Originally posted here, January 2005.
In 1682, a satirical little book about the Welsh was published: Wallography, or the Britton described, by “WR”, an English clergyman named William Richards.* It purported to describe, first, a journey from London to the Welsh borders and then the “State and Condition, the Nature, Humours, Manners, customs, and mighty Actions” of Wales and its inhabitants. It’s not an altogether popular book in Wales; laughing at Wallography is a slightly guilty pleasure… though some might say that that’s the best kind. (Although it doesn’t just take aim at the Welsh and ‘Taphydome’. Much of the book, in fact, is an equally gleeful send-up of English country-dwelling caricatures.)
As for the Inhabitants [of Wales], they are a pretty Sort of Creatures, which, when we saw, we were so far from stroaking them with the Palms of Love, that we were almost ready to buffet them with the Fist of Indignation. They are a rude People, and want much Instruction…
We were much surprized at the Thoughts of their Rank, and did not suspect so much Gentility among such a Peopl; when we saw so many Coats without Arms, we could not imaging they had any with them, but fancy’d they had more Need of a Taylor than of Clarentius, and of a Prick-louse to stitch up and compose their Breeches, rather than an Herald to blazen their Families.
Ahem. (That mockery of the combined poverty and ‘pretensions’ to gentility of the early modern Welsh is a common theme amongst the English, who did not quite comprehend that for the Welsh status had long been rather more about lineage than wealth and display.)
Richards also had great fun with another stereotype of the Welsh, that of their hot temper and inclination towards both quarrelling and litigation. (Combined with comments on the behaviour of ‘pettifogging’ lawyers that was by no means exclusive to the Welsh. Or, of course, the early modern period.)
They do not always observe the Rules of Justice in their Punishments; oftentimes chastising one Body for another, and so misplace their rigour on the undeserving; as will be very evident from this following Instance: A certain Taylor ferrying over a River in their Country with a diminutive Nag; the Steed never using to travel by Water, and wondering that he stood still and mov’d, was possess’d with Fear, and made some Disturbance on the Boat, to the great endangering of the Passengers; The Welshman, being in Jeopardy, was fir’d with Anger, and without any Wings he flew on the Taylor, and revenged the Injury of the Palfry on poor Prick-Louse. The Stitcher swaddled the Scrupling Horse, and Taphy beat the Stitcher, to the great Diversion and Grief of the Spectators. …
Most of their Indictments are generally the tragical Effects of some dismal Counterscuffle, where a bloody Nose and a broken Shin is ample Matter for the Commencement of a Suit; for, they being of a fiery Temper, sometimes Choler is kindled by an Antiperistasis with a Pot of Ale; and then they fall to biting and scratching as hard as they can drive, and the Wounds of this Caterwauling and Bickering afford Stuff for an Action the next Day; which, being once got into the Pounces of a Welsh Attorney, is dandled into a Business of no small Aggravation. Oh! how these Pettifoggers will hug a Buffeting, and improve a Squobble! They are the very Bellows of Contention, and will soon blow a Spark into a great Combustion. They are a Kind of Tinkers in the Law, who usually make Holes on Purpose that they may mend them; nay, sometimes they will play at Loggerhead themselves to set others together by the Ears, and so (as if Fighting was contagious) will infect the Taphies into Quarrels and Blows. …
Yet it is tremendously funny, sometimes perceptive and frequently “deliciously ambiguous”.** You can easily find nastier and cruder examples of this sort of Welsh-baiting from the late 17th and early 18th centuries; indeed the book draws on a well-established tradition of abuse of the Welsh by the English (this is long before Wales became a Romantic holiday destination). And it’s regularly quoted by early modern Welsh historians. Who could deny the truth of this?
The Country is mountainous, and yields pretty handsome Clambering for Goats, and hath Variety of Precipice to break one’s Neck; which a Man may sooner do than fill his Belly, the Soil being barren, and an excellent Place to breed a Famine in.
The most regularly quoted passage from the book is about the fate of the Welsh language (that it was “being English’d out of Wales”). But the quote is usually wrenched out of its fuller context, which is much more subtle and ironic in tone. (English learners of Welsh everywhere will appreciate the problems you experience when you get some of those Welsh polysyllables stuck in your throat.) And what are we supposed to make of the author’s attitude to the language? On the one hand, to be much admired as a language of ‘sincerity’ and ‘purity’, with English a ‘barbarous’ intruder; on the other, ‘native gibberish’; yet again, those in the towns who ‘despise it’ are ‘puffed up’ snobs. Does the author approve of the ‘glimmering hopes’ that it may become extinct, or is that to be taken as the view of those puffed up townsfolk and gentry who are turning their backs on it? (This is probably exaggerating for effect the extent to which Welsh was being ejected from gentry households at that time, but it is true that English was the language of high status, politics, law, learning, necessary in order to ‘get on’.)
That, which we admir’d most of all amongst them, was the Virginity of their Language, not deflower’d by the Mixture of any other Dialect: The Purity of Latin was debauch’d by the Vandals, and was Hun’d into Corruption by that barbarous People; but the Sincerity of the British remains inviolable. ‘Tis a Tongue (it seems) not made for every Mouth; as appears by an Instance of one in our Company, who, having got a Welsh Polysyllable into his Throat, was almost choak’d with Consonants, had we not, by clapping him on the Back, made him dis-gorge a Guttural or two, and so sav’d him. They usually liquefy the most rugged Mutes, and soften ‘em by Pronunciation… Whether the Welsh tongue be a Splinter of that universal one that was shatter’d at Babel, we have some reason to doubt, in regard ‘tis unlike the Dialects that were crumbled there; however, whether it be kin or no to other country Speeches, it matters not; but this we are assured of, it is near and dear to the Folk that utter it, who are so passionately fond of it, that they will scarce admit another into the Embraces of their Lips, which sputter forth a Kind of loathing of our English Language; wherein, if a Question be ask’d them, they will, with somewhat of Disdain and Choler, make Answer, Dim Aiffonick, i.e. no English. Their native Gibberish is usually prattled throughout the whole Taphydome, except in their Market-Towns, whose Inhabitants being a little rais’d and (as it were) puffed up into Bubbles above the ordinary Scum, do begin to despise it. Some of these being elevated above the common Level, and perhaps refin’d into the Quality of having two Suits, are apt to fancy themselves above their Tongue, and when in their t’other Cloaths, are quite asham’d on’t. ‘Tis usually cashier’d out of Gentlemen’s Houses, there being scarcely to be heard even one single Welsh Tone in many Families; their Children are instructed in the Anglican Idiom, and their Schools are paedagogu’d with Professors of the same; so that (if the Stars prove lucky) there may be some glimmering Hopes that the British Lingua may be quite extinct, and may be English’d out of Wales, as Latin was barbarously Goth’d out of Italy.
* If you’re looking it up in a library’s rare books collection (there’s no modern edition), it was republished in subsequent decades under a variety of titles, often in compiled collections, eg John Torbuck, A collection of Welsh travels, and memoirs of Wales (1738 and later editions); Dean Swift’s ghost (1753). For those with access, it’s available at EEBO.
** I’m borrowing that phrase, and some the arguments, from Michael Roberts, ‘ “A Witty Book, but mostly Feigned”: William Richards’ Wallography and perceptions of Wales in later seventeenth-century England’, in Archipelagic identities (eds. Philip Schwyzer and Simon Mealor). Declaration of interest: Michael was my PhD supervisor.