciprocates added authority to the social setting and behaviours. People are in authority as a result of passing through the correct ritual demands according to interlocking customs. Feudal structure were elaborate but all contenders had to pass through the right hoops and even the lowest orders knew their places and behaviours. Everything has its place, and in its place everything operates around a series of rewards and sanctions. Common land worked because of the customs of use. Tradition here is in the present day, and although custom is something established each one lives and falls in a changeable balance, the personnel having means change should social forces alter

We regard customs, things that people do together and understand, as rich in traditional societies, but all societies and cultures have them. Even in contemporary settings, customs arise to facilitate rational actions, either by making much we do automatic or by giving place and space to actions. An example is driving a car with other road users around, the Highway Code and considerably more. There may be some symbolic value to such customs but they really do have facilitative purposes. A civilised society is one that gives way, for example, and waves appreciation when a car gives way. It says something about us as a people.

The image of modernity is seeking to strip symbolic power to a minimum in favour of rational action. Symbolism is seen as waste as authority comes from rationality. Rational communication seeks to be without waste and to pursue the truth. Of course this is not true: all communication needs signs and symbols. They are a given as a means, although contents changed as shared meanings change. Postmodernity has more time for symbolic play within the flux of communicative action and the ambiguity of relative transient truths. It is likely to seek extra symbolic richer meanings yet unclear in a setting where the symbolism is not tying itself into a major overall world view as it did in traditional society. However, some symbolic meanings as added extras want to to tap into a distant past. They see value in connecting us not just through space into a community, but through time. We add to the sense of who we are by affirming something we think we were.

Whether in modernity or postmodernity, the invented tradition does try to gain authority and deliver identity by reference to a significant past. We want to be something of what we were. Usually some sort of present day need requires a reference to the past. This shows that rationality is insufficient and that postmodernity needs more than a play with meanings. People look for reference points in continuity and identity, even if those points in the past are made up, or the real past now is seen to be useful in a different way from then. After all, we live in different times and the past is another country.

The terminology of invented tradition is for both deliberately started traditions and those which emerge somewhat spontaneously. Both these means are creative and arguably somewhat devious and deceptive in application. The motive of these inventions is contemporary, and accuracy to the past is hardly necessary past. These invented traditions may or may not have a factual root but their continuity with that root is the operative fiction. The sentiment drawn upon can either go into the distant past or refer to a precise date of important events for a people or nation.

In both cases the invented tradition tries to appear continuous with the past in order to give added legitimacy to what it represents for contemporary purposes. It can either relate to another event in past time or give the impression that it has its own lengthened authoritative history and its own past gives it staying power. Time is not simply a great healer but gives the impression of solidity and reliability through the test of challenges in time.

Some traditions and customs continue, for example in religious groups, where the symbolic power is regular, or even reduced or ambiguous. Customs that start to falter may be revived by reinvented meanings, or they just continue as a means of identity (whilst original causes of the practices are largely forgotten or confused -  a narrative may continue as the given meaning).

The invented tradition is more deliberative than this: it intends to increase authority and identity by its use of symbolism or symbolic references. The Victorian Oxford (high church) and related broader gothic movement made a pitch into suggesting continuity with the Middle Ages yet as a contemporary reaction to secularisation and the State's effect on compromises in the national Church. Even protestant denominations used higher religion and gothic architecture in a quest to identify what was continuously and specifically religious.

The invented tradition shows that we retain some of the elements of a previous society and culture, and it even redefines what is important today about the views of the past. An increasingly constrained constitutional monarchy raised its pomp and ceremony in the Edwardian period to show the State's continuity with the past (and its own objective of continuing). That pomp and ceremony was used to say something about the relationship of the people and power through time. Democracy is therefore not all pervasive, although the pomp is a form of acceptance of a new supportive role alongside a rational democracy as well as legitimising continuation of the monarch and the identity of the State.

Invented traditions are always selective: they miss out what was seen as harmful and make rosier what is still perceived as good. So the invented tradition adds to the view of the past: it recreates the past. The Welsh recreated their past. The Welsh nation was very thoroughly merged with the English, but it had its own culture under stress and decay, a Welsh language surviving but of the past. Celtic Christianity had fallen away and left a rump of magical folk customs among the gwerin (ordinary people) with saints days. This then came under its own attack by an English source Methodism and protestantism. Later this itself grew an invented tradition related to the land of song myth, but not before Welshness had been rescued. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the bringing to the fore of a romantic past for Wales that had never existed. Academic types recreated a past of poetic druids, celts and core literature. There were certainly bards and 1 as custom, but they fell away. Real Welsh music from mediaeval times certainly had existed, but it was incomprehensible. In the late eighteenth century the need to find again Welshness was all important and attempts to revive the Eisteddfod found success. Competitions for amateurs came to the Eisteddfodau after the Napoleonic Wars (when crowds could again gather), music was revived on a folksy basis.
The institution of the Gorsedd (meaning throne) was completely invented by Edward Williams (1747-1826). Williams was a tradition inventor all of his own. He was a Unitarian minister whose religion tended towards the natural world. He was also a laudanum addict prone to hallucinations. He was interested in the druids, to put it mildly, and decided that they were the forerunners of the bards. He and another Unitarian minister, Edward Evan (no s), further decided that they were the last in the line of the succession of bards. Edward Williams even gave himself the name Iolo Morgannwg (again the contemporary dullness of Anglicised Welsh names allowed a movement to succeed of Welsh druidic names among his followers). On 21 June 1792 the two of them held a gathering in London centred around the Druid-Bard claim, and this generated great interest among London Welsh. On his return to Wales, Williams set up Gorseddau around Wales, that is cells of bards with liturgical rituals and ceremonies. They became linked with the Eisteddfodau and soon were a backbone of Welsh revival of the culture through a pushing forward of myth and legend. The gorseddau also absorbed the competitions and, in the Eisteddfodau, created new stone circles. The bards of the Gorsedd became more elaborate in dress. It is his ceremony in which Rowan Williams, who became Archbishop of Canterbury, took part, seen as Pagan by his critics. So was seen a contemporary need for Welsh identity by stretching into the past, even an ancient past, back to druids now linked to bards, a link which attracted other romantics, although these druid ideas were somewhat Unitarian in belief (rather than, say, suggestions of druidic pasts involving human sacrifice). Whilst some like Evan Evans wanted scholarly history in the linkage to druids, Williams had no such scruples in his fantasy of receiving ancient secrets from his former druids to be passed on. Other people, even those who smelt something strange, were sucked in, and the Unitarians and even Anglicans took something of this cultural shift in to their religious practices. His son published much after his death, including Cyfrinach y Beirdd (Secrets of the Bards) and Coelbren y Beirdd (Alphabet of the Bards, apparently recorded by druid-bards in the sixteenth century in Glamorgan of the time when Welsh bards, refused writing materials, used wood tally-sticks in a frame). Williams' recreations muddied the waters of research into druidism, due to his power at that moment of reaffirming Welsh identity. (Morgan in Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1983, 63-66)

The Gorsedd Prayer

by Edward Williams/ Iolo Morganwg

Dyro, Dduw, dy naw erth, deall;
Ac yn neall, gwybod;
Ac yng ngwybod, gwybod y cyfiawn;
Ac yng ngwybod y cyfiawn, eigarn;
Ac a garu, caru pob hanfod;
Ac ym mhob hanfod, caru Duw,
Duw a phob daioni.
Grant, O God, Thy protection,
And in protection, strength,
And in strength, understanding,
And in understanding, perception,
And in perception, perception of righteousness,
And in perception of righteousness, the love of it,
And in the love of it the love of all Life,
And in all Life to love God,
God and all goodness.

All That's Good

Iolo Morgannwg; tune: Troyte's Chant

O Lord do give us strength,
And in the strength divine
We ask for knowledge, too,
The knowledge that is thine.
And in that knowledge Lord
Grant to us in our days,
The understanding heart
To see each other's ways.
And when we understand -
To understand the right,
The right which we may love,
And love with all our might.
The Essence we may love
Upon which life has stood,
The essence which is God,
My God, and all that's good.

Adapted by Revd. D. Elwyn Davis, late Unitarian minister at Trebanos and Gellionen; in Morgannwg, 1979.


Incidentally, Unitarians have had several attempts at inventing traditions.. In the 140's Unitarian assetts were under attack on the grounds that trustee funds came from orthodox people from dissenters who remained orthodox. Unitarians lost a major trial in York but parliament saved the day partly on the argument that open trusts were liberal in character, facilitating change. A test of 25 years continuous occupation of a church was created in law allowing for change. However, open trusts were because of certainty in the sufficiency of the bible in doctrinal certainty, not any principle of change. Open trusts were not liberal documents; the founding presbyterians were fierce upholders of Puritan belief. many churches claim on the lines: "Unitarian Church Founded 1672" when they were not Unitarian at all. Unitarians also made churches gothic and moved pulpits to a side wall or turned the pews by ninety degrees. Unitarian Free Christians in the Victorian times made connection with the parish ethic of early ejected Presbyterians without recognising their fierce faith, just as denominational Unitarians at the same time were based on the sufficiency of the Bible (if now unitarian regarding God) without the parish ethic. Perhaps the most recent invented tradition is the use of the flower communion based on a Czech practice during the Nazi occupation. The story is that it allowed Jews to attend a church without involvement in Christian ceremony. The minister was killed by the Nazi regime. For Unitarians in Britain it creates a communion in a Unitarian tradition with a statement that this is not Christian.

Religions are prone to invention of traditions because of their need for change (progressive or regressive) and justifying it on the grounds of continuity. They are also at the heart of symbolic communication, the give and take in exchange that binds societies, makes the market economy, makes the sex act more meaningful and is the basis of sacrifice in religious ritual where something is given in the hope of receiving something greater.

So the invented tradition has a symbolic nature and emphasises the role of communication in carrying symbolic identity. Jungians might see the most successful reinventions tapping into archetypes, although communication theory offers the simplest most dynamic explanation, because the invented tradition has to chose its moment. There may be a biological explanation in that we are more like sociable chimpanzees than lonely orang utans. The invented tradition has to relate to what contemporary people need and understand in the give and take of meaning, offering one layer of myth upon another. It is dealing with mental maps of history, connecting an identification of spacial boundaries with time continuities.



Hobsbawn, E., Ranger, T. (1983), The Invention of Tradition, Past and Present Publications, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1-14.

Morgan, P. (1983), 'From a Death to a View: The Hunt for the Welsh past in the Romantic Period' in Hobsbawm, E., Ranger, T. (1983), 43-100

Morgannwg, I. (1979), Davis, D. E. (Adaptor), 'All That's Good', in Yr Ymofynnydd, English version, March/ April 1979, 39.

Images from:

Iaith Gendelaethol Cymru (1974), Dewch i Ddysgu Cymraeg 2, Pontypridd: Iaith Gendelaethol Cymru, 252.