European societies have long identified with ideas of progress and modernization, which had the consequence that tradition was easily turned into a term of abuse or condescension. But what was a ‘traditional’ society in their eyes? It was heavily rural, often autocratic and patriarchal, with little in the way of representative governance; and economically it implied a high dependence on primary production and the family economy, few towns and cities, and little capitalization or technological advance. It was easy to confuse this with ignorance and backwardness, as politicians in the French Revolution and Napoleonic empire were prone to do, when they encountered local societies in Egypt, in eastern Europe, or in the Mediterranean lands to the south. But traditional did not need to equate with backward or primitive, and in the post-revolutionary era, a period characterized by romanticism, Europeans began to take a different view, seeing religious faith as a source of strength, admiring the art and culture of the Orient and of newly-discovered African nations, and decrying the humanism of the Enlightenment as a form of reductionism. Tradition attained a new status. National identity would be formed around cultural traditions, both real and imagined, while radical and social movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries sought their roots in traditional beliefs and practices. Today there is renewed interest in tradition, be it in the form of religious beliefs or village rituals; it can no longer be automatically assumed that the traditional is the enemy of the modern.
Research for this article was funded with the support of project № 14.Z50.31.0045 from the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation.