EARLY MODERN HISTORY
ESSAYS / ARTICLES
[Continued] Assess the impact of humanist values on Welsh Life before 1640.
It is also arguable that the ordinary citizens did not really want to participate in humanist culture anyway. Humanist attitudes towards education to begin with was a concept completely alien to the farmer and his family. They laboured hard all day, in all weathers, and arguably had no real interest in education. Literacy of perhaps one family member was useful, but not considered by them essential, and when struggling often merely to subsist, what was not essential could easily be disposed of. What good was a knowledge of Classical Rome and Greece to these people ? It would play no meaningful part in their lives. Similarly the notions of gentility advocated by Sir Thomas Elyot and Castiglione had no direct relevance to their lives. Their social position to begin with meant that they were unlikely to be ever classed as a gentleman, and in all likelihood they would not leave their village of birth, let alone leisurely frequent the courts of nobles, much less the monarch. Also the innate conservatism of these people may have triggered a defence attitude to any "alien" set of values which differed from the familiar. There were also material factors to take into consideration. George Owen's statement that;
"There is no man so pwre but for some space he setteth forth his children to schole, and such as profette in studied, sendeth them unto the universities where for the most part, they enforce them to studied the law." (7)
can only be taken so far. Some men simply were too poor to send their children to school. There may have been a number of so called "free schools", but these were only free in terms of tuition fees. Parents still;
"...had to face the expense of books, candles and writing equipment, while if a child was placed in a grammar school at some distance from his home there was board and lodgings to be paid for." (8)
On top of this, the family would have to go without the money the child would earn in the meantime.
It is perhaps even questionable as to what extent the lower classes were even familiar with the concepts of the new learning. Apart from a few area of concentrated populations, the population was widely dispersed. Many villages were small, and there were a number of farmsteads isolated in the distant hills. Apart from the occasional business or neighbourly contact, these people would have little knowledge of what was going on outside their local area. It could take days or even weeks for the knowledge of a major national event, such as the death of a monarch, to reach them. Hidden away in relative obscurity, it is unlikely that such people were familiar with humanist values. In all likelihood, the families were likely to be ignorant that there was even a Renaissance occurring. They had no knowledge of the scholarly activity at Elizabeth's court, or the colourful dramatic activities of London. London was a world away. Even the more practical elements of the Renaissance such as architectural influences did not really touch them until the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Arguably even the more urbanised areas of Wales, and those areas privileged enough to house a school, were only limitedly touched by humanism. It is likely that the people of these areas too remained unfamiliar with the inns and outs of the "bookish learning", if only because books were beyond the financial capacity of most families. If they could hardly afford to buy the "Holy book", they were surely not going to spend their hard earned money on less worthy material such as Latin works and Conduct books. An added problem with the lower orders was the likelihood of them being monoglot Welsh. The more urbanised areas were probably more bi-lingual, but for the majority of commoners, the English publications would be of little, if any use, anyway.
The case was rather different for the upper classes of society. As has been implied, financial wealth was a prime requisite of Renaissance humanism. Also one aspect that is sometimes overlooked is that of time. It took time to acquire knowledge, many hours of study. The lower classes arguably did not have this time. Work was hard, and to get the most from the land, especially in areas where the quality of the land was rather poor, they had to work every hour of day light they could. They would be too tired in the evenings to bury their heads in the books, and arguably could not afford the candles needed. The gentry had both the financial capacity and the time to educate themselves. Increased wealth in society also meant that a larger proportion of the population was able to afford to educate their sons, and this perhaps partly explains the rise of endowed grammar schools in Wales, such as Bangor (1557), Ruthin (1574), Botwnog (1616), and Wrexham (1603)(9), although arguably this was also due to the Reformation, which had annihilated the contribution to education made by the monasteries. The Welsh gentry, also made use of the rather more highly regarded English schools, such as Shrewsbury or Winchester. One thing is clear. In keeping with humanist values, the Welsh gentry increasingly sought a good education for their sons. Also humanist ideas of gentility took a firm hold during Elizabeth's reign. Elizabeth's court itself was a fine example of cultivated, accomplished men, reflecting the main ethos of humanism. Welsh men attending the Court were undoubtedly influenced by the accomplishments they saw there, and then tried to emulate them in their own lifestyles and households. Their houses became increasingly more magnificent, reflecting the humanist notion of elegance in surroundings, and their gardens increasingly came to provide for entertainments such as Tennis or Bowls, in keeping with the notion of cultivating the body as well as the mind.
Another aspect of gentility, and one that was employed in Wales, was to be a generous patron. It has been argued that Bardism deteriorated in the face of the new learning, but if it did take somewhat of a backseat, it continued nonetheless. The gentry continued to patronise the bards, and they could be found in some of the minor Welsh courts. There were not many courts, but those such as Richard Davies's Episcopal Palace at Abergwili, the Salusbury's home at Llaweni, the Wynns at Gwydir, and St.Donats when owned by the Stradlings, were a haven for scholars, housing clerics, men of letters, and poets. Even in England, Dr. John Dee, Queen Elizabeth's astrologer of Welsh origin, opened the door of his London residence to Welsh humanists of all professions and stations in life. Dr. John Dee also had one of the greatest libraries in the country, housing some four thousand books. (10) The praise the bards gave their patrons are also evidence of the infiltration of humanist values into Welsh high life. They praised their wisdom, righteousness, generosity, knowledge and their education. Of course their words are no reliable indication as to what degree certain members of the Welsh gentry lived up to the ideal, as it is certain that the praise bestowed on them were exaggerated, but it does emphasise that they were at least familiar with the ideals. Some members of the gentry also acted as benefactors. Thomas Wynn of Melai in Denbighshire, for example, bequeathed a large sum which went towards maintaining scholars from the Denbighshire, Flintshire area.
The Welsh scholars firmly took up the patriotic elements of European humanism. It is true that a considerable number of them may have been "anglicised" by their stay in England, and W.P Griffith argues that;
"The fact that there were no native universities or large urban communities to nurture academics and scholars meant that the humanist values of the age shone in Wales through the prism of the English experience." (11)
but a significant proportion were considerably concerned about their Welsh heritage and Culture, and wanted to see the language as acclaimed as Latin and Greek. It was not necessarily because they dismissed Welsh language that they wrote in Latin, but because this was the language that all "serious writers wanting an international reading universally wrote in." (12) It would not have been an expedient career move to write only in their native tongue as few people would understand it. However, the interest individual Welsh scholars took in their Welsh heritage can be seen in that they wrote about the merits of the Welsh language, culture and history in this tongue, hoping to raise it's status and put it on a par with Latin and Greek. In 1590, for example, Sion Dafydd Rhys wrote his Cambrobrytannicae Cymraecaeve Linguae Institutiones, which was a Welsh Grammar, and hoped that knowledge of the language would spread. (13)
The Welsh had good reason to be proud of their heritage. There was attached to Wales three powerful myths, which linked the country with the glories of ancient Rome and Greece; the myths of Samothes, Saint Joseph of Arimathea and Brutus. Of these, the myth of Brutus was the most honoured, and during the sixteenth century became of paramount importance to Welsh scholars. Geoffrey on Monmouthshire, in his twelfth century book, Historia Regum Britanniae. Had declared that the true Britons were the Welsh, who were descended from Brutus, of Rome. This was believed by a significant proportion of Welsh population and seized with enthusiasm by the Welsh humanists as it gave Wales and Welsh Culture an impressive connection with Classical Rome. In 1534, however, Polydore Virgil's book Anglica historia shattered this Welsh claim to fame. He utterly condemned the Brutus theory, saying it had no basis in fact as there were no Roman documents to suggest that Brutus had even existed. Welsh humanists jumped to Geoffrey's defence, and for the next fifty years or so, were busy trying to justify the myth, the most sustained and accomplished work being that of Sir John Prise of Breconshire. This rather blindly zealous defence of Geoffrey and his work however, hampered the humanist advance amongst the scholars, as they were not incorporating the idea of historical truth laying completely in documents. As R. Geraint Gruffydd states, "they could not bring themselves to apply the criteria to the study of the remote Welsh and British past." (14) However, it is likely that not all scholars of Welsh origin were blinded by patriotic zeal, and were able to look at their history from a more objective perspective. Dr. David Powel for example was most eager to keep from such biased investigation, and argued that;
"...the task of treating the restoration and renovation of this history must be entrusted to wise and moderate men who would be able to account for their own view, to refute the fallacious reasons of their opponents, and to perceive and maintain what is true." (15)
However, one activity of the humanists which did exercise a profound influence on Welsh life for the next two centuries, was the translation of the Scriptures into Welsh. This event has rightly been praised by historians. This partly developed out of necessity. Attempts to convert the Welsh to the new faith were failing, and it was apparent that the only way to success was to provide the people of Wales with the Bible in their own language. In 1567 William Salesbury (arguably the greatest of all Welsh humanists, even if only in terms of output) published his Welsh translation of the New Testament and Book of Common Prayer. In the eventful year of 1588, a full translation of the Scriptures appeared, translated by William Morgan. This was as R. Geraint Gruffydd argues, a triumph of both Protestantism and Humanism in Wales. It was Protestantism that gave the incentive, and humanist education that made it possible. Now at last this began to make Protestantism accessible to the monoglot Welsh men, women and children. There was still a long way to go, and the Welsh could not fully participate in Protestant culture until they could fulfill the one essential requirement, Bible study, but the influence of a Welsh version of the Scriptures was immeasurable. Even if people could not read, they could at least listen as the word of God was read to them in their own tongue. Now they could begin to understand what was expected of them and begin to emulate Christian principles in their lives. The Welsh Bible was also important in a another respect. It helped to "save" the language for future generations, and also lead to its standardisation. Dr. Isaac Thomas argues that;
"Without this Welsh Bible the Welsh language would gradually but surely have disappeared fro the churches, from the parishes and from the land." (16)
It can be seen therefore, that in all, the impact of Humanist values on Welsh life before 1640 was limited. It did however influence quite significantly the lives of the wealthy. By the reign of Elizabeth, the influence was beginning to show amongst the Welsh scholars and gentry who had the financial means to educate themselves and buy the books necessary to familiarise themselves with the more practical aspects of Humanist culture, such as notions of gentility and civility. Welsh scholarly output was not great in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries compared to the number of works produced by other countries, but the works that do exist, show a knowledge and understanding of the Classics, and a familiarity with the works of other prominent European humanists. However, the influence on the lower orders was minimal. The farmers, labourers and their families had little contact with the ideas and works of the scholars, being for the most part illiterate, and even in they were caught up in the wave of educational enthusiasm of the period, lacked the financial means to educate their sons. It was not until the late eighteenth century and the nineteenth, that such people began to appreciate the value of education, but even then illiteracy was high amongst the poorer classes, and educational opportunity determined by the social position of parents. However, the humanism of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries brought to Western European civilisation a whole new positive attitude towards education, which over the centuries benefitted Wales. It introduced notions of civility and gentility, which ultimately contributed to the increased sophistication of governing methods; it gave Wales the Scriptures in her native tongue which helped the advance of Protestantism in the country as well as the survival of the language; led to improvements in standards of life, as increased knowledge gave rise to technological and scientific developments; and finally in the nineteenth century, gave Wales her own centres of learning, the universities.