Handing it Down: a survey of the use of tradition in French and English from the 16th to the 20th centuries

  1. 1. Mark Olsen

    Department of Romance Languages - University of Chicago

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Handing it Down: a survey of the use of tradition in
French and English from the 16th to the 20th centuries


University of Chicago


University of Tübingen







Tradition is a vital element of all cultures. It serves as central means for the
maintenance and propagation of collective or social memory, binding the present
to the past in almost innumerable ways. While there is no shortage of studies of
particular traditions, it is surprising find that "scholarly analyses of the
history and present meaning of the concept of tradition remain remarkably
few."Mark Phillips, "What is tradition when it is not
'invented'?; an historiographical introduction", in M. Phillips and G.
Schochet, eds. Questions of Tradition (University
of Toronto Press, forthcoming). Edward Shils made the same claim, 20 years
ago, in his ground breaking Tradition (Chicago, 1981). Derived from
the Latin traditio, a form of handing property down
from one generation to another, the meanings and associations of this term have
developed differently in English and French from the early modern period.
The last decade has been marked by the appearance of an impressive array of very
large textual databases containing significant samples of several national
literatures. These collections cover many genres and document types, including
different kinds of reference works as well as canonical and noncanonical
literary holdings, spanning many centuries. The chronological scope and wide
coverage of these databases open the possibility of performing systematic
analysis of the history of the idea of "tradition" in individual languages and
comparisons of the history of this notion between languages.
The appearance of so many large textual databases has created a new set of
problems, which might be thought of as an embarrassment of riches. The number of
occurrences of even relatively rare terms can exceed even the most dedicated
scholar's ability to review all of the results. As part of the initial work on
this project, I implemented two interactive (or real-time) extensions to
PhiloLogic that I found useful in grasping "the big picture". The first, based
on earlier implementations, allows the user to generate word frequencies and
corrected frequencies broken down by time periods. The second is a simple
collocation generator which calculates frequencies of all words within a user
selected span to the left and right of a keyword with an optional filtering
mechanism to eliminate high frequency function words from the report.Susan Hockey provides a useful overview of "collocation" in Electronic Texts in the Humanities, (Oxford, 2000), pp
90-91. See also Mark Olsen, "Gender representation and histoire des
mentalités: Language and Power in the Trésor de la langue française", in
Histoire et measure VI (1991):
The broad outlines of the senses of the word tradition provided by the Dictionnaire de l'Academie française (DAF) from the first
edition (1694) to the eighth (1932-5) are consistent. The first edition provides
3 senses of tradition; a legal term for the delivery
of property; a means (voye) of transmission of
unwritten knowledge from the past, primarily in a religious context; and the
contents of knowledge coming to us by la voye de la
Tradition. Two and a half centuries later, the Academy still
classified traditionas a term de Jurisprudence et de Liturgie leading the definition with senses
drawn from legal and Catholic citations.
The primacy of the religious cast of tradition in
17th century French is confirmed by an examination of the most frequent
collocates of tradition, which include e[s]criture, eglise, sainte, and constante.
There were, however, non-Catholic traditions could not be accorded the same
authority, for which a different, secularized word was used: " Traditive s.f. Il a les mesmes sens que Tradition, mais il
ne se dit point dans les matieres de Religion."DAF, 1st edition (1694) vol. 2, p. 583. This
non-Catholic "tradition" disappears in later editions of the DAF and appears to
loose currency in the language. A search of the ARTFL database reveals 9
occurrences dated between 1620-1660 while a search of the Corpus of Philosophy
finds 13 citations from the end of the 16th century, and it is found in earlier
dictionaries, such as Jean Nicot's Thesor (1606).
The disappearance of the traditive in the early 18th
century is marked by recasting of tradition as a form of knowledge which can be
verified, most remarkably by the philosophes, and by
the appearance of adjective (traditionel, elle) and adverbial
(traditionnellement) forms, suggesting that tradition moves from an identifiable
thing to a characteristic. The entries for tradition in the Encyclopédie are classified as being part of "sacred criticism,
religion, or law", the article in which the word tradition is most frequently
used is Certitude. This article is an examination of
the means by which one may achieve certitude morale
when assessing knowledge based on reports of witness through three channels
canals) or lignes
traditionelles, oral, written and monumental.

Il paroît par ce que j'ai dit jusqu'ici, qu'on doit raisonner sur la
tradition comme sur les témoins oculaires. Un fait transmis par une seule
ligne traditionelle, ne mérite pas plus notre foi, que la déposition d'un
seul témoin oculaire; car une ligne traditionelle ne représente qu'un témoin
oculaire; elle ne peut donc équivaloir qu'à un seul témoin.
Encyclopédie, vol. 2, p. 854.

Tradition retains the possibility of being authoritative, even for the philosophes, because it may be critically evaluated.
The authority of tradition in English in the early modern period is far more
questionable because of the influence of the Protestant attack on Catholic
tradition. The most frequent collocates of tradition in the English Poetry
database between 1550 and 1699 include vain(e), man's, men's, superstition and
false. Many citations equate tradition with papism, falsehood, and superstition.
In his Voyage Around the World..., Dunton points out
that travel is an important corrective given "how fatal into Truth the
dependence upon the Tradition and Authority of Men".EEPF: p.
290.By contrast to the extensive treatment in the Encyclopédie, the Encyclopedia Britannica, half a century later,
fully defines tradition as
something handed down from one generation to another without being
written. Thus the Jews pretend, that besides their written law contained
in the Old Testament, Moses had delivered an oral law which had conveyed
down from father to son; and thus the Roman Catholics are said to value
particular doctrines supposed to have descended from the apostolic times
by tradition.
5th edition (1817), vol. 20, pp. 458-9.

Similarly, both Locke and Hume suggest that tradition is an almost completely
unreliable form of knowledge. In contrast to the examination in the Encyclopédie, Hume writes
An historical fact, while it passes by oral tradition from
eyewitnesses and contemporaries, is disguised in every successive
narration, and may at last retain but very small, if any, resemblance of
the original truth, on which it was founded.
BritPhil: David Hume, Natural History,
p. 312.

The English representation of tradition, into the 19th century and even among
prominent intellectuals, is shaped by anti-Catholic positions from a much
earlier period.
The French representation of tradition in the 19th century sees the development
of social and cultural usages, which also appears to be typical of English
usage, an issue to be examined in the full paper. This is suggested both by the
frequencies of the use of tradition in particular works and terms most commonly
associated with tradition. For example, 127 of 481 occurrences of tradition in
the 19th century (CPhil) are found in one work: Ballanche, Pierre-Simon [1818],
Essai sur les institutions sociales, with 70
occurrences in Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph [1860], De la justice
dans la révolution et dans l'église. Examination of collocation
tables for French databases, such as ARTFL, suggest that in the 19th century,
traditions are localized by geographic region, family, and class, associated
with customs, while retaining clear religious connotations. The twentieth
century introduces a new strong pattern of associations, featuring national,
French, political and revolutionary traditions as the most frequent collocates,
which take some precedence over the personal, local and familial patterns of
19th century tradition.
There are also important shifts in the "ownership" of tradition in French. The
construct "our tradition[s]" rarely appears in the 17th or 18th centuries, but
becomes fairly common in the 19th and 20th centuries. By contrast, the 3rd
person possessives (his/her, their) also increase during the period, but not
nearly as quickly.The first person plural possessive and all forms
of tradition: 1 occurrence in the 17th century, 44 in the 20th. Third person
plural possessive and all forms of tradition: 17 occurrences in the 17th
century, 84 in the 20th. In the 17th and 18th centuries, other people
(Jews for example) had their traditions, but by the 19th and 20th centuries
tradition becomes associated with local, national, or cultural
The use of relatively simple methodologies applied to large textual databases may
result in useful contributions to the history of concepts and histoire des mentalités, by facilitating examinations
of contrasts between long term developments across languages and the isolation
of individual texts or authors that may introduce significant changes in these
trends. The examination of tradition, in French and English, reveals evolving
patterns in relationship of contemporaries to their past, authority of the past,
and the importance of the past in self-definition.

The following databases, from various sources, all implemented under PhiloLogic,
have been used so far in this study.
Les dictionnaires d'autrefois and the pre-release
implementation of the 4th edition of the DAF.
Diderot, Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire
Main ARTFL Database [TLF].
Corpus des oeuvres de philosophie en langue française (Bibliopolis).
Early English Prose Fiction [EEPF], (Chadwyck-Healey).
English Poetry [EngPo], (Chadwyck-Healey).
British Philosophy, 1600-1900 [BritPhil], (Intelex).
Corpus de la littérature narrative [BASILE], (Champion).

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Conference Info

In review

"New Directions in Humanities Computing"

Hosted at Universität Tübingen (University of Tubingen / Tuebingen)

Tübingen, Germany

July 23, 2002 - July 28, 2008

72 works by 136 authors indexed

Affiliations need to be double-checked.

Conference website: http://web.archive.org/web/20041117094331/http://www.uni-tuebingen.de/allcach2002/

Series: ALLC/EADH (29), ACH/ICCH (22), ACH/ALLC (14)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None