Monday, February 15, 2010

A Brief History of the People and Country of Wales

This piece will take me a few days to complete, so keep checking back to see how far I've gotten. I'm putting it together largely from memory, but I will reference all the major facts via Wikipedia, so students can read more deeply into the history by clicking on the links.

First off, notice the title. Wales is a country. Its own country, within the United Kingdom. This is important if not crucial for visitors from other countries to know, especially since the Welsh people you meet will make a point of their distinctiveness from the rest of the UK, particularly England and the English, and will expect visitors to appreciate this distinctiveness.

Best start off on the right foot! Or at least not put your foot right in it.

And indeed, how many Americans are fully aware that the United Kingdom is essentially a constitutional monarchical federation of nation-states, in which there are four major nations and several minor ones, not to mention overseas and dependent territories?

(The four major nations of the UK are England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Each has their own separate government. Each, however, is subject to different levels of central government control from "Westminster," which is the traditional shorthand term for the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In the case of Wales, there is a sixty member Welsh Assembly with power to legislate on certain specific issues, subject to veto by the UK Secretary of State, or by the Westminster Parliament. There also remain forty Welsh seats in the Westminster parliament. Of these, three are currently held by the Welsh Nationalist Party, or Plaid Cymru.)

And how many Americans know that there are four major indigenous languages in the British Isles, including Welsh itself, and a number of minor ones, not to mention recently imported ones that are spoken by large numbers, such as Urdu or Hindi? And many of these new immigrants have come to Wales, particularly to its industrial cities.

Imagine the possibilities for multiple and overlapping ethnic identities. A little imagination is probably required on the part of Americans to appreciate this.

You could, for instance, as a genuine product of our multi-ethnic modern British melting pot, quite easily have been born a brown-skinned yet basically British person of primarily south Asian descent, who has English as a first language, Urdu as a strong second language, but with Welsh as a weak third language. This last might have occurred because you were born in one of the Welsh Valleys (the industrial heartland of South Wales), hence that language education which you got at school. So far so good.

This hypothetical Welshman might also visit conservative Muslim relatives in Pakistan once a year (where he has learned to hold his tongue), but might also have served perfectly loyally in the British military in Iraq for a stint. Yet he might have declined an traditional south Asian arranged marriage in favor of a tradition-breaking bond with a white, fluent Welsh-speaking spouse, of solidly middle-class English parentage who was born and raised in Milton Keynes, Middle England.

All this and much much more is possible and even likely in the new Wales and indeed the new Britain of the 21st Century. And there are of course American analogs.

So, if you are this person, are you Welsh?

More than likely, if you are this person, you do identify with being all of these: Welsh, South Asian, Muslim, and British.

All at once!

And after all, you were born and raised in the Rhonddha.

Actually, I can't imagine anyone born and raised in the Rhonddha not growing up with some powerful notion of the hundreds of years of struggle that it has taken to maintain some kind of Welsh identity.

So what does it mean to a Welsh person of any ethnicity to be Welsh?

Well, if you perhaps take the long view, you might consider that this new South Asian immigration to the Welsh Valleys is only the most recent of many. Multiple waves of newcomers, who have been appearing for nearly ten millennia, have in each case been assimilated to some or a great extent, but with each also having their cultural and genetic impact on the whole. And the Welsh, of course, are part of this same story of multiple immigrations as much as any other British peoples are.

Although the people that gave rise to the pre-industrial Welsh did come a little earlier than most. The earliest of all, in many cases. Perhaps that makes them different or special. I'm not sure. But before we talk about it, we should know about it.

The reason the Welsh are often nationalistic and protective of their identity is that they generally consider themselves, or at least the people they were before this new immigration, to be a completely different ethnicity than the English and the original inhabitants, ab origine, which means "from the origin." The aboriginal people of the British Isles, in other words. The ones who belong there. The best American analog is not comparing, say, southern and northern US culture, which may be very different but have similar ethnic roots, but perhaps comparing mainstream European-American culture with Native American culture. And that, at least is often how the Welsh see themselves. England for centuries has been the bigger and more powerful country, and the Cymry have been on the defensive since about 500 AD.

Their very existence is in fact owed to this defensive posture. A weaker-willed ethnic group, and their language and song and tale, would have disappeared hundreds of years ago. A milder level of feeling wouldn't feel the need, for instance, to patiently teach their ancient language to the children of a new generation of immigrants who already speak perfect English, when English is the primary language and nearly everyone speaks it.

Study the passion and feeling (and tuneful singing) at Cardiff Millenium Stadium when the Welsh national anthem is played before a international rugby game against Italy.

Not only is the crowd full of obvious pride, but they can sing too!

(As the Reverend Jenkins says in Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood, "Praise the Lord! We are a musical nation.")

So I wouldn't, if I were you, dear students, underestimate the strength of Welsh ethnic pride. The average Welsh heart fills with immense pride just to be part of this ancient tradition.

Language doesn't help much the non-Welsh out here. Cymru is Welsh for Wales, while cymry is Welsh for the Welsh people. The English terms Wales and Welsh are vaguely insulting, having the connotation of foreigner, or outsider in Old English. So the very word "Welsh" carries this same key connotation of different ethnicity.

Most Welsh speak English as a first language today, but many also speak the Welsh language, or Cymraeg, as a first language. Nearly all the people you meet will speak English perfectly too, but many Welsh people will have a strong accent when speaking English, and use many dialect words, all of which Americans may find difficult to understand. British people in general are more used to communicating despite multiple dialects and accents. More than likely Welsh people will understand your American accent perfectly (yes -- you do have one!), but you won't necessarily be able to understand them. In addition, we are visiting the area of Wales where Welsh is most likely to be the first language or a strong second language. Many of the people you meet will be functionally bilingual, and able to switch from Welsh to English and back again easily.

So this is a very different picture from the common American viewpoint that tends to put all of the peoples of the British Isles in one group. (And that incomplete picture, of course, most closely resembles the English.) So we need to know a bit more about it than this. Let's begin to explore the historical roots of this complicated ethnicity.

The earliest prehistorical inhabitants of the British Isles came from the mainland of Europe over a land bridge during the ice age. After that land bridge disappeared for the last time, some 10,000 years ago, the first Mesolithic cultures are found, followed by Neolithic agriculturalists around 4,000 BCE. From these peoples, combined with multiple waves of later immigrants from the mainland, the Ancient Britons emerged. Modern genetic evidence suggests that perhaps the largest number of inhabitants of the British Isles today have genomes that go back several thousand years in place. Some remarkable cases of persistence remain to be fully explained, but as the Cheddar Man evidence showed, they do exist and are widespread.

These Ancients are first identified to written history by ancient writers from Greece and Rome.

The Greek sailor, Pytheas, is the first known literate person to have written about Britain, in the fourth century BCE. Pytheas apparently circumnavigated the Isles. He describes them as occupied by a people with the material culture traits we identify with the Celts of mainland Europe. Archeology confirms that at this period an identifiably Celtic culture was in place in the Isles.

In particular, by 500 BC, an identifiably Celtic ornamentation is found in metal objects found in Britain, design which has much in common with the famous La Tene sites on the mainland. It used to be assumed that a wave of conquering Celts brought this culture to the isles around the same time or earlier, but this interpretation is now beginning to be discredited by the modern techniques that uncovered Cheddar Man and others.

The recent DNA evidence casts doubt on the notion that La Tene Celts replaced older populations entirely. Some of the mitochondrial and Y-chromosome genomes encountered today in the Celtic lands seem to indicate earlier provenance, although these are found alongside genomes of similar provenance to those found in other Celtic lands such as Brittany or Galacia. But the fact remains that the material culture and lifestyle was largely Celtic, similar to that of the Celtic Iron Age peoples of the mainland, and the characteristic flowing knot-work and other stylistic designs must have been closely linked to continental Celtic peoples such as the Gauls and Bretons.

The ancestors of today's Welsh people first appear to written history in any detail as the Ancient Britons encountered by the Romans. At that time the greater part of the largest island, called Great Britain, was primarily occupied by British (Welsh) speaking peoples. English arrived much later. Julius Caesar led forays into Britain in 55 BCE, seeking fame and fortune, finding only a temporary toe-hold for his pains. It took nearly a century for the Romans to return, during the reign of Claudius. They successfully conquered the various British tribes and established the Roman Province of Britannia.

The name Briton and the geographic term Britannia both have their roots in the Celtic word romanized by Ceasar as prettanni, meaning "painted" or "painted people," a reference perhaps to the use of blue warpaint from woad or copper minerals.

The marriage of Roman and British culture was long-lived and successful. Roman roads, civil government, literature, engineering and architecture, enriched the Iron Age peasant farming systems and tribal cultures of the insular Celts. Romano-British political and religious ideas (such as early Christianity) and living styles were kept up even after the Romans withdrew in 410 CE. And of course, the Romans, and their various auxiliary forces, many of whom were German tribes, would have left some of their genetic material behind too.

The Romano-British aftermath is the period which gives rise to the legend of King Arthur, the civilized yet mystical Roman-British hero, fighting the English (Anglo-Saxon) invaders from the east. The name Arthur is perhaps rooted in the Welsh word for bear, so Arthur may be a "bear-man" or "bear-hero." About the same time as the legend of Arthur was first generated, the European brown bear itself became extinct in the British Isles, through hunting. My west Welsh grandmother told me stories as a child about how King Arthur and his men were sequestered in a Welsh mountain, waiting to spring into action to "save Britain" from some horrific fate. The fate itself was never detailed, but since Grandma was a survivor of the Great Depression and the Blitz and the Twentieth Century in general, I got the distinct idea that it was someone like Hitler or Stalin or the Luftwaffe that would cause it, and Arthur and his men would be quite up to the job, despite their medieval weaponry. This story-telling on Gran's part is an example of the fragmented but still intact oral tradition in Welsh folk tales.

The invaders were Germanic tribes from Jutland, Freesia, and Saxony, and are usually simply called the Anglo-Saxons or Saxons. After the turn of the sixth century CE they drove the Celtic inhabitants further and further west. At least that was what the history books said until recently. That recent DNA evidence, however, suggests the persistence of pre-Celtic and Celtic mitochondrial DNA lines, indicating that Celtic women were captured and used as house slaves and concubines, or preferred to make their own peace with the invaders their men were fighting, or most likely a combination of both. These findings remain controversial. (Their primary author is Dr. Stephen Oppenheimer.)

The long-vaunted Saxon invasion may thus have been more correctly a fairly small affair, more the incursion of a few elite warriors supplanting native tribal leaders, than it was the great battles between Arthur's men and the foreign hordes we have imagined for hundreds of years since Le Morte d'Arthur. But the fact remains that after the sixth and seventh centuries the Ancient British languages were increasingly restricted to the west and the north, the Celtic fringe, as it is often today called. These are places that neither the Romans nor the Saxons conquered.

We are going almost to the edge of the fringe, the westernmost part of west Wales, and a remaining homeland for a living Celtic language and culture.

Further waves of Anglo-Saxons and later Norse invaders impacted both Wales and the rest of Britain. In Wales the Norse Vikings raided and settled in places, and so left cultural and genetic imprints around the coast but the language remained distinctly Welsh. The rest of the isles experienced a considerable Norse influence, and the English language is often described by scholars as a marriage of Anglo Saxon and Norse. One powerful group of Norse descent were the Normans, a group of whom, under Duke William of Normandy (King William I of England) subdued most of the Isles, including much of Wales, after 1066. The Anglo-Norman rulers of England also attempted a settlement of Wales in the 11th Century and much occupying and castle-building was done, particularly in the flatter and more fertile regions, but the people and the language again survived. The great Norman-Welsh castles of Caernarvon and Harlech date from the later part of this period. They use architectural ideas and technology imported from the middle east during the Crusades.

In other words, the Anglo-Normans found it necessary to employ the same technology to protect themsleves against the Welsh as they employed against the Saracens in the Holy Land.

The Welsh thus enter the Middle Ages as a culturally and linguistically distinct people, as yet unconquered or at least only partially conquered by the Anglo-Norman hegemony that rules much of the rest of Great Britain. The great Welsh historical problem became, and continues to be, how to remain distinctively Welsh under the constant onslaught of the more powerful culture to the east.

The last Welsh Prince of Wales was the hero Owain Glyndŵr, who led a 15th century revolt against Henry IV of England. Glyndŵr, anglicized as Glendower, appears in Shakespeare's Henry IV as a terrifying warlord, fit to strike fear into the heart of any mere Englishman:

"at my nativity, The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes, Of burning cressets, and at my birth The frame and huge foundation of the earth Shaked like a coward."

This kind of revolutionary fervor is not necessarily departed from the Welsh stage. The precedent is found again and again, in events such as the Merthyr Rising of 1831, the labor unrest at Tonypandy in 1910, or the nationalist violence and arson of the 1970s. The Welsh reach deep into their past for identity and meaning, and recast their resistance to new incursions in the light of old ones.

Yet on the other hand, most Welsh remain far less than militantly nationalist in their outlook, Plaid Cymru gets only a minority of votes, and there remains a good deal of support for various bastions of the British establishment, particularly Rugby Union, the Liberal party, the Labour Party, and even the monarchy. The latter can fairly claim some Welsh ancestry, dating from the Tudors. And from the earlier time of Edward I, also a fearsome personage, the tradition of naming the first-born son of the English monarch as Prince of Wales is dated. Currently Prince Charles is Prince of Wales. When Charles assumes the throne, the title will pass to Prince William.

Will he be Welsh enough? Perhaps we should ask our hypothetical Rhondda Valley Welsh-Asian?

My favorite Welsh author is Dylan Thomas, who wrote in English. My favorite Dylan Thomas work is the play Under Milk Wood, which you can listen to by clicking on the link. What I like about Thomas's play is how much it celebrates Welshness without taking Welshness too seriously.

Which is what I think you have to do to make any humane and common sense out of this strong feeling.

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