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Response to Review no. 846

It may seem absurdly hypersensitive and self-indulgent to make any reply to a review as erudite, interesting and complimentary as that by Dr Stout. I am, however, going to take the opportunity to debate one point with him, not because I necessarily disagree – at the least, I think his view a valid one – but because to do so draws attention both to a major and controversial historical character and to an important issue in the writing of history. The character is Iolo Morganwg, and the issue the use of moral judgement by historians.

For the first hundred years after his death, Iolo himself was generally regarded as a rather lovable eccentric. His collections of apparent historical documents were made the basis for the dominant picture of early Welsh history and mythology, and for the Gorsedd of Bards, the council which runs the great national cultural institution, the Eisteddfod, and provides its ceremonies. Then his documents were proved beyond doubt to have been his own forgeries, and he became reviled as a scoundrel. Only recently has his reputation begun to be salvaged, largely because of the efforts of Geraint Jenkins’s splendid team of scholars at Aberystwyth, so that he is now viewed by many as an original genius who contributed significantly to the creation of the modern Welsh cultural identity. One solid consequence of this shift has been the unveiling of a public monument to Iolo, by the Welsh Minister for Heritage, in June this year.

I was present on that occasion, with huge pleasure, and thoroughly endorse the new recognition of the role played by this impecunious stonemason, in the face of enormous social, political and religious disadvantages, in the making of modern Wales. Was there, however, as Dr Stout argues, really not much difference between Iolo and the general run of authors on ancient Britain at his time, whose scholarship was equally arbitrary and much less helpful to the Welsh? Here I think that there are two issues that do make a real difference. The first is that the other authors attempted, with whatever degrees of prejudice, bigotry or dementia, to work from what they sincerely supposed to be actual historical and anthropological data. Iolo, finding that the latter did not serve his own political purpose, invented evidence that did. He was of course not alone in doing this – in the generation just before his own, Macpherson and Chatterton had both done so to serve the purposes of Scottish and English nationalism respectively – but his forgeries were more original, more extensive, and (above all) more successful in forming a general view of history. In terms of scholarship, confidence trickery is a moral crime; in wider human society it has since ancient times been a legal one. The second issue concerns what did not get recognised because of Iolo’s deceptions. He was an important member of a team that had set about the praiseworthy and hugely important task of editing and publishing the major surviving works of medieval Welsh literature. This was intended to provide modern Wales with access to its own literary heritage: one which, by the standards of any nation, contains works of world class quality. Iolo chose to substitute his own forgeries, increasingly, for the genuine medieval texts, so that some of the best of the latter remained unpublished when the money ran out; including those which were to be gathered half a century later as The Mabinogion. In part this was because Iolo genuinely believed that his own writings contained better moral messages for the modern Welsh, which would shape a finer nation and win the respect of other peoples. It was also, however, the result of his own pride, ambition, and jealousy. This second aspect of his cheating in particular arouses my disquiet: that he was not merely providing the world with a false notion of his nation’s past, but keeping it cut off from a real one. It would be hard to imagine an activity more inimical to everything that the professional writing of history is supposed to be about, but also to what historians in general (from Thucydides) have been supposed to do, and indeed to the way in which human beings are expected to treat each other.

I therefore censure Iolo’s behaviour in the strongest possible terms, while making plain my admiration for his courage, his daring and his undoubtedly high and consistent political ideals, which included a host of causes which modern liberalism has continued to hold dear. I also enjoy, with so many others, the colour and symbolic power of the Gorsedd rites, and recognise fully the value of them as a modern creation. My overall verdict on him is that he has more or less equal claims to be regarded now as both a hero and a villain. What I think beyond denial is that he is one of the major characters in the formation of the identities of the British peoples, and that few others illustrate as well the complexity of forming rounded historical judgements, even in the face of good evidence and apparently clear-cut issues.