I need to get back doing my Welsh lessons. I mostly say this here because I’ve been in the sludge lately in terms of getting a lot of things done, and hopefully if I write some goals and commitments down it will be a bit of a push towards getting moving on them. Finish revising Heretic Blood. Decide which WIP should in fact be the WIP. Get back to learning Welsh.
Earlier this summer, I started trying to teach myself some Welsh online. Learning Welsh was an idea I had always sort of kicked around in the back of my head; I have some Welsh ancestry and so it seemed like the kind of thing I ‘should’ know at least a little of. I have always had a sense of the past, I guess, and I’ve always kind of liked the idea of forging some sort of connection to at least part of my own.
As I learned more history, I started to think of the idea as more important. Without going into excessive detail, medieval Wales had problems with their larger neighbour, England. Starting in the 13th century, Edward I decided it was a good idea to exert actual rule over Wales rather than just being their theoretical overlord, and started with a military invasion; the campaign would take nearly 20 years. (Invading Wales turned out to be hard.)
After which, Edward enacted a program to make his control permanent, building castles all through the territory from which to exert authority. He also built towns that were meant to be the centre of the new Welsh economy, and transplanted English people to live in them. The town residents had economic privileges and special rights, so these ‘planted towns’ were pretty attractive places to live. The trick was – you couldn’t be Welsh. To live in Edward’s new towns, you had to speak English and transact all your business in English; Welsh speakers were only allowed in town long enough to buy or sell, and had to be out of town by sundown. On pain of death.
Obviously what this did was to encourage people with an eye to profit or social advancement to stop using their own language, learn English, and move into an English planted town. Essentially, to stop being Welsh and start being English. Edward’s plan was not to rule the Welsh at all, in the long-term, it was to stop there being any Welsh to rule.
Usually at this point in the class at least some of my students are starting to look uncomfortable and someone will usually ask ‘isn’t this kind of like ethnic cleansing?’ Which of course it is. It’s not a recent invention.
Edward did all this along with abolishing the Welsh system of laws, rewriting Welsh history to try to remove the idea of an independent Wales, and a number of other symbolic gestures that were meant to eradicate the idea of Wales as anything other than an appendage of England. Turning the ‘Prince of Wales’ from an independent ruler into the presumptive heir to the English throne is one that has stuck around, and is a great example of how much of an asshole Edward could be – the story is that he promised the newly conquered Welsh that they would have their own Prince who couldn’t speak a word of English, with the obvious implication that it would be a Welshman. Instead, he installed his own infant son. What a dick.
Another gesture that stuck around is one we don’t think about much at all today – denigrating the character of the Welsh to the point that the name became a slur we still sometimes use. What do you say when someone makes a bet and refuses to pay up when they lose? They… welshed. This is all part of a construction of the Welsh as dishonest, dishonourable people that encouraged assimilation, denying Welsh ancestry and Welsh culture, along with abandoning the language.
This may and probably should be starting to sound like a somewhat familiar playbook, especially to those with some familiarity with Canadian history. Edward I would have understood very well the policies used here to try to wipe out another culture, and another ethnicity. As someone who works with language and stories, I have a certain amount of understanding of how powerful they can be, and what a deathblow to a people it can be to take those things away. Fortunately, it’s hard to do – it turns out that people are pretty attached to their language, and their stories.
Edward’s plan only kind of worked during the Middle Ages and fortunately in the years since there has been a real effort to restore the use of the Welsh language throughout Wales, to the point where you can get government services in it and the most recent surveys indicate that 11% of the population are fluent in the language Edward I tried to wipe out forever.
It’s to be hoped that the same can be done for other traditions and cultures that power has tried to crush and stamp out. For my own very small part, I do feel just a little bit of extra motivation to work on learning this reasonably tricky language that some powerful jerks thought was enough of a threat that they tried to make it disappear.
Get bent, Longshanks.