Digital Humanities Abstracts

“Handing it Down: a survey of the use of tradition in French and English from the 16th to the 20th centuries”
Mark Olsen University of Chicago

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."° 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.° 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."° 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.” ° 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".°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.” ° 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.” ° 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.° 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 identification. 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 raisonné.... 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).