Geoffrey of Monmouth, courtesy of Monmouth Priory

14: Culture and religion in early modern Wales

Literary culture

Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the traditional literary culture of Wales was transformed by social and religious change, the coming of the printing press and the challenges of the Renaissance. The Anglicisation of the greater landowners, the impoverishment of the lesser gentry and changing cultural tastes spelt doom for the bardic order.

Large quantities of verse in strict metre continued to be written until at least the early 17th century, but the government sought to repress the less reputable elements among the 'Minstrelles, Rithmers and Barthes'. The bards' distrust of the printed word and of the values of the Renaissance was a sign of the closed minds which would condemn their tradition to virtual oblivion.

Welsh language text
Among the Welsh Renaissance humanists, there was a desire to ensure that the Welsh language retained its richness and purity

Among the Welsh Renaissance humanists, there was a desire to ensure that their language, like the languages of classical antiquity, should remain perfect in lineage, richness and purity. They prepared dictionaries and grammar books, argued in favour of Geoffrey of Monmouth's story of the classical origins of the Welsh, and wrote histories of their country and its counties.

Above all, they ensured that Welsh was used in worship, an achievement attributable as much to cultural pride as to religious zeal. At the same time 'the people', as the historian R. T. Jenkins put it, 'insisted upon some sort of literature', and there were those eager to satisfy that insistence by publishing almanacs, ballads, interludes, halsings, lays, carols and hymns.

As the ancient literary tradition declined, the urge to preserve evidence of it led to much manuscript copying and collecting. By the 18th century, there were efforts to revive the ancient metres, particularly by the Anglesey poet, Goronwy Owen.

Other arts and scholarship

Renaissance architecture reached Wales in the 1570s with the Denbighshire buildings of the Antwerp merchant Richard Clough, although over subsequent decades substantial houses in the sub-medieval tradition continued to be built. In the late 17th and the 18th centuries, Wales was embellished with a number of grand houses, and towns such as Montgomery and Brecon were enhanced with fine house frontages.

Formal gardens - those at Aberglasney, for example - eventually gave way to picturesque landscaping with clumps of trees and sinuous lakes. Little was achieved in Wales in the fields of painting and sculpture, although the more cultivated landowners amassed impressive collections. Traditional music declined but singing to the harp survived and the beginnings of choral music may be discerned.

The greatest scholar of early modern Wales was Edward Lhuyd. He established the links between the Celtic languages and offered considered theories concerning the antiquities, botany and geology of Wales. The advance of Welsh scholarship was one of the aims of the Cymmrodorion Society founded by London Welshmen in 1751.


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