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Chapter 9: The Welsh Bible

When Henry Tudor became King in 1485, the ancient prophetic tradition of Welsh poetry came to an end. Though the political results were not quite what the people of Wales had hoped for, the long-held hopes for a Welsh king on the throne of Britain had been fulfilled. It was, in the main, a most satisfying consummation for those living on both sides of the border.

In the literary world, things were different. In addition to the end of the prophetic tradition, another mediaeval literary tradition began to disappear at roughly the same time -- that of strict-meter poetry. A new social order was putting an end to the old bardic practices of Wales. In the Tudor period the Anglicization of the Welsh gentry was greatly intensified: loss of patronage meant that it became increasingly difficult for poets to make a living. The Acts of Union in 1436 and 1543 ensured the political annexation of Wales to England, and gave notice that part of their intent had been "[henceforth] . . . to utterly extirpate all and singular the sinister usages and customs differing from the same [English laws]."

It has been argued that the Acts did not expressly prohibit the Welsh language, but they certainly made its survival more difficult. The Welsh gentry had been rapidly forsaking their Welsh in favor of English, in any case, and contemporary poets did not show too much anguish at the increased prestige and power of those who provided their living. Welsh literature became increasingly under the domain of those authors who wished to bring Wales into line with what was happening in northern Europe, especially in matters of religion. After the printing press reached Wales, Sir John Price (John Prys of Brecon) published the first book in the Welsh language, his collection of basic religious texts "Yn Llyvyr Hwnn" (In This Book) in 1546. Price's work, however, was completely overshadowed by that of William Salesbury, an ardent Protestant and "the true pioneer of publishing in Welsh."

Modern historians have pointed out that as Welsh was not a language of state, and as there was no court and no real urban society in Wales to maintain the new print culture that was sweeping so many European capitals, it is remarkable not how few books were printed in Welsh, but how many. Tradition has it that the very first book actually printed in Wales itself was "Y Drych Gristianogawl" (The Christian Mirror), produced in a cave at Llandudno, North Wales as a counter-reformation effort. Despite this minor protest, however, the forces of Protestantism and the Reformation were victorious in Wales, and not just through fear of "Popery and Rome," but because any established church was looked upon in Wales as a symbol of English dominance.

The new printing needed a new language. Salesbury, the most outstanding of the new scholars, was particularly alarmed at what he considered the baseness of the Welsh tongue. In 1547, he wrote "And take this advice from me; unless you save and correct and perfect the language before the extinction of the present generation, it will be too late afterwards." But it was to save souls rather than the language itself that his true interest lay.

Salesbury's mission to the Welsh nation was set out most clearly. In his "Oll Synnwyr Pen Kembero Ygyd" (1547):

If you do not wish to be worse than animals . . . obtain learning in your own language; if you do not wish to be more unnatural than any other nation under the sun, love your language and those who love it. If you do not wish utterly to depart from the faith of Christ . . .obtain the holy scripture in your own tongue as your happy ancestors, the ancient British, had it.
In 1551, Salesbury published his "Kynniver Llyth a Ban", a translation of the main texts of the Prayer Book. His depth of learning was astonishing: he published books in English as well as Welsh, covering linguistics, proverbs, science, law, and of course, religion. After the 1553 English Prayer book had abandoned the belief in transubstantiation, thus, according to Professor Davies "establishing Protestantism in the territories of the crown of England," Salesbury worked tirelessly to make the scriptures known to the Welsh people in their own language. He had already begun this task with his Welsh-English dictionary of 1547.

In 1563, after the impassioned pleas of John Penry, Parliament passed a bill ordering that the Bible be translated into Welsh, an act that was not undertaken with any love or respect to the language, but one that, according to Professor Johnston, formed "an essential part of the programme of the Protestant Reformation in Britain." Penry, of Breconshire was helped by the fact that Elizabeth and her parliament were appalled at the slow progress in of the Welsh people in learning the English language. They thus welcomed Penry's suggestions and thought that by having Welsh translations placed next to the English texts in Church, the congregations would learn English. The reverse took place, of course, and the Welsh language was given an unintended status and a place of honor by being used as a medium for the holy scriptures. Why bother with English, when there was a perfectly acceptable Welsh in which to worship God? (and, incidentally a book from which countless generations would learn to read and write).

The Welsh bishops entrusted the momentous task mainly to Salesbury, who had prepared the way with his earlier translation of the Prayer Book. He was aided by Bishop Richard Davies of Abergwili, whose concern for evangelizing was perfectly in tune with that of Salesbury. Together, they produced a book in an elegant, dignified style that could be read by scholars but was practically worthless for the common people. But the day (and perhaps the language itself) was saved by the arrival on the scene of William Morgan, parish priest of Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, and later Bishop of Llandaf and St. Asaph (Llanelwy).

Morgan's education had included the study of Hebrew, Greek and Latin at Cambridge, but it was his temperament and ability to work with others that made him an ideal person to complete the work begun by Salesbury and make it acceptable to scholar and layman alike. In 1588 finished his work with a group of fellow scholars, including the brilliant Richard Davies. The results were far beyond Morgan's expectations, which, like Salesbury's before him, were mainly to present God's word to his people in their own language and thus save them from damnation. Its influence upon the subsequent religious direction of the Welsh people was totally unanticipated; it had incalculable effects upon their language and literature. Many historians believe that it was this book alone that prevented Welsh from becoming nothing more than a bundle of provincial dialects or of even disappearing altogether.

There was yet another unforeseen effect of the translation. Professor Davies puts it this way: "In imbuing their congregations with the language, they themselves [the preachers] became steeped in it, and thus there developed a tradition of the 'literature-loving parson' to which Welsh culture would become deeply indebted." It is of note, too, that Welsh was the only non-state language of Protestant Europe to become the medium of a published Bible within a century of the Reformation. Perhaps it is mainly to this that much of the strength of present-day Welsh is owed, compared to Irish (which did not get its own Bible until 1690 and where Catholic congregations did not have access to it), and Scots Gaelic (which had to wait until 1801).

In addition, however, the Book became the foundation and inspiration for all the literature written in the Welsh language after the end of the sixteenth century. Thus Meic Stephens can claim: "The Bible of 1588 was as influential in keeping alive the idea of an independent Wales as the defeat of the Amada [the same year] was in maintaining English independence." In addition, since Morgan's language was that of the poets, "contemporary and classical, natural and dignified," it was the Bible of Morgan "that ensured the purity, accuracy and strength of the poetic vocabulary should live on." at the time when the Bardic Order was facing extinction (Stephens, 410).

The Bible was so successful that all one thousand copies quickly became worn out (or stolen) and a new edition was desperately needed. The call was answered in 1620, when Dr. John Davies of Mallwyd published his revised version that is a classic of Welsh literature, similar to the "King James Bible" in English. Generation after generation of Welsh children would learn to read and write from this book, or more correctly from the cheaper, smaller version published in 1630, "Y Beibl Bach", the only book many families could afford. For those who couldn't, a copy would be available in church, or in the Sunday schools that later became such a prominent part of the Welsh social and religious life. Its influence is therefore incalculable. Of his Bible, Davies wrote:

It is impossible to believe that God would have seen fit to keep this language alive until these days, after so many crises in the history of the nation . . . had He not intended His name to be called and His great works to be proclaimed in it. ("Antiquae Linguae Britannicae" 1621)
Dr. John Davies of Malltwyd may have had a large hand in the revision of the Book of Common Prayer in 1621, the same year in which his Welsh grammar in Latin appeared. According to Professor Stephens, it was Dr. Davies whose work in preserving the bardic vocabulary established the basis for a scientific study of the Welsh language (132). The 17th century statesman and poet James Howell praised such labors in the vineyard: "It was a rough task, believe it thus, to tame a wild and wealthy language, and to frame Grammatic toils to curb he, so that she now speaks by rules, and sings by prosody." ("Upon Dr. Davies's British Grammar" c. 1621).

As far as other secular writing was concerned, much of the early literature had been lost or destroyed, but due to the indefatigable work of collectors and antiquarians such as John Prys, Robert Vaughan, and John Jones, such medieval works as "The Book of Taliesin", "The Black Book of Carmarthen" and "The White Book of Rhydderch" were preserved as reminders of the splendid tradition of Welsh literature. They were part of the new breed of scholars who wished to understand the world that had created such wonderful classical writings, and they therefore were anxious to interpret and assess ancient sources. They wanted to look at the claims of such as the Italian Polydor Vergil, who had cast grave doubts on much of Geoffrey of Monmouth's account of the central myth of Welsh identity -- the story of King Arthur.

Vergil's work was heresy to patriotic Welsh historians: he had to be answered by such works as "Historie of Cambria, Now called Wales" published in 1584 by David Powel, closely following the arguments of Humphrey Lluyd's adaptation of the ancient "Brut y Tywysogion". Powel's book remained the standard version of the history of Wales for the next few centuries and the noble tales of Geoffrey of Monmouth, concocted from his imagination as they might have been, retained their powerful hold on the Welsh consciousness, enabling them to hold on to the idea that they, and they alone in Britain, were the true British race and the rightful heirs to the Arthurian tradition. As scholar John Davies of Hereford put in 159O: "We have long been afflicted and oppressed by those that sought our whole race to destroy," he added, "Caerleon, where king Arthur lived of yore shall be rebuilt and double gilt once more."

A century after Geoffrey of Monmouth, Giraldus Cambrensis had written his "Itinerarium Kambriae" and "Descriptio Kambariae" based on personal observations undertaken on travels to all parts of the nation. In 1586, another Latin book of travels was completed by William Camden that explored Roman Wales: "Britannia." Camden's book presented Britain within the framework of the divisions into the Celtic tribal areas, those of the Silures, the Demetai and the Ordovices, as recorded by the classical geographers. The book has been recognised as the best of its kind for two centuries.

In the meantime, however, other effects of the Renaissance and the new humanism sweeping Europe were to have considerable influence upon the literature of Wales.

Chapter 10: The Renaissance

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