The term Welsh literature may be used to refer to any literature originating from Wales or by Welsh writers. However, it more often refers to literature written in the Welsh language. Literature by Welsh writers in the English language is usually called Anglo-Welsh literature or Welsh literature in English.
This article will give an overview of the history of Welsh-language literature. For information about Welsh literature in English, see Anglo-Welsh literature. For more information about Welsh-language literature refer to the articles noted.
After literature written in the classical languages, literature in the Welsh language is the oldest surviving literature in Europe. The Welsh literary tradition still lives, stretching from the sixth century to the twentieth first. Its fortunes have fluctuated over the centuries, in line with those of the Welsh language. Even today the language of the early Middle Ages is recognisable to modern-day Welsh speakers.
The Middle Ages
Welsh was born sometime between 400 and 700 AD and the earliest surviving literature in Welsh is poetry dating from this period. The poetic tradition represented in the work of Y Cynfeirdd (= The early poets), as they are known, then survives for over a thousand years to the work of the Poets of the Nobility in the sixteenth century.
The core tradition was praise poetry and the poet Taliesin was regarded as the first in the line. The other aspect of the tradition was the professionalism of the poets and their reliance on patronage – from kings, princes and nobles in their turn – for their living. The fall of the kingdom of Gwynedd and the loss of any form of Welsh independence in 1282 did prove a crisis in the tradition but a crisis which was overcome. It led to the innovation – the development of the cywydd meter, a more loose definition of praise, and a reliance on the nobility for patronage.
The professionalism of the poetic tradition was sustained by a Guild of poets, or Order of bards, with its own 'rule book'. This 'rule book' emphasised their professionalism and that the making of poetry as a craft. Under its rules it took an apprenticeship of nine years for a poet to become fully qualified. The rules also set out the payment a poet could expect for his work – these payments varied according to how long a poet had been in training and also the demand for poetry at particular times during the year.
But kings, princes and nobles not only had their court poet, they also had their storyteller (Welsh: cyfarwydd). Like poets, the storytellers were also professionals; but, unlike the poets, little of their work has survived. What has survived are literary creations based on native Welsh tales which would have been told by the storytellers. These tales are usually known as the Mabinogion.
Welsh prose in the Middle Ages was not confined to the story tradition, it included a large body of both religious and practical works, in addition to a large amount translated from other languages.
For further information about Welsh literature in this period see the following articles:
The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
These two centuries in Wales, as in the rest or Europe, was a period of great change. Politically, socially, and economically the foundations of modern Wales were laid at this time. In the Acts of Union 1536-1543 Wales was annexed and integrated fully into the English kingdom, losing any vestiges of political or legal independence. The political-religious settlement of Elizabeth I through the 1559 Act of Uniformity made Wales in name a Protestant country only to be reinforced by developments during and after the English Civil War. And finally this period also saw the beginnings of industries such as coal-mining, metal-mining and smelting, which led to the mass industrialisation of the following centuries.
The end of the Guild of poets system
From the middle of the sixteenth century onwards a decline is seen in the praise tradition of the Poets of the Nobility, the cywyddwyr. It became more and more difficult for poets to make their living from the craft of poetry. This happened primarily for social reasons beyond their control. The dissolution of the monasteries, that had become important sources of patronages for the poets, and the Anglicisation of the nobility during the period of the Tudors, exasperated by the Acts of Union 1536-1543, meant that there were fewer and fewer patrons willing or able to support the poets. But there were also internal reasons for the decline: the conservatism of the Guild of poets, or, Order of bards, made it very difficult for it to adapt to the new world of renaissance learning and the growth of printing.
However, the Welsh poetic tradition of the traditional meters and cynghanedd did not disappear completely, but it did lose it professionalism, and came into the hands of 'ordinary' poets who kept it alive through centuries. Cynghanedd and traditional meters are still used today by very many Welsh-language poets.
Without an university of its own, without other learned institutions, without even a court and courtiers of its own, Wales was not in a very good position to participate fully in the revolution in ideas and scholarship, which is usually termed the renaissance. Wales did not really have any towns of great significance at this time which could have acted as centres for the type of society where such ideas and movments flourish. But the renaissance did hit Wales in no uncertain terms, and that due to the commitment of certain individuals, both Protestant and Catholic, in ensuring that the Welsh language would be part of this new movement.
The first printed Welsh book
In 1546 the first book to be printed in Welsh was published, Yn y llyvyr hwnn (=In this book…) by Sir John Price of Brecon. John Price (ca.1502-55) was an aristocrat and an important civil servant. He served as secretary of the Council of Wales and the Marches and he was also one of the officers responsible for administrating the dissolution of the monasteries in the area. He was also a scholar who embraced the latest ideas relating to religion and learning: reform and humanism. It is also known that he was a collector of manuscripts on various subjects, including the history and literature of Wales.
Other humanists and scholars
Shortly afterwards the works of William Salesbury began to appear. Salesbury was an ardent Protestant and coupled his learning with the new religious ideas from the continent. On the other hand, Gruffudd Robert was an ardent Catholic, but in the same spirit of learning published an important Welsh grammar while in enforced exile in Milan in 1567. A huge step forward for both the Welsh language and its literature was the publication, in 1588, of a full-scale translation of the Bible by William Morgan.
Most of the works published in Welsh for at least the next century were religious in nature. Morgan Llwyd, a Puritan, wrote in both English and Welsh, recounting his spiritual experiences.
During this period, poetry also began to take a religious turn, in terms of subject matter. By now, women as well as men were writing, but little of their work can be identified.
The beginnings of Welsh writing in English
The seeds of Anglo-Welsh literature can also be detected, particularly in the work of Henry Vaughan and his contemporary, George Herbert, both Royalists.
The Eighteenth Century
The trend in favour of religious literature continued and grew even stronger as Nonconformism began to take hold of Wales. The Welsh Methodist revival, initially led by Howell Harris and Daniel Rowland, produced not only sermons and religious tracts, but also hymns and poetry by William Williams Pantycelyn and others.
The Morris brothers of Anglesey were leading figures in the establishment of the London Welsh societies, and their letters to one another are an important record of the time. The activities of the London Welshmen helped ensure that Wales retained some kind of profile within Britain as a whole.
The activities of a number of individuals, including Thomas Jones of Corwen and the Glamorgan stonemason and man of letters, Iolo Morganwg, led to the revival of the National Eisteddfod and the invention of many of the traditions which surround it today. Although Iolo is sometimes called a charlatan because so many of his discoveries were based on pure myth, he was also an inveterate collector of old manuscripts and thereby did perform a service without which Welsh literature would have been the poorer. Some of the gentry continued to patronise bards, but this practice was gradually dying out.
The Nineteenth Century
Largely as a result of the Industrial Revolution, there was a large influx of people into the South Wales valleys during the 19th century. Although many of them were English, some made an effort to learn the Welsh language in order to integrate themselves with the local communities, and there was increased demand for literature in the form of books, periodicals, newspapers, poetry, ballads and sermons. Some of the more wealthy incomers, such as Lady Charlotte Guest, Lady Llanover and others, were of active assistance in the trend towards a richer cultural life for the principality. Thanks partly to the eisteddfod network, writing became a popular pastime, and all forms of poetry thrived.
Poets now used their bardic names to disguise their identity in competitions, and continued to use them when they became well known. The most celebrated poets of the century were: Evan Evans, John Blackwell, William Thomas and John Ceiriog Hughes, who went by the bardic names of "Glan Geirionydd", "Alun", "Islwyn" and "Ceiriog" respectively.
The novel had been slow to pick up momentum in Wales. Translations of works such as Uncle Tom's Cabin existed, but the first recognised novelist in the Welsh language was Daniel Owen, author of Rhys Lewis (1885) and Enoc Huws (1891), among others.
Twentieth Century onwards
In the late 19th and early 20th century, Welsh literature began to reflect the way the Welsh language was increasingly becoming a political symbol. Two of the greatest figures in the literary history of this period were the prolific Saunders Lewis and the writer/publisher Kate Roberts. Lewis, who had been brought up in Liverpool, was a leader of the nationalist movement, jailed for his part in protests; he chose drama as a means of drawing attention to the rightness of his cause. Novelist Kate Roberts worked as a teacher, and was one of few writers to have lived in and written about both north and south Wales.
The industrialisation of parts of Wales was now beginning to be regarded as a mixed blessing, and the old agricultural way of life which persisted in most of the country was idealised by many writers. Meanwhile, Welsh poetry, which had been verging on stagnation, took on a new lease of life as poets sought to regain mastery over the traditional verse forms, partly to make a political point. Alan Llwyd and Dic Jones were leaders in the field. Female poets such as Menna Elfyn gradually began to make their voices heard, overcoming the obstacle of the male-dominated bardic circle and its conventions.
The scholar Sir Ifor Williams also pioneered scientific study of the earliest Welsh written literature, as well as the Welsh language, recovering the works of poets like Taliesin and Aneirin from the uncritical fancies of various antiquarians, such as the Reverend Edward Davies who believed the theme of Aneirin's Gododdin is the massacre of the Britons at Stonehenge in 472.
- Johnston, Dafydd (1994), The literature of Wales. Cardiff : University of Wales Press. ISBN 0708312659.
- Parry, Thomas (1955), A history of Welsh literature. Translated by H. Idris Bell. Oxford : Clarendon Press.
- Stephens, Meic (Ed.) (1998), The new companion to the literature of Wales. Cardiff : Universitiy of Wales Press. ISBN 0708313833.