How the Welsh Fought Back.

The Right Reverend Rowan Williams, who according to Wikipedia speaks three languages, reads at least nine, and was born into a Welsh-speaking family, writes for the New Statesman about the Welsh literary tradition, reviewing The Cambridge History of Welsh Literature, edited by Geraint Evans and Helen Fulton:

The earliest poetry in Welsh is a cluster of short epigrammatic verses – englynion – written in the margins of a ninth-century Latin manuscript of the work of Juvencus, a fourth-century Spanish Christian writer. The spelling looks impenetrable to a modern Welsh reader, but read aloud (you can hear them online in a recording made by the National Museum of Wales) these verses are unmistakably recognisable as Welsh in vocabulary and cadence. They would be more easily understood by a contemporary Welsh speaker than an Anglo-Saxon poem of the same vintage would be by a modern English speaker, even if their meaning would not instantly be clear. And the form of the poetry would also be recognisable – englynion are still composed by much the same rules as the Juvencus poet uses, though there is now a greater variety of englyn forms in addition to the simple three-line stanza in the manuscript.

A few years ago at a bilingual poetry reading in Pembrokeshire, a distinguished young Welsh-language poet presented me at the end of dinner with an englyn that he had scribbled on a paper table napkin during the conversation; the conventions of rhyme and assonance, line breaks and syllable counts are comparable to what the anonymous ninth-century writer used. With a bit of help from a Welsh philologist, the two poets could have spent an evening exchanging more or less impromptu verses in a way that is still to be heard at Welsh literary gatherings. The most consistent thread in the long history of Welsh writing is a commitment to exuberantly challenging metrical forms – one aspect of a general relishing of sound patterns and wordplay that has often been carried over into Welsh writing in the English language, as any reader of Dylan Thomas will know. […]

One of the most helpful things in this magisterial collection – the most extensive survey in English of the Welsh tradition and its contemporary expressions – is the way in which the question of bilinguality is handled: it is neither held up as a straightforward goal of peaceful coexistence, nor despised as the thin end of an anglicising wedge. There is due attention to the fact that “Welsh writing in English” (the phrase now preferred to the old designation, “Anglo-Welsh literature”) has a long history that is not entirely bound up with proto-imperial English aggression. So we have a chapter that gives a fascinating account of Welsh writers working in London in the 16th and 17th centuries, and another that offers a challenging and fresh perspective on two 20th-century writers, the poet RS Thomas and the novelist Emyr Humphreys. Both were Welsh-speaking and wrote in English for a public that might not use Welsh or know it well, but both retained some sense of the language’s rhythms – a prominent feature in the work of Dylan Thomas, who has a good and perceptive chapter to himself – and had a feel for the complex social codes and signals that use of the language involved in the mid-20th century. […]

In the case of Wales, it was the paternalistic efforts of Victorian governments to impose what they considered to be uniform standards of education and morality that provoked the most dramatic – and productive – backlash. […] The widespread revival at the end of the 18th century of the medieval poetic competitions known as eisteddfodau had also received a major boost from the activities of the flamboyant radical Edward Williams (known as “Iolo Morganwg”). He was the virtual inventor of what eventually became the National Eisteddfod, still probably the best-supported national cultural festival in Europe. […] Nonconformist suspicion of fiction gave way in the 19th century to an enthusiasm for edifying narratives – including an early Welsh version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. […]

Strangely, even scandalously, given the justifiable stress on the significance of women writers in the last century or so, there is nothing at all (beyond a single mention of her name) about the greatest of medieval Welsh women poets, the 15th-century Gwerful Mechain, author of a delightfully uninhibited celebration of the female pudenda as well as a number of other verses on those primary poetic data, the natural world, eros and God.

We discussed Gwerful ferch Hywel Fychan and her Poem to the Vagina in this recent thread. Thanks, Terry!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Saw this in the Staggers when it came out … wondered if the Archbish had been cribbing from LH …

    RS Thomas in fact learnt Welsh as an adult (and all credit to him for doing so), so it’s a bit of a stretch to say that he “retained some sense of the language’s rhythms.” “Acquired some sense”, perhaps.

  2. Stu Clayton says

    If we’re bringing Archbishion in, it will not be OT to quote from this about Thomas:

    # He has been credited by some as a capable listener and counsellor at a time when such things were not in common vogue among the clergy … #

    I wonder what’s behind this bit of in-group bitchery. Reminds me of a Pym novel. Of course you have to listen in order to acquire some sense.

  3. John Cowan says

    RS Thomas in fact learnt Welsh as an adult (and all credit to him for doing so), so it’s a bit of a stretch to say that he “retained some sense of the language’s rhythms.”

    If Hiberno-English is any indication, there will have been much of the substrate language’s rhythms in Cambrio-English as well. As I have said before, an L2 accent in English (using accent in its broadest sense) can eventually become an L1 accent of English.

    I wonder what’s behind this bit of in-group bitchery.

    Not at all, but a statement of plain and well-known facts. Until the very late 19C, a Church of England living (the name is significant) was simply another office of profit under the Crown, like being a government minister or military officer, though less profitable. Incumbents notoriously did the very least they could (with many honorable exceptions), some going so far as to require payment to administer the sacraments necessary to salvation.

    It was part of the immense appeal of Methodism in Wales that its preachers were, insofar as they followed the Wesleys, not like that: they got down and dirty with the job. The Scots didn’t have this problem: as among Baptists, their congregations called ministers and could dismiss them if they were unsatisfactory, whereas in the C. of E. the right to appoint a minister was literally a property right, descending by inheritance or will, going back to pagan days when if a man built a god-house on his land, it was his god-house, and he could install whatever priest he wanted. Catholic Christianity required the bishop’s approval eventually, and this was kept after Henry VIII.

  4. Jen in Edinburgh says

    The Scots didn’t have this problem: as among Baptists, their congregations called ministers and could dismiss them if they were unsatisfactory

    Well, to some extent. I don’t think I’ll ever really understand what the Disruption was about, but it was essentially about that – control of landowners over the ministers, and possibly over church buildings built on their land. But congregations did have the right to refuse an unsuitable candidate, and the church as a whole had the right to decide on what qualifications made a candidate suitable, and I suppose that – or the general attitude of society to the church – made a difference. I don’t think there was quite the same tradition of family appointments, at least.

    I would have thought things would have changed even in the CoE by RS Thomas’s time, though – culturally if not legally.

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    A predeliction for gossip and the related bitchiness and backbiting has long been stereotyped as a characteristic vice of clergymen in much of the English-speaking (and perhaps also the Welsh-speaking?) world, whether or not associated with a denomination established by law. How fair or empirically well-grounded such a stereotype is is another question.

  6. @John Cowan: I think it is interesting how military commissions and Church of England vicar positions were treated differently in the eighteenth (and parts of the nineteenth) century. Military commissions were considered the property if the holder and could be sold for whatever the market would bear (with a patchwork of rules regarding who they could be sold to). A religious living was conferred for life or until resignation, at which point the right to name the vicar’s successor reverted to either the deacons of the church or (more typically) to a member of the hereditary gentry, whose family might or might not actually have something to do with the founding of the congregation or construction of the church building.

    Nepotism and simony involving these ecclesiasticsl livings were apparently unremarkable. Both practices, as employed by the local baronet, are important to the plot in Mansfield Park, and while that novel has deep problems, Jane Austen can probably be relied on to give an accurate picture of the millieu of Church of England ministers residing in the lower strata of the Gentry class. From Austen’s telling, it would see that the only potential problem there might be with such a system would be from the possibility of selling a life tenure in the vicarage to some parvenu who spoke French and liked fine food.

    Even in the Catholic Church, the papacy’s arrogation of the right to name the bishops of all sees was a project that did not come to completion until well into the twentieth century. Through much of his career in the curia, especially as Vatican Secretary of State, Eugenio Pacelli’s primary concern in foreign affairs was getting concordats signed with various states, to make the pope’s authority over appointments ironclad. His apparently greater concern with getting a national concordat with Germany than with any human right abuses by the Nazis in the 1930s was what led to him being mocked in The Deputy* and biographized as Hitler’s Pope.

    *Apparently, the play was also published as “The Representative” in English, but there really should be a better translation of German “Der Stellvertreter.” “Instrumentality” would be theologically accurate, but it does not clearly identify the referent as a person, rather than an institution. “The Emissary” would also be better than “The Representative,” although maybe that name was too associated with Elijah Mohammed in the 1960s.

  7. David Marjanović says

    “Vicar of God on Earth” is the obvious context when a pope is described as a Stellvertreter.

  8. Stu Clayton says

    The citations in the OED for “vicar” show that pretty much everybody who’s anybody in a religious hierarchy is God’s vicar: Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, not merely lowly vicars in the field.

    In the Anat. Mel., Burton fulminates against Paracelsus for holding this view about magicians:

    # If a man fall into a ditch, as he prosecutes it, what
    matter is it whether a friend or an enemy help him out and if I be
    troubled with such a malady, what care I whether the Devil himself, or
    any of his Ministers, by God’s permission, redeem me? He calls a
    Magician God’s Minister and his Vicar, applying that of “Ye are Gods”
    profanely to them, for which he is lashed by T. Erastus #

    “The Deputy” or “The Representative” is exactly right for Der Stellvertreter as the play’s title. Emissaries and instrumentalities are glosses.

  9. Rodger C says

    I’ve seen Der Stellvertreter rendered as The Vicar in an article, but I think it was the author’s rendering. In isolation it’s of course misleading.

  10. Bill Walderman says

    I’m very late with this — my excuse is that I didn’t learn about this until a day or two ago — and it’s not totally relevant, but are you aware of Patagonian Welsh?

    A Languagehat search came up dry, and I thought you’d be interested.

  11. It’s come up a few times in threads, e.g. here and here, but I’ve never done a post on it.

  12. John Cowan says

    But congregations did have the right to refuse an unsuitable candidate

    I think that was the main difference between English and Scottish ecclesiastical patronage. Here’s a bit of Pollock & Maitland’s History of English Law (1898):

    Then […] the German[ic] has brought with him into the Roman and Christian world the notion that, if he builds a church on his land, it is his church. If in the days of heathenry he had built a god-house on his land, it would have been his god-house, and he would have made profit out of it. This is the origin of ecclesiastical patronage.

    The right which from the twelfth century onwards appears as a mere right of patronage […] is in origin an ownership of the soil upon which the church stands and an ownership of any lands or goods that have been set apart for the sustenance of a priest who offers sacrifice at the shrine. By slow degrees […] the church-founder and his heirs have to be taught that they can not do just as they like with their own; and, for example, that they can not have their church worked for them by ordained slaves. The bishop will not consecrate the altar unless a sufficient provision of worldly goods is secured for the priest.

    And of course the priest had to be a priest, a person approved and consecrated by a bishop as the local representative of the universal Church. And as late as 1847 the conflict was still raging in the CoE, if somewhat disguised. Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians (1918):

    In November, 1847, the Reverend Mr. Gorham was presented by the Lord Chancellor to the living of Bramford Speke in the diocese of Exeter. The Bishop, Dr. Phillpotts, was a High Churchman, and he had reason to believe that Mr. Gorham held evangelical opinions; he therefore subjected him to an examination on doctrine, which took the form partly of a verbal interrogatory, lasting thirty-eight hours, and partly of a series of one hundred and forty-nine written questions.

    At the end of the examination he came to the conclusion that Mr. Gorham held heretical views on the subject of Baptismal Regeneration, and he therefore refused to institute. Mr. Gorham, thereupon, took proceedings against the Bishop in the Court of Arches. He lost his case; and he then appealed to the judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

    [detailed explanation of the baptismal regeneration controversy omitted, though if this is the kind of thing you like, you will probably like Strachey’s slightly sarcastic explication]

    But there was another issue, even more fundamental than that of Baptismal Regeneration itself, involved in the Gorham trial. An Act passed in 1833 had constituted the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council the supreme court of appeal for such cases; and this Committee was a body composed entirely of laymen. It was thus obvious that the Royal Supremacy was still a fact, and that a collection of lawyers appointed by the Crown had the legal right to formulate the religious doctrine of the Church of England.

    In 1850 their judgment was delivered; they reversed the decision of the Court of Arches, and upheld the position of Mr. Gorham. Whether his views were theologically correct or not, they said, was not their business; it was their business to decide whether the opinions under consideration were contrary or repugnant to the doctrine of the Church of England as enjoined upon the clergy by its Articles, Formularies, and Rubrics; and they had come to the conclusion that they were not. The judgement still holds good; and to this day, a clergyman of the Church of England is quite at liberty to believe that Regeneration does not invariably take place when an infant is baptised.

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