Writing Welsh History (3)

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’.

Finding that one special source…

I’m sometimes asked why I became interested in Welsh medical history, and people are usually surprised when I tell them it was a complete accident. In 2003 I had just left a 10-year career with a high-street bank and had returned to study. Actually, ‘returned to study’ is a bit of a misnomer; I left school with 6 GCSEs and packed in A-levels after one year with a burning ambition to work in an office and have my own swivelly chair and desk. Suffice to say it wasn’t all I had hoped! But, after starting my degree studies with the OU I decided to take the plunge and go to Uni full time, joining in the second year.

In the summer before my final year I was on the hunt for a dissertation topic. I had little idea what I wanted to do beyond a vague notion of looking at seventeenth-century Wales and the civil wars. Aside from a little bit of reading about James Lind and the cure of scurvy, I had no experience of medical history whatsoever. I headed off for the Gwent Record Office and asked the archivist what was available. In what turned out to be a prescient comment, he said “if you’re interested in the seventeenth century, you might like this”, and produced the notebook of John Gwin of Llangwm. Tony Hopkins, I’m very grateful to you!

Gwin’s book is a miscellany. It contains everything from farming notes to accounts, from biblical verses to poetry and from family records to church seating disputes. But what caught my eye were the medical remedies.  This was my first real experience of early-modern handwriting, and at first I couldn’t make out much, and what I could see wasn’t familiar. “The sesticall stone to cure sore eyes by mistress Moone” was one. Another recorded “Mr Cradock’s directions to us for our two children being afflicted by the small pox”. One even had a receipt “to make a horse pisse”. Something about these remedies piqued my curiosity; I wanted to learn more about Gwin and the medicines he used.

It was then that the second stroke of massive good fortune occurred. Having taken a photocopy of one page to show my supervisor, Dr David Turner (later my PhD supervisor and now a good friend and colleague at Swansea), it was he who first suggested that there was little work on medicine in seventeenth-century Wales, and that this might prove a fruitful topic for research. David, I’m very grateful to you too! This led to my undergrad dissertation, to an MA and then to a PhD, funded by Wellcome…all this from one visit and one source. I often wonder what shape my academic career might have had, if any, had I not gone to the record office that day. It is a point that I often make to students looking for a dissertation topic, that it often only takes one really good source to spark off an idea.

Nearly ten years later and although my research interests have broadened, I still like to return to the Gwin book from time to time. There is a danger in over-using a source; you can become too close to them and, to use a term I hate, risk ‘valorising’ your subject. But in this case, the richness of detail in the book, its value for so many areas of Welsh history and its insight into daily life all render it an amazing – but largely unused – resource for Welsh historians.

I am part of the ‘History Research Wales’ network of historians working in Welsh universities, and we’re now into the third series of articles for the Western Mail, my first two concentrating on medicine in Wales. For this series, ‘Iconic places in Welsh history’ I thought I’d do something different. My iconic place was Llangwm – home of a certain Monmouthshire yeoman. One day I might get around to doing something more definite with the book; maybe an edited edition. But for now it was nice to revisit the book and use it for something wider than medicine. Here’s a link to the article.