Writing regional histories

Next week, I’ll be participating at an event here in Swansea to talk about writing Welsh history. (Wednesday 28th March, 5.30, Wallace building, cheese and wine reception, all welcome!). Aside from launching our new books, my colleagues and I will be talking about the benefits – and pitfalls – of the writing and academic study of Welsh history. As Wales continues to find its own feet post-devolution, and now a decade after the first wave of new national histories that emerged at the turn of the Millenium, what direction is Welsh history now heading in? In many ways, it could be argued that Welsh history is actually more in the mainstream now than ever (if, indeed, it’s really been away). Just finishing on BBC Wales is the new, ‘landmark’ series “The Story of Wales”, fronted by Huw Edwards, which is due to be broadcast on BBC network later in the year.

I’m a Welsh historian. I work in Wales, and on Wales. My work centres on Welsh medical history of the early modern period – it’s not a crowded field. One question I have often struggled with, especially at the start of my research, is that of how should my work approach the central question of ‘Welshness’. What sort of history was I writing? Was it a national history of Wales, or was it something broader, a study of early modern history which happened to use Wales as its subject? I found that the fundamental issue was in fact one of emphasis; should I explore ‘Welsh medicine’ or, instead, ‘medicine in Wales’. This almost sounds like something of a pointless question, but the difference is important.

Looking for a ‘Welsh medicine’ implies that Wales had unique elements certainly, but is also somewhat exclusive. If I took this route then it seemed to me that the options would be limited. In fact, I actually don’t believe there was a ‘Welsh medicine’, at least not in the period I study. Instead, there was a vibrant medical culture fitting in with broader patterns across early modern Europe, and certainly with elements that might be seen as adding a Welsh ‘colour’ to interpretations. But this has implications for how a study could be written. Had I drawn an imaginary line down Offa’s Dyke and simply divorced Wales from the rest of the UK, then my study could simply have ended up as a box-ticking exercise – one where I simply told the story of medicine in Wales and quickly concluded that things weren’t all that much different. Did Welsh people believe in the humours? Yes. Tick. Did they use a variety of herbal, animal and magical remedies. Yes. Tick. Were there a variety of practitioners? Yes. Tick, and so on.

But taking ‘medicine in Wales’ as my launch point seemed to allow me more freedom to take Welsh sources and ask different questions of them. Here was the opportunity to use Wales as an example to address bigger questions in medical history. From the available sources, it was eminently possible to use Welsh sources as a lens to view such issues as, for example, care of the sick – very much a current theme in medical history. I recognised quite early on that Welsh medical remedy collections would add something different to debates about the transmission of medical knowledge. Also, evidence from Welsh village shops, and the contents of ordinary homes, afforded a unique opportunity to see how the ‘medical market’ operated in an area culturally and geographically remote from London.

I wanted to write Welsh history but to do so in a way that showed how far Wales was connected to its near and far neighbours. Now, suggesting that English-language books had an effect on the medical language of Wales, making it more Anglicised, and also how Wales was dependent on large English towns and cities for its supply of patent medicines might not be popular in some quarters. But what would we prefer? I would much rather show Wales as it was, part of a much bigger picture, than depict it in isolation. Understanding that our country was not insular and remote, and that Welsh people had access to a far broader network of knowledge than we often give them credit for, is a far more satisfying option for me. If I were to criticise the new ‘Story of Wales’, I might question where the rest of the UK is; can we really understand what Wales is, and what it was, by studying it in isolation?

This is entirely different to saying that we shouldn’t study Welsh history at all. A strong part of what I do is to look at how factors such as the geography and topography of Wales itself coloured attitudes to medicine (which they surely did). Where you lived certainly contributed to your own experience. Wales was unique in Britain in that it had no universities, no cities and no medical training available in the early mdoern period. This, again, affected and shaped the availability of medical provision. There is certainly also a need for national histories insofar that they give us a narrative framework and context for our own country. The issue is how we use Welsh sources and to what ends.

The argument for any regional history is that it adds to our understanding of the whole. Each region – and here Welsh culture and history often comes into its own – has its own nuances and pecularities. Understanding how they were enmeshed in a bigger web of meanings helps us to get closer to the lived experience of the past. In my own field, for example, many studies of 17th-century medicine – and even in the last 20 years, were often strongly focussed upon London and southern England. Only in recent years have a larger number of regional studies begun to augment our understanding and bring us somewhat closer to a more inclusive meta-narrative of early modern medicine.

I definitely think that Welsh history is on the up and that the writing of academic history in general is becoming more sensitive to the need for regional studies. The fact that my book, and those of my two colleagues Professor Huw Bowen and Dr Martin Johnes, all of which are about Wales, have been published by a major English academic publisher is testament to the fact that there is a growing market for Welsh history outside our own borders. I have certainly never found it necessary to have to justify my subject area and, in fact, the main reaction I get is one of surprise that people have not looked at these sources before. That’s another argument for another post.

But I’m looking forward to next week’s session. It’ll be a great opportunity to gauge how other people feel about this issue and, hopefully, to establish some new ways forward. Please come along and join in if you can make it.

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