Every now and again, a noisy crowd in strange disguises meanders through towns in the middle of Europe, leading a straw figure on a chain. There is music, and the straw figure brawls. People shout, ”Long live the Bear,” or something to this effect, even though there is no bear in sight anywhere. Sometimes, this is followed by a sort of trial during which all the hardships of the past year are retold and the monster blamed for each and every one of them. Finally, it is executed, and everybody rejoices and dances.
In case you should ever witness this event: You are not dealing with a bunch of lunatics but with an ancient European tradition.
Whenever we shake hands in greeting (rather than rubbing our noses or showing our tongues), we adhere to a tradition that reaches at least as far back as the days of the Apostle Paul.
Tradition, in short, is what we do because our ancestors have done it before us. Sometimes, we follow it consciously and intentionally; most of the time, however, we do it unwittingly, based on a vague assumption that whatever has worked for them will work for us, too. Tradition – as it were – is to trust the past.
Tradition is a vast domain that resides somewhere between God and the world. We cannot help but being traditional. Whenever we use a handkerchief, put on a hat, build a house, or simply chew a stick of gum, scores of tradition surround us. We cannot even eat eggs for breakfast and read the newspaper without carrying on a tradition, perhaps one our fathers picked up from their grandfathers.
However, it would be a mistake to believe that traditions are simply social mores passed down through generations, comparable to money we earned and that we turn over to those who themselves have earned it from us.
Tradition is nothing abstract, and while we continue it, we also alter it. The straw monster being chased through European streets in 2016 is totally different from the “scapebear” of identical appearance that helped our ancestors to cope with their fears centuries ago.
Traduttore/traditore says a proverb that can be traced back to the critiques of early French translations of Divina Commedia. Such is the course of cultures: tradizione/traduzione/tradimento. No generation starts at zero, and none leaves everything unaltered.
Sometimes, traditions are simply lost. The straw monster – even though it can still be seen every once in a while – is an empty shell, a ritual that has lost its significance. Sometimes, traditions are not passed on because their benefits are no longer obvious or because they are even considered harmful; just think of the history of medicine and quackery. A tradition that does not engender continued confidence has outlived its use.
Cultures also have discontinuities or emerge anew, such as in North America, where fragments of Native American, European, African and Asian traditions coexist and blend. North America does not define itself via its own traditions, but rather by their absence, by the political tabula rasa which it was when it was founded: the few traditions that do exist are mostly recent (the Superbowl) or commercial (the Macy parade), or both.
Europe is the reverse; the fascination with tradition seems to be particularly strong. Where else would one find a political unit that forms the foundation of cultural identity and is based upon an uninterrupted tradition of more than two thousand years and which has been passed on from person to person, from generation to generation, and which leader is simply called papa by everybody? Where else have many of the most renowned scholars dedicated their lives to the research and recovery of lost traditions? Where else does a language that has been nearly extinct for 1500 years play a similar role as Latin does in the Vatican, in seminaries, law, medical and even high schools throughout Europe? YLE, the Finnish public broadcaster, has a weekly Latin news broadcast, the Nuntii Latini – and Finland never had a Roman soldier anywhere near its soil.
In Japan or China, traditions are passed on through the millennia. In Europe, if needed, we just reinvent a tradition, if necessary even centuries later. In order to understand this intriguing bond with tradition, one has to take a brief look into the historical origin of this culture and turn to Central and Western Europe’s 8th and 9th centuries. The Arnulfings usurp the throne of the Merovingians and attempt – because the sacred Kingdom of the Franks is hereditary and Merovingian heirs do exist – to establish their legitimation by drawing on the culture of the former occupiers of the country, the Romans – although that culture had declined and crumbled some 500 years earlier.
An institution that outlasted the fall of the Roman Empire, namely Latin Christianity and the Bishop of Rome, is supposed to secure the way back to the past and beyond the decline.
After the forced abdication of the Merovingians, Pippin the Younger not only gets himself elected king by the Franks, but also appoints himself protector of the Patrimonium Petri and, in return, is anointed king by the Pope. Pippin’s son, Charlemagne, the “Founder of Europe,” exploits this design even further: He massively promotes the Christianisation of the realm, he expands the powers of the clergy and sets forth a comprehensive and elaborate Latinisation of his kingdom, the so-called Carolingian Renaissance that is meant to establish a cultural connection with the old empire. And he has himself crowned Caesar by the Pope in Rome – to seal the translatio imperii across the centuries during which the Roman culture had been lost.
Since then, Europeans have been struggling with an extinct culture like no other culture ever has. And the struggle continues until today.
However, this is merely one side, and everything has two of them (which – of course – is nonsense, but tradition wants it so), because the Europe of today also emerged from breaks with tradition that were as singular and unique as they were radical and momentous: the Renaissance, Humanism, Reformation, Enlightenment, the revolution in the natural sciences, the Industrial, the French, as well as other revolutions. We broke with the “Dark Ages” and defeated the lack of education that characterised Feudal societies. We shattered the images of Christian tradition and replaced tradition with interpretation – even of the word of God handed down to us through the ages. We have become used to verifying everything by measuring it and – above all – not to believe when we also have the ability to know.
Paradoxically, one of the most important reasons for these historical ruptures turned out to be Europe’s increased dependency on tradition. The Renaissance and Humanism were fighting against a distorted tradition, but also the Protestant movement endeavours to revert to Christianity’s early roots. Even the Enlightenment emerges in the name of tradition: Kant summarises its very nature with a quotation from Antiquity, reverting to Horace: Sapere aude – as if tradition could only be overcome by tradition itself. Dog’s hair cures dog’s bite, as Pliny the Elder already knew.
Other political upheavals, too, are part of these Janus-faced appeals to tradition. For modern tastes, the French Revolution’s admiration of Roman Antiquity, for instance, oscillates between theatrics and ridicule. We continue to call our form of government a democracy although it bears hardly any resemblance to the Athenian demokratía of two and a half millennia ago – which no one would want to revive anyway.
There are, of course, other reasons for these upheavals as well, the most important one being the media, or, more precisely, the print media. The invention of the printing press supported tradition at first. Gutenbergs’s very first publication – and this almost goes without saying – was the Bible. For the inventor, the new technology enabled a much better, cheaper, and more reliable distribution of what was meant to be THE BOOK all along.
The consequences, however, were as dramatic as they were unexpected. The wide availability of printed material promoted literacy in Europe at an enormous scale and led the way from the Bible of Catholicism that is read to the congregation to the Bible of Protestantism that is read by the congregation. Printed material became a powerful means of intellectual advancement unparalleled in history, leading to the concept of public information. Luther successfully utilised pamphlets as a means for mass communication; during the Thirty Years’ War, flyers were used to disseminate political news. Immediately after the end of that war, in the late 1640s, the first newspapers emerged.
Information is the opposite of tradition. She who possesses knowledge no longer has to face an impenetrable and almost overpowering torrent of events and mysticism, but can judge developments for herself. Newspapers make the world accessible to their readers, thereby putting tradition to the test.
And it was only one small but ever so critical step – one that took Europe about four generations – from assessing developments to realizing that it is possible to change them.
The states of modern Europe were aware of the fundamental significance of newspapers. A state that is founded upon the premise that the majority of its citizens has the right to cast a vote is a state where citizens want to be informed about politics. That is why the French Revolution marks the true birth of the modern newspaper (within a few years of the storming of the Bastille, the number of political newspapers in France increases from single digits to a total of 1,600). This is also why the press comes to be seen as the fourth estate – alongside the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary powers.
Such was the result. The road to it, however, proved to be very difficult for the newspapers as they, quite understandably, were considered a threat to the status quo. After Napoleon seized power, for example, he reduced the number of newspapers in France back down to four.
In his recent book, Urs Hafner analysed the early years of the Zürcher Zeitung (founded nine years prior to the French Revolution). The newspaper – committed to the ideas of the Enlightenment – was heavily censored, was not allowed to report on domestic issues at all and on allies of Zurich only in a restricted manner; furthermore, it was forbidden to publish articles on religion and the Church altogether.
Sanctions included printing bans, fines, and the burning of printed work; the editors could end up in the gaol, be expelled from the country, or even be executed (as was the case for Zurich pastor Johann Heinrich Waser during the newspaper’s first year. In German papers, Waser had published statistics about the Zurich population numbers and land prices which, at the time, were considered to be top secret).
The newspaper’s first four editors all hailed from Germany; they escaped from their Catholic upbringing and got into trouble with the Protestant Church in Zurich. Johann Kaspar Riesbeck, the paper’s first editor, was dismissed due to pressure from the Council of Zurich because he ridiculed nobility; he died, lonely and impoverished, at the age of 32. His successor, Johann Michael Armbruster, was incarcerated and committed suicide a few years later. Peter Philipp Wolf – who held on as editor for ten years – survived his time in Zurich unscathed, despite his unwavering support of the French Revolution. Franz Xaver Bronner got into trouble with the censorship board over his reports on Napoleon’s triumphs. After three years, he was dismissed because he spoke out against the tithe in a lecture, incarcerated and banished for life.
These four destinies are representative for the struggle for information that jeopardises tradition, a struggle that continued until press freedom was legislated in 1829 in Zurich.
The Neue Zürcher Zeitung has long since assumed the aura of an “old lady” with a tradition of her own. Ever since the emergence of the new media, she – along with the entire printing industry – has been at risk of becoming obsolete in the digital age. We are working to ensure that its shapes and content will adapt to new media through continued development and integration in such a way that it can fulfil its mission for decades to come – to put the entire world within reach and suffuse the relentless “chatter” of events with meaning.