The strange death of Welsh history

Huw Bowen says Welsh history is undergoing a terminal demise.

On the face of it, these are exciting times for Welsh history and Welsh historians.

There is a real buzz about the place as community groups research local aspects of the First World War experience, and much effort is being directed into celebrating the centenary of the birth of Dylan Thomas.

This should come as no surprise because in Wales there has always been a very strong public appetite for history.  We see it in the enthusiastic public responses to the ‘Welsh History Month’ series entitled ‘A history of Wales in 100 pictures’, which ran earlier this year, which is organised by the Western Mail in partnership with History Research Wales and Cadw.

Television history remains popular, especially when shows are fronted by well-known newsreaders and former rugby players.  The Welsh history sections of bookshops are crowded with titles written by a small army of local historians.

On the face of it, too, all is well in the world of academic Welsh history.  Events such as Welsh History Month and our annual public debates at the Hay Literary Festival allow us to engage very effectively with public audiences.

History Research Wales has also recently achieved some striking successes in terms of winning major grants from UK funding bodies.  Backed by financial support from HEFCW, colleagues have incubated and developed exciting major collaborative research projects.

In many ways, then, there is a real energy about current research on Welsh history.  Colleagues are opening up news lines of inquiry as they explore the Welsh dimensions of gender, the Empire, the middle-classes, science, the global economy, cartoons, country houses, entrepreneurialism, war, and many other topics that have often been conspicuous by their absence from Welsh history books.

Change is also evident in the people undertaking research in Welsh history.   Until fairly recently, the world of Welsh history was an exclusive boys’ club, and only a few women such as Angela John and Deirdre Beddoe were able to fight their way in.  But now a phalanx of female Welsh historians is busy at work teaching, researching, and writing.

There also recently been an infusion of talent through posts part-funded by the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol, which means that the ranks of early career researchers are well stocked with creative and energetic scholars. But the situation is less rosy elsewhere in the profession.

Especially troubling is the loss of talent at the top of the profession as leading academic historians take up administrative posts or pursue non-research careers.  What this means is that few historian of Wales are writing the ‘big books’ on Welsh history that we need to give the subject a high profile and real presence on the world stage.

This is not to point a finger of blame at anyone, because after all there are only twenty-four hours in a day and writing important history books takes at least a decade if it is done properly.  On the contrary, it suggests that academic Welsh history has become a victim of its own success, with the cream of the crop now being far too busy as they respond to opportunities to lead and serve the wider public as well as the academic community.

This problem is exacerbated, however, by the fact that some of our universities no longer regard Welsh history as a key strategic area for investment and development.  It is sad to report that the long-established Chairs of Welsh History at Aberystwyth and Cardiff remain unoccupied, and there is no Chair of Welsh History at either Swansea or the new University of South Wales.

There are probably very good reasons for this sorry state of affairs, but it means that there is currently only one Professor of Welsh History in the world, and that is Huw Pryce at Bangor. No pressure then, Huw!

Of course, in general, there are far too many professors about the place, and we don’t want unnecessarily to create and fill positions.  But I worry about what message the non-occupied Chairs sends out to my colleagues who are currently in mid-career.  Where do they go next, and what do they aspire to become if there is only one Professorship in Welsh History?  In other words, we are witnessing a situation in which a ‘brain-drain’ is about to occur, and in the long-run this will be immensely damaging to the broad world of Welsh scholarship.

So, while outwardly Welsh history appears to be in rude good health, it is actually suffering from a terminal illness that threatens its existence as a subject for serious academic study.

But let’s not be too gloomy, as is so often our wont in Wales.  My colleagues and I believe that understanding our history is absolutely essential for the development of a modern, cohesive, confident, forward-looking Wales that is secure about its identity and place on the world stage.  To adapt a well-worn phrase, a nation without its history is like a man (or woman) without a memory.  But, as professional historians, we would say that wouldn’t we?

The real point is that the complicated process of understanding and using the past properly should not be haphazard and left to chance.  And, indeed, it should probably not be left to universities.  We need to be clever, agile, and, above all, strategic in the ways in which we organise pan-Wales activity that enables us to escape from the straitjackets that have often been imposed by local, sectional, and institutional interests.

There are many things that we could do, but here are two suggestions.

First, there should be an annual festival of Welsh history.  We seem to have festivals of virtually everything in Wales, but for some reason not Welsh history.  This is a major omission from the cultural calendar, and it is one that History Research Wales is well placed to rectify.

Second, there should be a properly funded Welsh Institute of Historical Research to serve the needs of communities, local councils, national institutions, and government.  It should be the ‘go-to’ place for advice on the history that informs the development of every single form of activity that takes place.  Such an institute would not only represent a ‘world first’ but also demonstrate that Wales is fully in touch with its past and properly understands its place in the broader scheme of things.

These developments won’t happen, though, and not just because time are hard.  They won’t happen because people lose sight of why studying history is fundamental to the functioning of a modern civic society.  All-too often their view of the past is that there is no future in it.  I beg to differ.

Huw Bowen is Professor of Public History at Swansea University, and Managing Director of Premier History Services Ltd. Until recently he was Convenor of History Research Wales. He is writing here in a personal capacity, and the views expressed are his own. You can follow him on Twitter @HVBowen. This is an abridged version of an article first published by the Western Mail.

7 thoughts on “The strange death of Welsh history

  1. The Professor is right that a knowledge of history is essential to national development and well-being. Too many recent mistakes, especially since 1997, have been caused or exacerbated by politicians’ or voters’ ignorance of previous mistakes.

    Yet he might be unduly pessimistic about the current state of Welsh history. This is one area where things have improved massively in recent decades. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, and eager to learn about one’s own heritage, it was very difficult to find English-language books on Welsh history for the general reader that reflected the latest scholarship. Now, as the article notes, there is no shortage. Better still, primary sources, including classic texts in translation, are available online. The media are also far more active: even at the risk of praising BBC Wales, some excellent programmes have been produced, not least on the Great War Centenary. Local history seems to be flourishing, again thanks to new information technology. Improved ‘tourist information’ also benefits residents. In this context, the questions of academic politics raised by the good Professor may not be that important. Indeed, perhaps the best thing that could happen to Welsh history is if it breaks out of academia and belongs again to the Welsh people.

  2. From the outside there seems to be very little current Welsh history that critically examines the more recent power stuctures, networks,linkages, familes, elites etc of the post 1997 Project. “Ruthless criticism” as a young Marx called for.

    I, in my autumn cynicism, could suggest reasons for this. The past is safer when it is “well past”. The corruption of universities as extended business units. The co-option of disciplines, and not just the pimpery of economics. The reluctance to speak not just truth to power, but to point out that power is so often venal, well protected and inter-connected.

    Who knows, maybe the popular market for heroic Welsh feudalism is finally overstocked. The current version may have legs.

  3. I am not sure if the support of an irascible old Tory will help the cause but this is an important campaign. What about a Regius Chair for the public understanding of Welsh history? Wales is the only home nation without any Regius professorships (oddly the Republic of Ireland still retains its share allocated before independence). I also like the idea of a Welsh history festival. May I add that with a couple of welcome exceptions there is a paucity of writing (in English) on Welsh politics- a point I recently made in the Assembly at a forum organised by the Bevan Foundation.

  4. “Strange Death of Welsh History” certain;y get’s our attention, but the title belies a more upbeat tone than I expected on reading the article.

    Nowadays, I spend a good deal of time studying and writing about the history of small communities in North Wales during the mid to late 19th century. This is a journey that started several years ago when a professor in Celtic Studies suggested to me that “there was more going on” in the community at large that demanded a closer look beyond the accepted narratives of the time. She was right, and I benefited from the advice. The vivid curiosity of the late Professor Emrys Bowen also comes into the picture as another influence. Putting it another way, there’s plenty of ground that has yet to be covered in Wales, and that the overall theme of Welsh History is a fascinating and rewarding field of investigation and in the telling.

    It concerns me that some of the ideas suggested by Huw Bowen may not be “getting through” to key targets. First, the Welsh Government that seems to be struggling with the concept of the historic environment as potential instrument of legislation or policy. The subject seems to have been buried in Cardiff Bay which is perhaps the death to which Huw Bowen is alluding. Time to give the body a nudge to see if there is life left in it.

    Second, that local history organizations need to bridge the gap between what they produce and the development of heritage projects in their areas. The projects are funded by public or quasi-public organizations. The case for their existence depends on tangible evidence such as buildings or canals, and “intangibles” – the history. The combined “value” of such projects is translatable into increased numbers of tourists or as learning grounds for local education authorities, to cite two examples of what needs to be discussed in the context of “the historic environment.”

    There is a danger in talking about “value” in this way – commodification of cultural heritage comes to mind immediately. On the other hand, we need to come to terms with the “value” of such intangibles if Welsh language, history and culture are to get a second, more detailed, look by the global community.

  5. I am halfway through Kenneth Morgan’s ‘Revolution to Devolution’ at the moment. In his introduction, he alludes to the flame of Welsh history being kept burning bright by a group of historians in their seventies and eighties. That observation chimes with Professor Bowen’s concerns.

    On the positive side, when you look at what has been published say since ‘Rebirth of a Nation’ in 1980, these have been golden decades. That legacy cannot be taken away.

    Perhaps what is also needed is to take a step back and to consider what Welsh history needs to take a closer look at during the next two or so decades.

    I would have thought that an annual festival is eminently do-able. It could start small, ten or twenty people staying at an informal venue and covering its own costs. Starting such a festival is what matters. You are most welcome to use our hall – Ceredigion is well placed for most of Wales, even if road and rail links are equally frail.

  6. One of the difficulties within which Welsh history has to operate is the increasing trend for universities to operate as companies, rather than centres of scholarship. It is interesting to note Professor Bowen’s suggestion for a Welsh Institute of Historical Research. They used to be called university departments but such is the nature of modern university politics and commercial targets that it is becoming increasingly difficult for the voice of the scholar to make itself heard. As a consequence, it is also difficult for the average Welsh citizen to access an understanding of the nature of Welsh society and how we got to this point.

    I must admit I have never found David Melding irascible. Despite the differences in our politics, I have always found him to have a reasoned and well-read perspective on a wide range of issues. Perhaps he is offering a perspective into his private life, Hello magazine style. However one thing that you could do David is to arrange for a debate on the predicament facing Welsh history research on the floor of the chamber at Cardiff Bay. I believe that would also make it easier for academics to voice their views in public, something that Professor Bowen has shown the courage to do in the above article.

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