A couple of weeks ago I took part in the ‘Writing Welsh history’ event at Swansea University. One of the main topics of the evening was how we approach Welsh history; is it somehow different to other countries or regions? Are there any specific problems facing historians that are uniquely Welsh? That last question is one that vexes me. The recent television series was titled The Story of Wales. As a participant in the television debate following the series noted, it is not The story, but A story. I believe that we are lacking a grand narrative of Welsh history. It is natural to think in terms of chronologies, but it is difficult to think of the sweep of Welsh history without using the broader British history as a reference point. In other words, could we even tell a story of Welsh history?
This problem is particularly relevant for me as I contemplate my next academic project. I’m thinking about tackling a narrative of Welsh medicine from earliest times to the present day. This hasn’t been attempted before, and there is certainly a need for such a study. The problem, though, lies in structure. From available source material, for example, is there enough evidence to fill chapters before, say, the tenth century? The obvious solution is to adopt a thematic approach, rather than a narrative chronology. But in other ways it highlights the fact that Welsh history cannot always be neatly compartmentalised.
There have been many ‘history of Wales’ volumes (I’m thinking of works by John Davies, Geraint Jenkins and Prys Morgan) and these ably take on the difficult task of constructing a narrative. Geraint Jenkins’s Concise History of Wales is excellently written on what he describes as a ‘formidable task’ of writing the entire history of a country. In terms of periodization, the first chapter, ‘the earliest inhabitants’, covers everything from Celtic and Roman Wales up until around 380AD. Chapter two covers around seven hundred years, up to 1063. But after 1063 the pattern changes to around two hundred years per chapter. This isn’t a criticism; it just underlines the reality for any chronological history of Wales that, before the 11th century, it is difficult to go into forensic detail.
But I also think that we do need more of these types of ‘stories’ to get a more fixed idea of what our history actually consists of. In my first book, I purposefully avoided a narrative, firstly because the evidence wasn’t suited to this type of approach, and secondly because I wanted to address a number of different themes in broader medical history. But this time I’m tempted to bite the bullet and try and answer my own question of whether we should think in terms of ‘Welsh medical history’ or ‘medicine in Wales’.