On being Welsh: A Historians Viewpoint*
by the President-elect, Professor R.R. Davies, CBE, FBA
It is a well-established tradition for professors to be invited - indeed on occasion to be statutorily required - to deliver an inaugural lecture on assuming the tenure of their chairs. It is a sort of rite of passage. It provides an occasion for the new incumbent of the chair to deliver himself (or herself) of some comforting and uplifting generalisations and, in the unlovely management-speak of today, to issue a mission statement. I trust that our Society is too venerable in its antiquity, and too civilized in its values, to surrender to the audit jargon that dominates so much of our public and academic life so unhealthily today.
Nevertheless I welcome this invitation to deliver an inaugural address to the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, and that for at least two reasons. The first is to give thanks to the Society for extending the great honour of inviting me to serve as its President and that in its two hundred and fiftieth anniversary year. That sense of thanks is transformed into a sense of awe as I contemplate the names of the outstanding succession of Presidents who have served this Society, not least Emrys Jones whose distinction as a President is matched by his devotion and dedication to the Society. To live in Emryss shadow is to be overshadowed. I am indeed a dwarf standing on the shoulders of giants: corach ar ysgwyddau cawr. The second reason for welcoming your invitation
though, if truth be told, an invitation from the Honorary Secretary normally takes the form of a regal injunction is that it provides me with an occasion to share with you some thoughts about our raison dêtre as a Society. Hence my title this evening.
There are, no doubt, myriad reasons why members join this Society and attend its meetings and why it has managed to survive for two and a half centuries. But irreducibly and essentially the explanation must rest in their awareness of, and commitment to, a common Welshness, in all its multifarious forms. Never forget your Welsh was the clever advert used to sell a particular brand of ale. Happiness, said another catchphrase, is knowing that you are Welsh. For the dour, conscience-stricken north Welshman the vocation of being Welsh was much more of an ineluctable fate Ni allaf ddianc rhag hon, I cannot flee its grasp. But whether angst or bravado or exultation is the controlling emotion, we all share, in very varying degrees, a sense of our Welshness.
*An address delivered to the Annual General Meeting of the Society at the British Academy on 14 May 2002, with the President, Professor Emrys Jones, in the chair.
There, of course, begins the problem. Welshness should be lived, not protested; experienced, not raucously proclaimed. Our distrust is immediately triggered by those who protest their Welshness, not least because it is usually a preface to a bout of sentimentality, a poor argument, or a shifty political or moral decision. It reminds me of the comment of William Stubbs, Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford and later Bishop of Chester, who observed that when he heard a politician begin a sentence with the phrase History teaches us that he knew that he was about to encounter a thumping lie. The recent intellectual and moral knots in which our present-day politicians have tied themselves in identifying the cricket test of English identity or the irreducible quality of Britishness suggest that they are as ham-handed in their excursuses into nationality and ethnicity as into history. (And it is, incidentally, striking that the English are now as unsure of their identity as the Welsh are of theirs.) It is a salutary warning. Tread gently on my Welshness, might be our motto, because you tread on my identity.
It is this essentially personal, multifaceted, variable and chameleon character of our Welshness as of any identity which makes it such a protean, elusive concept. It is not an objectified reality to which we can apply a set of neat litmus tests to measure the intensity, or otherwise, of our Welshness. It was, as we shall see, once otherwise. Nations, peoples, languages were once seen as creations of God and their identities could be precisely calibrated and outwardly exhibited. But in our post-modernist and deconstructed world, nations and peoples are regarded as social and intellectual constructions, imagined communities in a process of endless invention, reinvention and redefinition. Our passports may proclaim us to be citizens of the United Kingdom; but that is a civic, legal and statist definition of our identity. Our cultural and emotional identity is quite a different matter, and it is essentially our very own; it is an act of our imagination, nobody elses. That is why Waldo Williams, with the characteristic insight of the poet, remarked that for him Welshness was dawn yn nwfn y galon, the genius in the depth of the heart.
Indeed in the depth of my heart and yours. If that is so, can we talk about it, other than in a kind of secular seiat brofiad, a phrase for which I know no English equivalent other than a Maoist self-criticism session? That, I suspect, would be an occasion for embarrassed silence or even more embarrassing declarations of faith the kind which I dreaded in my youth in response to the spiritually confrontational rhetorical questions left hanging in the air by fiery Presbyterian ministers. So how do we approach the issue of Welshness without the blundering heavy-footedness which so often characterizes the utterances of our politicians on issues of citizenship, nationality and ethnicity?
The first step in wisdom is to acknowledge that each of us comes at the issue from his or her own personal perspective, upbringing and background as well as from our current convictions. We are all memory-bearing individuals who view the world from the crucible of our evolving memories and experiences. So let me put my cards on the table, as I hope each of you will put yours. I was brought up in a rural society whose language and culture and it is important to recognise that being Welsh in language does not necessarily mean that one is steeped in Welsh culture was overwhelmingly, though not exclusively, Welsh. It was a world much nearer in sentiment to the Wales of
O. M. Edwards and Kate Roberts than to that of, say, Dylan Thomas or Gwyn Thomas. Intellectually, of course, I appreciate fully that Wales is, in the rather trite phrase, a plural experience (as is every country); but emotionally and experientially I cannot avoid measuring Wales against the Wales of my memory, upbringing and imagination. Nor can you. And it is, of course, a world I have lost, possibly because it never existed in quite the way that I imagined, and imagine, it. After all, as W. J. Gruffydd said with devastating accuracy and do recall that he was reminiscing about the Caernarfonshire of his youth from the bourgeois discomfort of suburban Cardiff every man is an exile after the age of forty. Exiles become poor guides whether in London or over the age of forty to the realities of the present; their forte lies in the rather self-indulgent nostalgia of selective and romanticised recall. That is why so much literature about Wales, in Welsh and in English, is rooted in highly-varnished portraits of a lost world, or worlds much the same, incidentally, as English fiction panders to the taste for an aristocratic, imperial and triumphant past.
So if this address is not to become an exercise in autobiography and heaven forbid that it should what alternative route can be opened up onto this sensitive question of Welshness? For the historian there is an obvious escape route: the past. Not a recollective, personal past but the past as history, as the object of critical academic study. In that context, please note the use of the indefinite article in the sub-title of this lecture: a historians viewpoint. I do not claim to speak for all historians. Historians today are too modest and too uncertain of their interpretations or should be so to reiterate the words of a great French historian, Fustel de Coulanges, when he was applauded at the end of a lecture: Do not applaud me. It is History that speaks through me. But I think that I would claim that in the discussion of Welshness, as of so many contemporary issues, it would be hugely rewarding if there could be a time-perspective to our discussions and ruminations. Nothing is more disturbing about the contemporary western world, and notably about the comments of its pundits and political leaders, than its myopic present-mindedness. You would sometimes think that they are the first generation to become aware of the dilemmas of the human condition. Their eyes are firmly fixed on the present and on the future normally defined in terms of the panaceas that they will deliver (like the milkman) by, or after, the next election. It was once otherwise. Traditional societies may not have viewed their problems and dilemmas sub specie aeternitatis but they were at least aware of the continuum from yesterday to today and so unto tomorrow. Nowhere is this sense of time perspective more essential than in the discussion of nationality and ethnicity, since these are not Platonic, timeless abstractions but constructions of time, place, and circumstance.
* * * * *
And so to Welshness. Today, if we were pressed to define it, we might possibly do so in terms of territoriality and governance (those who live in the land we call Wales and who nowadays fall, for limited aspects of their social living, under the authority of the Welsh Assembly) or in terms of attitude and conviction (those who, when confronted to do so, affirm their Welshness, often it seems nobly in the service of lost causes, such as the current state of Welsh rugby!). Yet not only need the two definitions not be in alignment, they are often overlaid nowadays by other and often much more insistent and urgent identities, especially in our fast-moving, homogenised and globalised worlds. It was once otherwise, and it is to these other times when the Welsh were formally and legally distinguished from the English and when a whole set of clearly-defined criteria could be invoked to bolster the distinction that I now wish to turn. It is an exercise in history but one, I fondly think, not without relevance to our current wrestlings with the concept of Welshness.
The first criterion which was once invoked to define Welshness was blood. The very notion now instantly raises our politically-correct hackles; it reeks of the racism which was part of the baneful inheritance of nineteenth-century eugenic theories and which played such havoc with our world in the twentieth. Of course we recognize today that we are all mongrels and that any notion of ethnic purity is an ideological construct not a biological fact and one that too often leads down the via dolorosa of ethnic cleansing. But we should not allow our moral outrage to cloud our psychological or historical understanding. Psychologically, we are forced to recognize that peoples often perceive themselves as sharing in Clifford Geertzs words, an untraceable but sociologically real kinship. Something (as another social anthropologist remarks) they know intuitively and unquestionably. Historically, there is absolutely no doubt that Welshness was formerly defined in terms of blood and descent. A freeborn Welshman was, according to Welsh medieval law, a Cymro famtad,
i.e. Welsh through both parents. The obsession of the Welsh with lineal descent an obsession which was so frequently commented on by outsiders and which survived in good heart until the eighteenth century was the genealogical manifestation of this preoccupation with nobility of blood, and that blood was ultimately noble Welsh blood, gwaed coch cyfa, as the vernacular phrase has it. Nor was this merely a matter of native sentiment; blood descent (de sanguine) was a test not infrequently used by English administration and justice to define a Welshman and even legislatively to exclude him from office and urban privileges, as happened during the rising of Owain Glyn D&Mac249;r. We do not deploy blood-tests to define ethnicity today; but when we observe that someone is Welsh though born in London, we are still toying with ideas of descent in our definition of Welshness.
A second test which could once be deployed to test for Welshness was law. A Welshman was simply a man who lived under Welsh law. Law in the middle ages was personal rather than territorial or regnal, and Welsh law was quite distinct from English law, in substance and procedure. In legal and historical mythology, its founder, or at least its codifier, was the tenth-century king, Hywel Dda, the Good, prince of the whole of Wales who, so the legal texts proclaimed, summoned men from every cantref in Wales to the great legal convention at Whitland and then issued the laws to be current throughout Wales. Even after the Normans and the English had made great inroads into Wales and had introduced their legal practices and institutions in the wake of their settlements, Welsh law remained clearly demarcated, and utterly distinct, from English law. It was fully recognized as such by the English rulers of Wales: that is why they acknowledged the existence of separate Welsh courts, hired Welsh jurists into their legal advisory service, and accepted that in the areas of native settlement, the Welshries as they were called, Welsh law, procedures and institutions should prevail. For the Welsh themselves the defence of their native laws was one of the principal propaganda planks in their struggle with the English, especially in the critical years 127782. Welsh law, so they proclaimed, was the birth-right of every Welshman; indeed they raised the ideological stakes even higher by announcing that their right to have their own laws was one of the hallmarks of their nationhood. Edward I would not have subscribed to such a view; but even he, in the Statute of Wales of 1284, had to concede that in civil and land law the right of the Welsh to have their own laws should be acknowledged.
So long as a people, or a realm, has its own laws, procedures and forms of jurisdiction, it retains one of the principal bulwarks of its identity. We can see as much even today in Scotland. There is an instructive paradox here: Scotland retained its legal identity even though its law was largely parasitic on English forms and methods; Wales forfeited its legal identity even though its law was distinctly its own and deeply rooted in history, unlike the so-called common law of Scotland. The story of Waless surrender of its separate legal identity was partly a matter of social and cultural change, especially in the higher echelons of native Welsh society, partly the victory of the hegemonic power of English legal and institutional paradigms in a conquered society. The legislative completion and formal authorization of the process was the Act of Union of 1536. The official title of the Act, you will recall, was an act for laws and justice to be ministered in Wales in like form as it is in this realm, and its critical clause, from our point of view, was the one which required that the laws, ordinances and statutes of this realm of England forever, and none other laws shall be used in Wales. Whatever historiographical revisionism might say, the Acts of 153643 marked the formal termination and deletion of Welsh law, and thereby of Waless legal individuality. One of the critical bulwarks of Welsh identity had been demolished.
The Act of 1536 also proclaimed its intention utterly to extirpate all and singular the sinister usages and customs (of Wales) differing from the same (of this realm). This brings us to another of the ethnic identifiers of Welsh identity in the historical evidence the usages and customs, in other words the truly profound cultural differences (in the widest possible sense of the word cultural) which demarcated the Welsh from their neighbours. Nowhere are we so disabled by our present-mindedness and by our foreshortened, and thereby distorted, modernist historical telescopes as on this issue of cultural differences. Our myopia is compounded by our fear of being politically incorrect in invoking national character and national differences. Past societies thought otherwise, and have thought otherwise until very recently. They would have had no difficulty, or embarrassment, in itemising the usages and customs of the Welsh across a whole range of topics diet, dress, housing, agriculture, social values and customs, marital and sexual practices, codes of honour and so forth. To this objective list of cultural differences they would then have added national characteristics of temperament, deeply embedded, as they saw it, in the humours, the isolation, the weather and the barbarous backwardness of the Welsh. In other words, the Welsh were identifiably and undeniably different. As one canny observer put it in the 1290s, the Welsh, you know, are Welsh.
We, of course, in our modern homogenized world have retreated from such certainties; but we fail to realize how recently we have done so and how time-conditioned our response it. When Bernard, the first Norman bishop of St Davids, proclaimed in the 1120s that the Welsh are entirely different in nation, language, laws and habits, judgements and customs, we might dismiss his opinion as a self-serving comment on a distant world. Put it, however, side by side with the following observation: If nothing can please him but what is foreign, he will find the language, manners and dress of the inhabitants (of Wales) as completely foreign as those of France or Switzerland. The comment was made in The Gentlemans Magazine; the year, 1831. There are over seven hundred chronological years between Bishop Bernard and the commentator in The Gentlemans Magazine; but they have far more in common with each other, and in their views of the Welsh, than we have with the sentiments of the 1831 tourist. The same is true of national character. The common characterizations of the Welsh in the middle ages were those of an excitable, inconstant, light-headed people. Turn to the pages of the Parliamentary Commissioners report of the Welsh in 1847 and there you will find the charges repeated as objective social observation the aroused passion and peculiar excitability of the Welsh whose reasoning power are less developed than those of the English. Such remarks would be reported to the Race Relations Board today, though derogatory personal comments such as characterising a political opponent as a Welsh windbag suggests that ethnic stereotyping still lies pretty close to the surface of our politically correct and air-brushed language.
But I am less concerned with todays ethnic spite than with the reality and profundity of the cultural divide between Welsh and English in historical terms. This was as evident within Wales as it was to outside observers. George Owen, that astute and eloquent commentator on Elizabethan Wales, was in no doubt that the Welsh and English of his native Pembrokeshire were profoundly different in manners, diet, building and tilling of the land; some 350 years later a correspondent commented on the same Pembrokeshire that the superiority of the farming diminishes as it proceeds inland; and above Narberth the Welsh county commences. Archdeacon William Coxe made much the same observation about western Monmouthshire, noting that its inhabitants unwillingly hold intercourse with the English, retain their ancient prejudices and still brand them with the name of Saxons.
Our modern-day, easy-going multi-culturalism and the erosion and collapse of so many of the cultural identities of the Welsh, especially over the last 150 years, prevents us from acknowledging that Welsh identity, in cultural terms, was once so self-evident as hardly to need defining or defending. It made Welshmen Welsh. Had not Edmund Spenser noted that the difference of manners and customs does follow the difference of nations and people; in other words, difference of manners and customs distinguished one people, such as the Welsh, from another. He added, in sinister terms, that union of manners and conformity of minds was the route that peoples such as the Welsh would have to follow if they were to enter the portals of English state and society. The forfeiture of their manners and customs was part of the price of the entry ticket. And it was a price that the Welsh have regularly and, by and large, willingly paid in instalments over the generations. Already by the late fourteenth century shrewd commentators were noting how the Welsh aped English customs tilling gardens and fields, inhabiting towns, riding armed, wearing stockings and even sleeping under sheets. The consequence was obvious:
So they semeth now in mynde More Englishche men than Walsche kynd.
And so it has been ever since. In the process, of course, Welshness has become ever more elusive.
Such is also the case with history. A peoples, or a nations, identity rests not only in its aspiration for the present and the future, but in some measure in the collective memory of a validating past which underpins its identity and sanctions its continuity through time. The geographical, institutional and political fragmentation of Wales has militated against the development and promotion of a unilineal and regularly revised national historical mythos. Historical memories in Wales have often been local and genealogical, rather than national and unitary. There was an immense assemblage of triadic and toponymic lore, cultivated and propagated by bards, raconteurs (cyfarwyddiaid) and remembrancers; but with the decline and effective demise of the professional bardic order by the seventeenth century and the collapse of the patronage system which had sustained it, Wales has largely surrendered any sense of its own historical identity. A people without a collective memory of itself, a pantheon of heroes, and the lieux de mémoire of a national mythology gradually but inexorably forfeits its identity as a people.
In the case of Wales that was all the more likely to happen because there was no independent state mechanism, which could become (as in so many other countries) the focus of an authorized and vigorously promoted version of national history. Rather was Wales politically and administratively an annex of England; accordingly, such history as it was given was a footnote or appendix to English history, subsequently re-branded as British history. We might note the comment of an anthropologist in this respect: The capacity of a successful self-defining entity like a nation such as England/Britain we might add to define and create its relevant history, both as it happens and in retrospect, has the corollary that minority, sub-national units within it such as Wales cannot compete on the same scale. They are, in important senses, history-less and event-less by comparison.
Particularly was this likely to happen as state education was introduced and the memory of the state, the British state, became the memory of the people. The 1847 commissioners had been appalled by what they found, or rather did not find, in Wales. I have seldom, said one of them, obtained any account of our great victories, and lest we misconstrue the force of that our, he went on to gloss it Magna Carta as the bulwark of English liberties, the reign of Elizabeth, and our Indian empire. That a process of re-education was desperately needed was obvious to another commissioner: What share in those notions which constitute our national existence note again the phrase our and the elision of the concepts of Britain and England, thereby casting Wales into an historical oubliette can a lad have who calls the capital of England Tredegar? That level of historical and geographical ignorance about Britain and the British Isles has been rooted out by generations of teaching and all the devices of centralised, modern news management. We need not construe this achievement as a great conspiracy on the part of the Anglo-British state nor need we deny that the Welsh have gone along with, contributed to, and benefited from membership of the political and cultural construct that is the British state, especially in its great imperial age. But equally we should shed the innocence that fails to recognize that political, governmental and legal absorption inevitably brings profound cultural and historical consequences, all the more powerful for being unintended, in its wake. Wales has most certainly paid the price in terms of its identity.
If Wales has surrendered so many potential hallmarks of its identity in terms of blood, law, usages and customs and history over the centuries, what bulwarks remain (if any) which might still define an attenuated Welsh identity? Let me mention three of them language, land and governance. None of them figures prominently in the early historical evidence; all three have significance in current discussions of Welsh identity. That serves to remind us that national identities are not God-given certainties, but evolving intellectual sentiments and constructions. Ultimately todays Wales is not yesterdays Wales nor need it be tomorrows.
Let us begin with language, specifically the Welsh language. It scarcely figures in the medieval evidence, that is at the period when Welsh identity was arguably most secure and unchallenged. This should not surprise us. Welsh was the language of the overwhelming majority of the people of Wales except for the English-colonised districts of the southern coastlands and the eastern river valleys. On any long-term view it is the survival of Welsh, not its ultimate decline, which is remarkable. After all, the historical and official odds have always been heavily stacked against it. Since the middle ages it has never been a language of power, merely a tolerated vernacular. When print capitalism took Europe by storm in the late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth centuries, Welsh was not in a position to jump on the band-wagon. In so far as it survived, it did so as the language of the home, the locality and crucially of religion. That ultimately could not be a basis for buoyancy or longevity in the modern world.
Furthermore it was grudgingly tolerated, never actively supported. Linguistic intolerance grew in England, as elsewhere, from the late middle ages. It was grounded in the growing conviction that political or state unity required linguistic uniformity, for, as Edmund Spenser put it brutally with regard to Ireland, the speech being Irish, the heart must needs be Irish. Much the same philosophy informed the Act of Union of Wales and England in 1536. Welsh was dismissed as a speech nothing like nor consonant to the natural mother tongue of this realm; all courts should be proclaimed and held in English and no one speaking Welsh should henceforth hold any office in England and Wales unless he or they use and exercise English. The bandwagon of English linguistic uniformity was firmly on the road; its progress has scarcely been challenged until our own day.
But the advance of English was not only, or even mainly, a matter of legislative decree; it was also seen, by both English and Welsh, as a great civilising, bonding and opportunity-enhancing experience. Through no other medium than a common language, pontificated the 1847 commissioners, can ideas become common. The Times showed the benevolent side of its thundering on the issue in 1871 when it proclaimed that in the best interest of the Welsh it is desirable to do everything lawful to wean them from their provincial tongue. Furthermore this was a sentiment that was echoed a hundred times by the most prominent leaders of cultural and literary Welsh-language life. English was the language of the future, of opportunity and of operating on the wide stage. Nor was there any reason to be anxious about the Welsh language and its future. According to the census of 1891, a majority of the people of Wales still spoke Welsh; indeed by 1901 there were nearly a million Welsh speakers.
How the situation has changed in a century. The retreat of Welsh speaking, and with it of a distinctive Welsh culture, has been constant, irreversible and near-catastrophic. For some this is an ineluctable, if mildly regrettable, process; for others and this has been the case since the sixteenth century but has now reached the pitch of almost apocalyptic despair it is nothing less than the last struggle to salvage any meaningful Welsh identity. It is impossible ultimately to be detached in these matters. We can study the sociology of language decline as if it were a form of linguistic pathology but for those of us caught up in the process it comes close, if you will forgive the emotive words, to experiencing a living death. Medieval observers had no doubt that language made a people: gentem lingua facit, as the lapidary phrase had it. That is no longer an orthodoxy in a world where many different peoples or nations often share the same language, but equally where multi-lingualism is a feature of many states. But let us be under no illusion about what is involved in the death of a language. Each and every natural language, says the literary critic George Steiner, constitutes an integral world . The death of a language, be it whispered by the merest handful on some parcel of condemned ground, is the death of a world. For the Welsh speaker it can seem like the death of Wales.
Where, then, can Welsh identity find a resting-place now that less that twenty per cent of the population speak Welsh and even of that proportion only a fraction find any meaningful identity in the language? Might it be found in a simple and non-discriminating assumption that Welshness is now essentially a geographical concept, referring to those who live in Wales or wish to be associated by provenance and descent with them? The sense of pays in medieval and early modern Wales as in so many pre-industrial communities
was essentially local and regional, not national. But medieval commentators had a clear sense, from at least the twelfth century, of the precise geographical dimensions of Wales and what they termed its ancient bounds and limits. Clawdd Offa, Offas Dyke the longest man-made boundary in the whole of western Europe gave a definitiveness to Wales which could be reassuring to English and Welsh alike. According to all accounts, said an English commentator in 1912, it was Offa who built a dyke to separate Wales from England, and we are inclined to think that Offa was a man of sense and discernment. When so many of the other proofs of identity prove to be so fluid, elusive, long-lost or masonically discriminatory, might not a simple geographical-territorial one prove to be the simplest, if also the crudest? After all, had not Joseph Stalin, a man who knew a great deal about making and breaking peoples, declared that a common territory is one of the characteristic features of a nation?
To land we might add governance, and begin to do so now with a little more confidence. Since the early twentieth century the words nation and state have been rather misleadingly coupled in the phrase nation-state, at least in the English language if not generally. The relationship was particularly clearly spelt out by Max Weber: a nation, he said, is a community of sentiment which would adequately manifest itself in a state of its own. If that is indeed the definition, then Wales is not, and self-evidently has not been, a nation. It has had no separate and unitary existence as a state other than such as has, in very limited terms, been bestowed upon it within the Anglo-British state. Even so, the matter does not end there. The Welsh had once believed themselves, and proclaimed themselves, to be a nation. That sense of nationhood was rediscovered in the late nineteenth century and recognised by others. Mr Gladstone affirmed at Swansea in 1887 that Welsh nationality is as great a reality as English nationality. Arthur Henderson followed suit some thirty years later: Given self-gov-ernment, Wales might develop its own institutions, its own culture, its own ideal of democracy in politics, industry and social life. It has taken a very long time indeed as is so often the case for politicians words to be followed by their actions. It has taken an equally long time to persuade the people of Wales and that only by the slimmest of margins that control of some of the basic aspects of their civil governance could be safely entrusted to their own representatives in their own country. The Assembly, so proclaims Patrick Hannan, will provide a Welsh focus that has never existed before.
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Where a territorial and governmental definition of Welsh identity will, or might, lead us is far from clear, nor is it necessarily obvious that it will succeed in replacing, or complementing effectively, some of the other props of identity which I have touched upon in this lecture and which are now largely superannuated. Any answer we care to give to the question of what it means to be Welsh if it means anything will be personal, provisional, contingent and quite probably contradictory. And so, one might add, will be any other attempt at defining ethnic or national identity. It is the essence of the human condition that we have a kaleidoscopic range of multiple and multi-layered identities. They make very different, and often contradictory, calls on our loyalty at different points in our lives. National or ethnic identities are only two of these identities and often occupy a very lowly place in the league of our affections or our attention. Cerebral academics are always in danger of over-estimating them and reifying them. It is salutary to remind ourselves of the response of one Welshman cross-examined in 1281 on his views on Welsh law. His answer was pointedly brief: he paid more attention to hunting than to the discussion of law. So do most of his descendants. Who are we to condemn them?
We might also add that the search for a Welsh (or any other) identity is in many respects a search for a will o the wisp. Identity is in some respects what others bestow upon us. It was, in a paradoxical sense, the English who invented the Welsh and gave them their name, literally. Lest that paradox appear outrageously paradoxical, let me note that sociologists and anthropologists often observe that groups tend to define themselves not by reference to their own characteristics but by exclusion, by comparison to those outside the group. So it was that to be Welsh was not to be English; it was, and is, an equation which works both ways. Nor should we be unduly perturbed because we cannot compile for the Welsh or for any other people, including the English a set of clear criteria which allows us to measure the nature of Welshness. Social scientists nowadays assert that what make an effective community is not the presence or absence of any single factor but, in their unlovely language, the presence of sufficient communication facilities with enough complementarity to produce the overall results.
This brings us back to Max Webers common sentiment. A people is a people because of its members belief and conviction that it exists. It is an imagined community; it will remain alive, in however vestigial a form, so long as the people retains an awareness of itself in its imagination. That is what John Armstrong, the distinguished social scientist, meant when he remarked that ethnic boundaries are attitudinal: they exist in the minds of their subjects rather than as lines on a map or norms in a rule book. There is, of course, absolutely no guarantee that a people, a nation or a state should survive; our history books are littered with examples of those that have disappeared. There need not, and has not, always been a Wales or an England. The Welsh could disappear by forfeiting their identity (as did the Picts) or by assimilating themselves with whatever configurations of identities and peoples which the future may hold. Nor, of course, are the English immune from such a fate. Cymru am byth and there will always be an England are attempts to give a false transcendence and permanence to phenomena which are ultimately temporal and, therefore, transient.
But it is with the dilemma of the present, not the apocalypse of the future, that I should end. Ethnic and national identities are always contested, evolving and incomplete categories. Wales has never enjoyed the luxury of what medieval historians call regnal solidarity, the institutions and habits of unitary state authority, which have been such a crucial element in the formation of so many modern European nations. It has had to content itself and that very incompletely with a common culture and a common sentiment. In some respects the prospects for the survival of any form of meaningful Welshness today a Welshness which can make some measure of a plausible claim on our loyalty are more despairingly tenuous than ever; in other respects with the realignment of sentiments and even power in the current western world and in the United Kingdom they are brighter. What the outcome of that finely-balanced dilemma will be will depend overwhelmingly on those who choose to see themselves as Welsh or not. To me, said the poet and novelist Glyn Jones, anyone can be a Welshman who chooses to be so, and is prepared to take the consequences. Gwyn Alfred Williams, the remembrancer of the people of Wales as he has been called, made much the same point in typical fashion: If we want Wales, we will have to make Wales. We might dismiss such sentiments as indeed the closing paragraphs of this address as an exercise in rhetoric. But I might remind you that it was the great French savant, Ernest Renan, who once observed that the existence of a nation is an everyday plebiscite. The survival of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion and your presence at its meetings are in that sense an affirmation of the way you are casting your vote or one of your votes in that plebiscite. Diolch yn fawr.