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Literacy in 17th century Wales

In 1546 the first book in Welsh was printed. It was Sir John Price's Yn Y Lhyvr Hwnn - literally 'In This Book' - which was the first sentence.

By 1660, 108 books had been published in Welsh. It may not be a great number when compared to English and French publications, but during the same period only four books were published in Scots Gaelic and 11 in Irish.

This rate was to increase during the next century thanks particularly to the birth of various nonconformist sects. Between 1660 and 1730 around 545 books were published, the majority of which were religious.

But there were other subjects as well, including Welsh history. In 1718 the first book to be printed on a permanent printing press in Wales was a ballad about smoking - Can O Senn Iw Hen Feistr Tobacco (A Song Of Rebuke To His Old Master Tobacco). The press was at Atpar near Newcastle Emlyn, and soon relocated to Carmarthen.

Other popular works were produced, such as almanacs, and there was a popular revival of eisteddfodau, a cultural festival dating back to medieval times. As literacy began to spread throughout the country during the 18th century, nothing gave it a bigger boost than the famous circulating schools of the Carmarthenshire preacher Griffith Jones.

Motivated by a desire to save people's souls, in 1734 Griffith Jones set about organising a system to teach children and adults basic reading skills in their mother tongue in as short a time as possible, usually around three months, before moving on to the next location.

With the catechism and the Bible as their only texts and funded by wealthy patrons, these travelling schools reached almost every part of Wales. The language taught was usually Welsh, although English was used in areas such as south Pembrokeshire.

It is estimated that almost half the population had attended the devout minister's schools by the time of his death in 1771. By the second half of the 18th century Wales was one of the few European countries to have a literate majority. So successful was the project that it attracted the attention of Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia, who in 1764 commissioned a report on Griffith Jones' schools.


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