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Tradition as a Source of Legitimacy


Admission requirements

This course is an Honours Class and therefore in principle only available to students of the Honours College. There are a few places available for regular students.


The concept of tradition is central to many fields in social sciences and humanities. Historians, art historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, and others all deal with the question why human societies pass down traditions and study how traditions are used to legitimize and preserve political structures and social orders. What can we learn from their different approaches? In this Honours Class specialists from various disciplines are invited to reflect on the history and current state of tradition research in their respective fields. They will present us with cases from their own research practices, which range from ancient funerary rituals to present-day political extremism.

Course objectives

Upon successful completion of this course, students will:

  • have an in-depth understanding of the conceptual history of tradition and its applications in postwar academic scholarship;

  • be up-to-date with the present state of tradition research;

  • have learned about the uses of tradition as a source of legitimacy in past and present, western and non-western societies;

  • understand more about the methodological underpinnings and research practices of a wide range of disciplines in social sciences, humanities, and law.


8 sessions of 2 hours, second semester, 2016-2017
Wednesday 8, 15 February, 1, 8, 22, 29 March, 5 and 12 April, 15:00 – 17:00 hrs.


8, 15 February, 8, 22 March the class will take place in the Old Observatory room C006.
29 March the class will take place in KOG room A002.
1 March, 5, 12 April the class will take place in the Old Observatory room C005.


8 February 2017 – Introduction
Dr. Diederik Smit en dr. Joris Oddens, Leiden University

15 February 2017 – Tradition, parliaments, and populism: the historical approach
Prof. dr. Henk te Velde, Leiden University

Historians like to study change, and they have argued that many seemingly unchanging traditions were, in fact, “invented” and constructed. I will argue that parliaments have been the locus of many “invented traditions”, but that continuity and the force of tradition are nevertheless crucial. Today populism challenges this continuity, but – paradoxically – in the name of yet other traditions.

1 March 2017 – Tradition and archaeology: death and commemoration in ancient Palmyra
Dr. Lidewijde de Jong, University of Groningen

This lecture explores how the notion of tradition is studied in the discipline of archaeology. We focus in particular on burials and rituals of commemoration of the dead. The case study addresses tomb architecture and funerary rituals in the ancient city of Palmyra, on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire.

8 March 2017 – Iconography and pictorial tradition in the digital era
Dr. Marrigje Rikken, RKD Nederlands Instituut voor Kunstgeschiedenis

Iconography has always been one of the cornerstones in art history, especially when it concerns the genre of history paintings. The quest of identifying what subject is depicted and of finding the source of specific pictorial motifs is often not straightforward, but is changing rapidly in this age of digitization. This will be demonstrated by analyzing Gerard de Lairesse’s choices in iconography.

22 March 2017 – Tradition, authenticity and the world’s intangible cultural heritage
Prof. dr. Peter Jan Margry, Meertens Institute

This lecture addresses the intertwined concepts of tradition and authenticity. Both concepts will be applied and explained from an ethnological perspective. In the past (until ca. WW II) both concepts have been wrongly instrumentalized by folklorists as main elements in claiming, constituting and explaining national/regional culture, identity and their histories. ‘Tradition' and ‘authenticity’ are put in perspective in relation to the UNESCO world convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage of 2003.

29 March 2017 – Too good to be true? A (Leiden) perspective on the West African Mali empire
Dr. Jan Jansen, Leiden University

In the Late Middle Ages Arab travelers reported of the Mali empire and its rulers. When the French colonized this area at the end of the nineteenth century, they developed the idea that it once knew a fine system of governance which had disintegrated over the centuries. The local populations accepted this linear history, since they named its country, after having gained independence from France, the Republic of Mali, thus capitalizing on a magnificent medieval past. On the basis of a typically Leiden-style analysis of orally transmitted genealogies Jan Jansen argues that this image is too good to be true.

5 April 2017 – Destined to instruct the world? Religious renewal and the value of tradition in Church history: the Dutch Catechism of 1966
Dr. Maarten van den Bos, Banning Vereniging

In church history, the role of religious traditions has been hotly debated in recent historiography. Especially works on the religious revolution of the 1960s problematize the concept “tradition” both as a theological and as an analytical concept. We will focus on the Dutch Catechism, published in 1966 in order to both trace back the contemporary meaning of the concept tradition and investigate its role in historiography on the religious sixties.

12 April 2017 – Tradition as a source of legitimacy – wrap-up
Dr. Diederik Smit en dr. Joris Oddens, Leiden University

Course Load

This course is worth 5 EC, which means the total course load equals 140 hours.

  • Seminars: 8 seminars of 2 hours: 16 hours

  • Literature reading: 4 hours p/week: 32 hours

  • Assignments & final essay: 92 hours

Assessment method

  • 10% Participation assessed continually through participation in seminars

  • 20% written assignments

  • 70% A final paper of 4500 words

Blackboard and uSis

Blackboard will be used in this course. Students can register for the Blackboard site two weeks prior to the start of the course.

Please note: students are not required to register through uSis for the Honours Classes. Your registration will be done centrally.

Reading list

The required literature will be available on Blackboard.


Enrolling in this course is possible from Monday November 7th until Sunday November 20th through the Honours Academy, via this link


Dr. Joris Oddens
Dr. Diederik Smit


This course will have a minimum of 11 and a maximum of 22 participants.