War dissolves customs

…the role of wars in dealing the coup de grace to lingering customs is quite remarkable.  Contemporary observers noted this development without comment or simply attributed it directly to the catastrophe.  But war was less a cause of change than a precipitant of changes already under way.  Edgar Morin makes precisely this point when he writes that in the parish of Plodémet “the war of 1914 accelerated and amplified most of the processes set off in 1880-1900.”  Like the Great Revolution in peasant parlance, the Great War became a symbolic dividing line between what once was and what is, so that informants in a survey used terms like jadis and avant de guerre interchangeably.  Yet wars are not watersheds for customs, but difficult times in which people are forced to focus on essential matters and come to see things differently.  Many festive customs were not necessarily suspended by the Great War.  In the countryside, mourning was almost as universal as hardship; two years for parents, one for siblings.  There were few pigs to slaughter, no festive family meals, no public festivities.  And after the war there was the great influenza epidemic.  By 1919 the old customs were no longer part of people’s lives.  Some were restored to their prewar prominence, but many were quietly forgotten.

That is from Eugen Weber’s classic Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914.


The change in Downton Abbey from season to season is a pretty good pop culture case study of this phenomenon. Keeping an army of maids and under-butlers already made little economic sense, but the war served as a good catalyst for shaking things up.

I think the economic decline, absolute and relative, of the Peerage and gentry had something to do with that. Given that escalating shares of income have been derived from non-agricultural sources, that would have been inevitable unless the Peerage and gentry had at the very least managed the art of shrewd portfolio investment. Automation of household tasks also has something to do with that. Princess Margaret, for whom income constraints weren't pressing and who was also notoriously regal in her mundane conduct, employed 7 servants (1 or 2 on duty at any one time).

Did the war precipitate changes in customs or did the customs precipitate the war? Europe and America had two very different experiences when it came to the end of the gilded age: in Europe the physical destruction of capital during the great war contributed to the end of the gilded age whereas in America we were spared the physical destruction of capital but suffered the destruction in the value of capital as the result of the financial crisis and great depression. Even Piketty forgets this difference in his seminal book on inequality. Looking ahead, what will precipitate the "coup de grace to lingering customs" during the second gilded age?

UBI & below replacement fertility. Their interaction will produce millions of men living cheaply in basements and gaming away, after withdrawing from both the marriage and labor markets. Women will do the office work (existing wage differentials show they are willing to work for far less than men) and be able to get laid until a certain age, but have a hard time finding anyone when it's time for that. Perhaps some climate change will be mixed into that dystopia, with massive storms and floods rocking our coastal and plains areas, and CO2 levels one day choking people to death like Darth Vader.

....dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!...

Yes, war dissolves customs. That is why customs are so throroughly kept in Swededn, which hasn't been in a war for over 200 years.

However, in the actual real world where we live in, customs have changed more in Sweden than in France or the UK. What was he talking about, again?

"By 1919 the old customs were no longer part of people’s lives. Some were restored to their prewar prominence, but many were quietly forgotten."

What specific customs is he talking about? They still celebrated Christmas! I would be interested in hearing about these 'forgotten customs'. Are there any in the US?

Duhh, they're FORGOTTEN so how can anyone still know them?

I like this line of snark, but it's a weird one to sock puppet with.

I assume he's speaking of particular saint's days and of celebrations which are purely local (which the cult of certain saints may be). It's not very clear. St. Joseph's day was once important among ethnic Italians in the U.S. Not sure if that's still true. Mass on First Fridays has pretty much disappeared. Etc.

That makes sense. Fish Fry Fridays still big in Wisconsin, but not nearly what it once was it's true.

Here in Montréal, Italian bakeries sell Zeppole di San Guiseppe in March.

Generally speaking, modern Québec has very limited interest in tradition; but good food is an exception.

Generally speaking, modern Québec has very limited interest in tradition;

Uh huh.

Quebec died with Duplessis. Ireland is the country of Mary Robinson and Slane Girl.


Modernity hit Québec good and hard; maybe harder since the Church had resisted it so long. (Of course it really did lead to a massive loss of faith overall, priests and nuns leaving the religious life, collapse of the family, sub-replacement birthrate, etc. so the opposition of the Church was understandable.) In any case, urbanisation, industrialisation, modern communications and so on were inevitable.

Duplessis was a transitional figure, one who stood up for traditional virtues and identity, while building schools and highways and encouraging industrialisation. If the Union Nationale had survived, the transition might have been otherwise; it's possible that it could have occurred without the rejection of religion, adoption of left-wing economic policy, and the wasted effort of secessionism. But Duplessis's heirs died early, and his political enemies triumphed, convincing the public that the golden post-war years were really "La Grande Noirceur". It is striking that the generation before the boomers happily supported Duplessis; but the boomers imagine that their parents were ruled by fear and ignorance.

Anyway, I chose to live here. For all its faults, I am glad I came. And perhaps Québec will reform: voters are increasingly restless, wanting to move on from the Liberal/PQ pas à deux. Québec changed from very conservative to very liberal in a generation, so a new generation may yet change to a more healthy state.

A major theme in Thucydides

and Hobbes, who studied and translated Thucydides' work.


Indeed it was.

Dissolves. Watershed. Inspired by these fluid terms, I looked up the definition of watershed, and, much to my surprise, found that at the broadest definition it simply means "land" (see: https://water.usgs.gov/edu/watershed.html). So this statement by E. Weber is apt: "By 1919 the old customs were no longer part of people’s lives. Some were restored to their prewar prominence, but many were quietly forgotten."--a somewhat amorphous statement, meaning, broadly, anything goes after a war, and there's no telling what will happen, just that change will happen, like predicted by the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers.

Bonus trivia: who said "you cannot step into the same river twice" and thought the world was made of fire? Heraclitus of course (but in fact he never really said that, see: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heraclitus/). Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

That's not the meaning of "watershed" intended here. It also means "an event or era that had a major impact on everything that came after it".

Obviously, but where did this second meaning of watershed come from? From this: "1.an area or ridge of land that separates waters flowing to different rivers, basins, or seas", which, if you look at my OP, is wrong (no such 'ridge' exists in the geological term 'watershed'). Class dismissed.

Bonus bonus trivia: strokes can damage the "watershed" areas in the brain, which are the areas between the major arteries in the brain that are not well perfused with blood.


Fernando Arrabal's "Picnic on the Battlefield"

The observation would apply largely to places where battles were fought, places under occupation, and (perhaps) places where rationing was the order of the day. It would apply much more to the 2d World War than to the 1st. That aside, it's difficult to credit the idea that people given the opportunity do not resume their celebrations if it's something they are invested in. I think if you look on the plaques at country clubs and the like, you see that club championships were suspended during the world wars and resumed immediately afterward. The PGA was suspended during both world wars.

I think you'd be much more successful hunting for truffles if you examined the aftermath of the 2d Vatican Council. To some extent it was the work of the Council itself, but more the psychological breakdown the Council triggered in the episcopacy, in the seminaries, and in the religious orders (sometimes temporary, sometimes abiding).

Interestingly, I have seen a similar pattern in biology. Yucca plants, for example, often can live for a very long time in certain areas--but as soon as a fire sweeps through the area, it is impossible for yucca plants to grow. It turns out that the area isn't actually suitable for yucca plants, but since they were already there they continued to be there. The fire removes them, and new plants can't migrate in because it's not suitable for that species.

It plays merry havoc with the Uniformitarian/Neocatastrophist debate! It appears that some things (customs, plants, etc) can survive long after they "should" have gone away, and that the events that destroy them merely push them over the edge they've already walked up to.

@James - Also by analogy, in anthropology, the cannibalistic brain eating in Papua New Guinea tribes that caused kuru, the brain wasting disease from the same family as BSE, was a custom that was not rooted in 'ancient' customs but in a practice about 100 years old, anthropologists found, so the putative racist prohibition of the practice of ritual brain eating was responsible for decreasing kuru in those tribes.

Bonus trivia: Nobel Prize in Medicine winning Dr. D. Carleton Gajdusek discovered this link, was a convicted child molester who believed in incest, and worked in near 24 hour darkness near the Arctic Circle. I can relate to that (the darkness part, work-wise, more productive). See Wikipedia for further details.

Ditto a pretty-in-its-unexpectedness, "relict" forest around Bastrop, Texas, far from the Piney Woods, colloquially called the "Lost Pines." They burned a few years ago, and aren't expected to return in great numbers. There's sandy soil still, but I guess the climate is different. Their loss revealed Bastrop to be just another ugly highway town.

And I guess, by analogy, if the war made Paris pre-eminent over rural France, a similar diminishment. But then my opinion of Parisians was acquired secondhand from an Englishman's breezy history of France, "La Belle France," which had to go to no great rhetorical lengths to present Parisians as vicious, violent, and nearly sub-human.

I would think the greatest effect of war on local customs and culture (e.g., WWI) would be the ability (necessity) of young men to travel beyond their own immediate surroundings. For those who were lucky enough to return, they came back with the knowledge that there was a world beyond their little village, where life and customs were different. I think the United States experienced somewhat of the same thing with respect to those returning from World War II.

As far as France is concerned, the notion of a French nation is relatively new. It developed in large part due to the invention of new means of transportation, the building of roads and railroads, etc. As recently as less than two hundred years ago it would have been difficult for many a French man or woman to understand someone from a different part of the same "country". Graham Robb, in his book "The Discovery of France", does a good job of documenting that.

I think the United States experienced somewhat of the same thing with respect to those returning from World War II.

Well that's the cliche. More salient was the shakeout in agriculture after 1918. There had been some decline in the relative position of agriculture in the labor market during the period running from 1880 to 1920, but not (AFAIK) an absolute decline in the number employed (particularly the number employed from among the population not derived from the post-Reconstruction immigration waves). Over the period running from 1920 to 1940, the raw number employed in agriculture dropped by more than 1/3. There's a considerable swath of non-metropolitan counties in the Plains states whose population peaked in 1930 (or perhaps 1950) and haven't yet seen the end of their demographic implosion.

As far as France is concerned, the notion of a French nation is relatively new.

It isn't.

The Discovery of France (Graham Robb) gave me a great deal of pleasure, a fine book.

Isn't it? An excellent read: what did Tyler say about it?

I am trying to link this post to your other post on the Indian caste system.

I think it works both ways. A highly diversified, segregated society can keep violence at bay and low levels of violence in turn tend to strengthen entrenched customs.

India is a remarkably low crime society. Has been that way for millennia. Partly got to do with the caste system with its unforgiving emphasis on codes of conduct and social ostracism of deviants. Caste system is a cause of Indian non violence as well as a consequence of Indian non violence.

India is a remarkably low crime society.”… Not true, it’s true only for violent crime. Plenty of fraud, pickpocketing, scams, widespread corruption etc. How are those not crimes ?

Not to mention pervasive sexual harassment of women.

Rape rates, husband desertions, unwed pregnancies - take any metric you like.....India beats US favorably on each one of them. It is a much safer country than US.

Any metric? I think I will take Communal riots. How many people have been killed in the US in religiously-fueled riots lately?

"India is a remarkably low crime society."... Not true, it's true only for violent crime. Plenty of fraud, pickpocketing, scams, widespread corruption etc. How are those not crimes ?

India is a remarkably low violent-crime society.

I have not seen it explained that well since 'Before the war'.

Weber's "The Wester Tradition" lectures are amazing, and free on the web to boot. I fell in love with them when our local PBS station aired them late each night. They were the window to Western Civ that I never had in college.


"Avant de guerre" isn't French that I have ever come across. "Avant-guerre" surely is the more common term.

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