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21.03.12 Stevens, The Economy of Medieval Wales

The Medieval Review

21.03.12 Stevens, The Economy of Medieval Wales


It should be axiomatic that the history of Wales needs to be studied, in the first instance, on its own terms. During the Middle Ages, Wales was formed from a distinctive cocktail of historical ingredients: a fragmented political geography; inter- and intra-ethnic conflict; competing Christian traditions; and a native language, law, and literary culture. Its economy should, of course, be treated in the same way. There is no reason why the economy of medieval Wales should have developed along a trajectory traced by one of its neighbours--even England, whose economy was always closely intermeshed with that of Wales. Rather, there is every reason to suppose that it did not. But sadly it remains true that the economic history of Wales, like so many other aspects of the history of Wales, is too often treated as an adjunct to the history of England, rather than as a subject of study in its own right. One could muse over the reasons: the relatively underdeveloped state of the historiography, resulting from a comparative lack of workers in the field; the consequent necessity for writers of broad, synthesising works to apply models deriving from the English context, sometimes inappropriately, to Wales; a persistent tendency in university History courses to "include" Wales in the curriculum as part of a "Celtic fringe" of England; and perhaps just plain ignorance. Matthew Frank Stevens is alive to these issues. "The net result," he writes on page 2, "is a narrative that looks at Wales, Ireland and Scotland (and, indeed even upland England) from the outside, and tends to compress, by identifying similarities between these areas, their stories into a secondary thread woven into the main lowland-England narrative." This, broadly, is the historiographical context for any new scholarly work on the economic history of medieval Wales, and it is a key motivator underlying Stevens's book.

In The Economy of Medieval Wales, Stevens sets out to write an accessible overview of the economic history of Wales from the first arrival of the Normans in 1067 to the Union of England and Wales in the reign of Henry VIII. He is greatly aided by the format provided by the publisher, University of Wales Press, which has carved out a niche for itself in recent years as a producer of academic books, written by leading scholars, that conform to a size, tone, and price deemed acceptable to the general public (this book, even without any of the press's regular discounts, is priced at a welcome £24.99). It is a short book that gets to the point quickly. It begins with an Introduction that sets out the historiographical context. There follow only four chapters. Chapters 1 and 3 present the grand overview of the economic history of medieval Wales, addressing respectively the periods before and after the onset of the Great Famine in 1315. Chapter 2, sandwiched between them, offers a more detailed view of "the medieval economy at its apex" in the decades around 1300. Lastly, the short chapter 4 explores three of the major models for explaining change in medieval economies (the demographic, the neo-Marxist, and the commercial), and discusses their applicability to medieval Wales.

If the history of medieval Wales revolves around a unique set of factors, then its study requires the acquisition of specific knowledge and skills. Stevens, amply aware of the need to understand the distinctiveness of the Welsh situation, appears uneven in this regard. Broadly, the impression conveyed by this book, to this reviewer, is that Stevens is more comfortable as a historian of the medieval economy than as a historian of medieval Wales. This impression accumulates from many of the book's details. On the first page of Chapter 1, for instance, we are told that Welsh rulers in the eleventh century were "typically styled 'princes' in recognition of the modest extent of their realms" (13), even though the title "prince" was actually first adopted in Wales by Owain Gwynedd in the 1160s in order to articulate his supremacy within Wales. Stevens here reproduces a popular misconception, but it is surprising to find it, alongside several others, in a book about medieval Wales by a Senior Lecturer at a Welsh university. The impression may be illustrated further by considering two of the book's major themes.

One major theme concerns the relative significance of demographic growth for the medieval Welsh economy. Stevens attempts to show that, contrary to what has sometimes been claimed, demographic growth was not a major driver of economic growth in medieval Wales between the late eleventh and early fourteenth centuries, and certainly not to the same extent that it was in England. This was primarily due to a lack of previously unexploited arable farmland in Wales, unlike in neighbouring England. The point seems basically convincing (albeit to a reviewer who is not an economic historian), and is well supported by a variety of references to recent literature on the topic arising from English contexts. Stevens argues instead that, in this period, "the population of Wales increased modestly as a result of immigration-fuelled urbanisation" (65); the major factor was the growth of towns, supported by immigration from England, rather than the expansion of arable output. Any concomitant increases in seigniorial revenue, Stevens points out, are more likely to have resulted from the intensified exploitation of judicial lordship and arbitrary taxation than from genuine growth in peasant productivity. In these respects, therefore, generalisations extrapolated from the better attested and more thoroughly discussed economic history of England cannot usefully be extended to Wales.

A second major theme, as Stevens would phrase it, is the expansion and then collapse of the "gwely." For Stevens, "gwely" is a term that refers to the "four-generational agnatic kin group" of native Welsh society, which was "the unit of production from time immemorial when Norman lords first reached the Welsh borders" (18). His account of this social unit derives almost entirely from his interpretation of the work of Thomas Jones Pierce and his student Glanville Jones, published largely in the middle decades of the twentieth century, rather than from direct engagement with the primary sources. All of this is alarming for several reasons. For a start, he makes no reference at all to the more recent, and outstandingly important, work on the gwely by T. M. Charles-Edwards: namely, Charles-Edwards's chapter on "The Gwely and the Gafael" in his Early Irish and Welsh Kinship (published by Oxford University Press in 1993). Had Stevens read this fundamental work, he might have been spared some of the many and recurrent errors that lace his discussions of Welsh social structure. The gwely was not a "four-generational agnatic kin group." Such a group did indeed have an important place in Welsh land law, in that inherited land could be repeatedly divided and shared out between male-line descendants of a former land-holder down to the generation of that land-holder's great-grandsons; but a gwely this was not. Nor was such land held "by the common ownership of the gwely"(28; cf. 77–8), as Stevens claims elsewhere, somewhat antithetically. Welsh land law certainly acted to discourage the outright alienation of land from the family, but many property rights remained vested in individual land-holders. Rather, "gwely"was a more general word that could simply refer to a group of agnatic relatives, who may, for whatever reason, have maintained some form of corporate identity. A gwely in this sense did not necessarily have intrinsic economic importance, and was certainly not "the unit of production from time immemorial." Within the context of land-holding, however, gwely could additionally refer to a parcel of land held by the male-line heirs of a particular ancestor; both the parcel of land and the group of co-heirs could be referred to as the "gwely" of the ancestor. But even in this context, what bound such co-heirs of the gwely together was not their tenurial rights (which had been inherited from their more immediate forebears within the four-generation group), but rather the shared fiscal obligations associated with the gwely's parcel of land, as determined by the Welsh princes. The gwely, in this sense, came to be fossilised by the legal settlement that followed Edward I's conquest of Wales, which sought to appropriate sources of Welsh princely revenue for the English crown (despite Stevens's misleading claim that "the post-conquest legal settlement set out in the 1284 Statute of Wales played an important role in the decline of the gwely," 78). Although this is undoubtedly a complex topic, comprehension of the tenurial practices of native Welsh society is vital for understanding its economic development during the medieval period.

One gets the sense that Stevens has fastened onto the word "gwely" as a catch-all term for any group of kinsmen required to act together by Welsh law. For instance, it is suggested that the Welsh law of galanas (blood-feud), which in parts of Wales remained in operation well into the late Middle Ages, required "compensation payment from one gwely to another" (78). While the law certainly required payment from one group of kinsmen to another, it is confusing, and indeed downright incorrect, to equate these groups with those involved in the redistribution of family land (or indeed with those involved with the discharging of fiscal obligations). All of this might have been rectified had Stevens paid closer attention to the chief primary sources for early Welsh social and economic practices: the Welsh lawbooks. In a book called The Economy of Medieval Wales 1067–1536, it is more than a little surprising to find that the Welsh lawbooks are entirely absent from the "primary sources" section of the bibliography. Little thought seems to have been given to them. One cursory reference to them claims that "the earliest Welsh law texts [were] compiled by the early twelfth century" (24), which is wrong by any measure. The earliest extant manuscripts of Welsh law belong to the mid-thirteenth century, while it has been argued that the version of the laws generally thought to be the oldest (the so-called "Cyfnerth" redaction) was compiled in the late twelfth century. Given that the social organisation of economic production quite naturally looms large in this book, the lawbooks should have been fundamental to the analysis, especially for the earlier half of the period. While it may be preferable to approach many aspects of economic history through quantifiable evidence (which is generally unavailable in Wales before the late thirteenth century anyway), there is no excuse for marginalising the prescriptive sources from earlier periods, which provide the essential context for the working of society and the economy even beyond the Edwardian conquest of 1282.

An affordable and concise introductory guide to the economic history of medieval Wales would be a welcome addition to the somewhat modest historiography of the subject, but one cannot say that this book satisfies this desideratum in all respects. Stevens is certainly convincing when discussing such staple issues as demographic change and urbanisation, especially in late medieval contexts when the evidence can sustain a data-driven approach. But his insecure grasp of the particularities of medieval Welsh society severely curtails the book's appeal and utility. The challenge of writing the economic history of medieval Wales is to explain the distinctiveness (or otherwise) of its economic situation in relation to its fascinating but poorly attested political, social, and legal circumstances. This book demonstrates reasonable familiarity with the economic situation, but lacks a deeper understanding of the broader context to explain it decisively.