To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield

It may be a bit dramatic, but it seems like an apt quote to start my first of hopefully many semi-erudite observations.

This first post is really three-years in the making, but came to fruition at this year’s Hay Festival after attending a talk by my former lecturer, author of Physick and the Family: Health, Medicine and Care in Wales 1600-1730, and a champion of the opening up of the barriers to Welsh history – Dr. Alun Withey, chaired by the author of the surprisingly controversial book Bred of Heaven, Jasper Rees.

Last summer I read and enjoyed Rees’s autobiographical account of his pilgrimage to discover and connect with his Welsh roots. This work resonated instantly with me because it spoke to my nostalgia for Carmarthen, where Rees’s grandparents lived and where I first encountered and fell in love with Wales. It evoked for me that sense of ‘hiraeth’, because like Rees, I was an outsider longing to be ‘of Wales’. Rees did this by immersing himself – perhaps nobly, perhaps misguidedly – in the Welsh language, and the traditional cultural and economic pursuits of the nation, such as rugby, male voice choirs, coal mining, sheep farming and coracle fishing.

Where Rees got himself into trouble is that his ideas of ‘Welshness’ are nostalgic stereotypes preserved in the past like tiny tinned shrimp in tomato aspic. There’s little to no mention of women, modern industry or cultural pursuits, or multiculturalism, but to be fair, this was an account of a personal journey, and who am I to criticise it. It does, however, raise interesting questions about perceptions of this tiny, feisty, resilient and misunderstood nation.

What struck me was that Rees was chosen as the chair of a talk about Dr. Withey’s new book on the history of medicine in Wales. Dr. Withey is the leading (read: only) expert in this field, which is a telling indication of the dearth of historical writing about Wales. Dr. Withey very effectively demonstrates though a range of sources that medicine in Wales in the early modern period was not limited to the legacy of the Physicians of Myddfai, but was in fact part of the flow of information and goods from England and the continent.

Comparing these two works is like comparing apples to oranges in that the former is a light-hearted autobiography written for a popular audience, and the latter is a pioneering work of academic scholarship. But in essence the comparison is relevant because both authors are attempting to be standard-bearers for Wales, and unfortunately Rees is marching backwards.  Rees’s work is not the least bit forward thinking, and is entrenched in decades if not centuries-old stereotypes of Wales, whereas Dr. Withey’s work is making the case for Wales to be seen as part of the broader flow of commerce, culture and knowledge in the early modern world. It was not completely cut off from contemporary civilization by language, mountains and bad roads. It was not a cultural backwater where folk traditions alone reigned supreme.

My undergraduate degree was in ‘British’ history (read: English) from a Canadian university. When I announced that I had decided to pursue my MA in Welsh history the question on both sides of the Atlantic was why? I’m confident that a similar response would not have been elicited had I announced I was studying English history in London. I was also cautioned by a few well-meaning academics about the scarcity of sources available and challenges of language. Again, had I been studying German or French history I genuinely believe there would have been no concern over me learning a different language to enable me to access sources, but with Welsh there was.

Furthermore, as Dr. Withey has demonstrated in his book and in his work as a Research Fellow at the University of Exeter on a major project cataloguing medical practitioners in England, Ireland and Wales, there is by no means a scarcity of sources – a fact I can personally attest to from my own research. There is an abundance of sources in English and in Welsh sitting in records office. Just ask any local historian or genealogist. Under-utilisation is not the same as non-existence. The problem isn’t Wales – the problem is assumptions and misunderstandings of it.

Wales is and always has been an active part of the cultural, political and economic commerce of Britain, Europe and the world. Chairs in the history of Scotland or Ireland exist at institutions outside Scotland or Ireland, but to my knowledge no such position exists for Welsh history outside Wales, which to me is striking. Welsh history should not only be exported, but thoroughly and unapologetically integrated into the history of this Sceptred Isle as more than just a footnote, anecdote or ‘and to a lesser extent Wales’-ism.

This has become my raison d’être, and hopefully one day the gods of international graduate funding will bestow their blessings upon me so I can take up that baton.

Physic and the Family Alun Note


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