Wednesday, 17 August 2011

J. E. Lloyd and Welsh History

I don't often blog about Welsh history here, but one of the most exciting developments in the past couple of years has been the blossoming of interest in the history of history writing on and about Wales. The main pioneer in this has been Neil Evans, but much of his ground-breaking work has been hidden away in various journal articles and essays. Huw Pryce's recently published J. E. Lloyd and the Creation of Welsh History: Renewing a Nation's Past (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011), is the most substantial contrbution to this new sub-genre of Welsh historical studies.

Pryce's superb book does two things. Its first part is a straightforward biography of Lloyd. Born in rural Montgomeryshire, John Edward Lloyd's formative years were spent in prosperous middle-class Welsh communities in Victorian Liverpool. An Oxford education was followed by posts at the newly established universities of Aberystwyth, and then Bangor, where he served as the university Registrar and taught history, pioneering the academic teaching of the history of Wales. His magnum opus, A History of Wales from the Earliest Times to the Edwardian Conquest (1911), was similarly the first professional 'academic' history of Wales, although it stopped in 1282 with the defeat of Wales' last native Prince, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, and the conquest of Wales by Edward I. Pryce explains why there was no major follow-up to this history, as Lloyd both felt he had said all that he had wanted to say and became increasingly absorbed in university administration. Pryce's study does much to cement the claim, first made by R. T. Jenkins in the early 1940s, that Lloyd 'created Welsh history' (p. 95).

The second half of the book is more analytical, and closely examines Lloyd's approach to history, his intellectual context and his interpretation(s) of the Welsh past.

In his A History of Wales, Lloyd ended his narrative in 1282. Pryce offers some reasons for this, ironically located squarely in Lloyd's view of modern Wales. Like many of his contemporaries Lloyd was working with a Whiggish understanding of historical progress. He saw the eighteenth century Methodist Revival as the key event in the birth of modern Wales: 'through its agency the political and cultural life of Wales was raised to a new level - a new language and a new literature were evolved, new habits altered the routine of daily life, new organizations came into being, and a new social atmosphere was created' (p. 86-7). This new Wales was the Liberal Nonconformist Wales of Lloyd's nineteenth century upbringing. For Lloyd, religion, culture and education were the main carriers of Welsh identity, but this is not to say that he did not see a more political dimension also. The creation of key national institutions he held to be vital to the survival of a distinctive Welsh national identity. This is not to say though that Lloyd was a proto-nationalist, indeed he reacted fairly strongly to Saunders Lewis' overtly nationalistic political vision. For Lloyd, the nineteenth century has seen the evolution of Wales within the British state and Empire - a 'nation reborn' (p. 91).

His A History of Wales was, therefore, a deliberate attempt to look back into the Welsh past, at the origins of the nation: 'the truth is that for the serious historian, who probes beneath the surface and seeks to discern the hidden springs of action, recent history deals only with superficial changes; for fundamentals, one must go back to much earlier times, to mediaeval, and even, it may be, to prehistoric days' (p. 92).

Pryce also looks closely at the Lloyd's methodology. Lloyd's formative years as an historian coincided with the professionalisation of history in Britain. Despite being a close friend of T. F. Tout, famous for his advocacy of 'scientific' history, Lloyd's A History of Wales, did not engage that closely with documentary evidence. Rather he attempted to sift the mass of information, legend and more reliable detail on the Welsh past, in order produce a 'sound and scientific textbook' (p. 97). That's not to say that he didn't see the value of archival work, far from it. Much of his time after the appearance of the History was spent supporting the publishing of sources on the history of Wales housed in various English archives under the imprint of the University of Wales, Board of Celtic Studies. Lloyd's History firmly established the narrative structure of the Welsh past, distilled fact from myth and fable, and provided those who came after with the groundwork upon which to build further investigations.

Lloyd was also genuinely interdisciplinary in his approach, drawing upon recent archaeological evidence for his chapters on prehistoric Wales and the origins of the Welsh people for example. Lloyd's conclusions in area are dealt with fully in a separate chapter of Pryce's study. One of the themes that recurrs in this area as elsewhere in the book was Lloyd's determination to unravel historical fact from legend and myth - something that gained him a reputation as a debunker of long cherished views of the past (p. 101). In two further chapters, Pryce analyses Lloyd's views of Welsh society and his interpretation of the Welsh princes, who he sees as 'nation builders'. In a short section on the Welsh church, Pryce shows how Lloyd maintained a close link between the religious fortunes of the Welsh and their sense of nationality. Both ideas ebbed and flowed through the history of Wales, but Lloyd maintained the existence of 'a distinctive religious sentiment across the medieval centuries', which would 'eventually find expression in the Methodist revival' (p. 149).

Those of us who write Welsh history today therefore stand on Lloyd's shoulders to a greater or lesser extent. While maintaining that he created Welsh history is probably an overstatement, he certainly laid the foundation of it as an academic discipline. In doing this he set himself apart from some of his contemporaries who were more determined to increase the popularity of Welsh history as an integral part of Welsh culture. According to Pryce: 'Lloyd, by seeking to establish Welsh history as an academic discipline endowed with 'scientific' credentials aceptable to a wider world of scholarship, effectively distanced it' from wider Welsh cultural life (p. 173-4).

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