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23.05.12 Pryce, Writing Welsh History

23.05.12 Pryce, Writing Welsh History

This book’s title creates an obvious quandary: what is Welsh history? Is it the history of a “people,” or a state, or a territory? Does it raise particular questions, pose special challenges, or demand certain approaches? Does it have its own historiography, or is that historiography inseparable from broader history writing on relevant themes? Should there be a Welsh historiography? Prior to the advent of Pryce’s book, it would have been considerably more difficult to answer such questions. This is not because Pryce set out to answer them specifically. To a certain extent, he lets the material speak for itself on such issues. Rather, by writing a definitive account of the development of Welsh history writing from the early Middle Ages to the present day, Pryce has bestowed order and coherence, for the first time, on long-established traditions of Welsh history writing, creating new space for necessary reflection on the standing of the field.

Above all, Writing Welsh History is a contribution to intellectual history. It charts the engagement of many generations of writers with the Welsh past, putting those writers in dialogue with one another and setting their work in appropriate historical contexts. Considering the detailed treatment afforded to each era, it is remarkable that the book should cover a full millennium and a half of history writing; this ability to take the “long-view” is one of the book’s great strengths, and it is indeed essential for full comprehension of the trajectory of Welsh history writing. Particularly laudable is the coupling of medieval historiography with early modern and modern historiography; this is completely justifiable, indeed necessary, for proper understanding of the development of the subject, though it would be difficult to think of any scholar apart from Pryce who could do justice to the full chronological range. With this background in mind, Pryce has very reasonably endeavoured to keep his subject matter manageable by being relatively strict about what is admitted into the canon of “history.” For example, in Welsh manuscripts of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it is usually difficult to draw any clear line between “history” and “genealogy,” because genealogy was so central to contemporary perceptions of the past and its connections with the present. And yet, despite a few nods to its importance, Pryce sets aside works of a primarily genealogical nature for the purpose of his discussion. Such decisions are inevitable in a book conceived on this scale, but they should be borne in mind by readers.

Writing Welsh History is divided into four parts of roughly equal length: one for the Middle Ages, one for the early modern period (1540-1770), one for “Romanticism and Enlightenment” (1770-1880), and one for the modern era (1880-2020). Each part consists of three or four chapters, each of which treats a particular period in detail. In every chapter, Pryce sketches the key developments in intellectual culture that weighed most heavily on the writing of history in the relevant period, before introducing the period’s main works of Welsh history and discussing the perspectives of their authors in turn. The only period that receives two chapters is 1540-1620, for the good reason that it saw the establishment of some core tenets of later Welsh history writing in two overlapping but distinct areas: firstly, it initiated the tendency for Welsh writers to offer selective defences of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “British History,” which could thereby continue to form the basis for the ancient history of the Welsh; and secondly, it saw the writing of the first “history of Wales” conceived as such, by Humphrey Llwyd and David Powel, which set the parameters for the historiography of the subject for centuries to come.

Some themes can be traced throughout the book because they are visible, to some degree, in the history writing of every period. These themes therefore receive regular comment from Pryce as successive periods and works are addressed in turn. It is worth noting, though, that the book is not structured so as to provide extended comment on the diachronic development of such historiographical themes; the introduction, prologue and conclusion are relatively brief (respectively seven, seven, and nine pages), and there is otherwise no deviation from the chronologically structured survey. One important theme is that, before the modern era, writers tended to conceive the history of “Wales” as being synonymous with the history of the “Welsh people,” a people defined particularly by language and by perceptions of shared origins and common descent. It is only relatively recently that the territory of “Wales” has been used as a basis for analysis instead, leading to the foregrounding of cultural and linguistic diversity within a shared historical space. Another important theme, which Pryce highlights again in his conclusion, is the persistent “British” dimension of works about Welsh history. This is a multi-layered issue that first arose in the early Middle Ages with Welsh perceptions of their being the original inhabitants of Britain, deprived of most of their territory by Anglo-Saxon conquest and settlement, but it was given a significant additional impulse by the full incorporation of Wales into the English (and latterly British) state in the sixteenth century, which most writers of Welsh history up to the twentieth century considered to be a natural and desirable state of affairs. Both of these ideas supported the notion that Welsh history was part of a larger whole: whether an “epilogue” to the history of the ancient Britons who had lost the sovereignty of Britain to the Anglo-Saxons by the seventh century, or the historical background of a component of the Tudor state. As Pryce repeatedly discusses in relation to successive interpretations of Welsh history from the Middle Ages down to J. E. Lloyd in the early twentieth century, ideas such as these fuelled the long-standing assumption that “Welsh history” ended with the extinction of Welsh political independence in 1282. Since most history writing prior to the twentieth century was political or constitutional in focus, the assumption was a natural one. But there were deviations from this model, which Pryce incorporates into his discussion. These included regional and local histories from the sixteenth century onwards; histories of Welsh Dissent, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; and the new economic and social histories of the twentieth century. Works such as these created spaces for Welsh history that were not centred on a politically independent state or dynasty, and for which the events of 1282 were not terminal.

Pryce reveals a masterly command of his subject across the many distinct periods that are addressed in this book, as befits a scholar who has had a distinguished career as a medievalist but who has also turned his attention more recently to the historiography of Wales in the modern era. Occasionally, Pryce’s research speciality in the Middle Ages reveals itself, as in his notably sensitive treatment of the date and circumstances of the composition of the Life of Gruffudd ap Cynan, a twelfth-century biography of a Welsh king (55-56). On the other hand, there is perhaps a little less commitment to the early Middle Ages and its modern historiography. It is surprising, for example, that the work of David Dumville, including his epoch-making essay on early Welsh sources published in the journal History in 1977, makes no appearance in the chapter on historiography since 1960. Similarly, Nora Chadwick receives only one sentence in a footnote in the chapter on the period 1920-1960 (343 n. 26), despite, among many other things, her major contribution to Welsh cultural history in the early Middle Ages in the three chapters (182 pages) that she published in her important edited collection Studies in the Early British Church (1958). Chadwick, moreover, is an excellent example of a female historian of Wales in a subject which, as Pryce discusses, was almost exclusively male-dominated until the 1980s. But neither Dumville nor Chadwick offered new over-arching interpretations of “Welsh history” as such, which perhaps explains their absence from the necessarily selective chapters on twentieth-century historiography.

This book will undoubtedly remain the core account of the historiography of Welsh history for many years to come. It is the first work of its kind to be conceived and written on this scale, and it succeeds in offering a convincing and lucidly contextualised synthesis of a large subject. Nevertheless, one is bound to ponder the extent to which this book actively creates, as well as reflects, a Welsh historiography. It is true that the many works of history surveyed in the book have never been brought systematically into dialogue with one another before now. This is especially true of works of modern history written over the past century or so, which have offered a decisive break from the traditional political historiography inherited from former centuries. But these factors do not invalidate Pryce’s treatment of the subject. It is precisely in the greater diversity of approaches to the history of Wales and the Welsh in more recent times that one can observe the necessity of a Welsh historiography most readily. The “national” framework for history writing has long since lost its dominance in academic history, and rightly so; but equally, it would be wrong to pretend that Wales and its people do not form a legitimate and coherent subject for historical enquiry. Pryce’s book reveals the historical depth and significance of this subject, and it serves as a timely reminder of its continuing potential in the modern world.