Monday, January 02, 2012

Of old customs

Somewhere in the beginning of his essay “Of ancient customs” Montaigne says that sometimes customs rapidly change and that what once was a custom often is ridiculed some time later. Especially in fashion this is the case: “When they wore the busk of their doublets up as high as their breasts, they stiffly maintained that they were in their proper place; some years after it was slipped down betwixt their thighs, and then they could laugh at the former fashion as uneasy and intolerable.” Therefore Montaigne wants to show that some customs are already old, while others aren’t “to the end that, bearing in mind this continual variation of human things, we may have our judgment more clearly and firmly settled.” Then Montaigne gives a range of customs in antiquity, some of them different, some of them the same as in his days.
I do not want to list here, like Montaigne, old customs and compare them with modern ones in order to put what we do into perspective. What actually surprises me is that some things we do are already so old, albeit that they may have got other coats during the years. When I write this, it is just after Christmas, a feast full of traditions. On this day we remember the birth of Christ. But is Christmas really on the 25th of December because Christ was born on this day? In fact the day was chosen, because the adherents of the Mithras religion commemorated the birth of their god on this date. Moreover, many other peoples in the world had (and still have) midwinter celebrations about this time of the year. A lot of Christmas customs apparently go back to such much older pre-Christian traditions. And, although it is not typically a midwinter tradition, didn’t the Romans already give presents on the Saturnalia (Dec. 17)?
Not only such more or less “official” customs, so traditions, have a long history. Also many of our habitual actions that actually everybody does have a long past. I mean just the normal daily routines. Montaigne mentions, for instance, a simple thing like “to eat fruit ... after dinner” in antiquity; and where I had written “…”, Montaigne wrote “as we do”. “We”, 21st-century wo/men, still often do the same. But in fact, I realized how old some of our daily habits and customs are not just when I read Montaigne’s essay, but when I encountered lately a newspaper article about a recent archeological discovery that showed that “when Europe still was inhabited by Neanderthal man, in Africa people had already completely equipped bedrooms”. And it is not Neanderthal man, but this homo sapiens in Africa who is our ancestor. Already our forbears in Southern Africa 77.000 years ago had bedrooms and beds. Of course, their beds were not the same as ours with mattresses, sheets and blankets but they were made of saw sedge, which is still used for making beds here and there today, though. But what made this article made me aware of is that one of the things I do every day is already very, very old, at least 77.000 years: making up my bed. Many things we do have changed through the ages, but some seem to stay forever.
Michel de Montaigne, “Of ancient customs”, Essays, Book I, essay 49. I use the Gutenberg translation:

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