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How Publishing Saved a Country

For the last five centuries, book publishing played a remarkable role in preserving Welsh identity and language in the face of external cultural and linguistic challenges.

Welsh scholar Owen Edwards once said, “What my colleagues and I intend to accomplish . . . is to trace the history of Wales, relate her traditions, give voice once again to her poets and men of letters. Give her heroes their rightful place. By restoring Wales to her rightful place, we will strengthen the Welshman’s character, nourish his genius, and enrich his life.” Edwards’s goal has inspired Associate Professor Jacob Rawlins (Linguistics) to aid in that objective of honoring Wales.

Cover image for Jacob Rawlins's book, Publishing in Wales: Renaissance and Resistance

Rawlins’s Humanities Center Colloquium presentation, “Secret Presses and the Prostitute Press: The Colorful History of Welsh Publishing,” was based on his forthcoming book, Publishing in Wales: Renaissance and Resistance. 

The history of book publishing in Wales has reinforced and cultivated Welsh identity. “There is something really important about studying these lesser-known histories of book publishing,” said Rawlins. “When you study the main history, you get an idea of where publishing has come from and where it’s going. With these smaller countries, you get an idea of the identity of the country.”

“The Welsh use their publishing efforts to establish an identity, to maintain a language, to really separate themselves from the larger forces around them,” Rawlins commented. Welsh identity focuses on four key themes: separation; religion; language; and poetry, songs, and stories. These themes undergirded the Welsh’s resilience amid political, social, and religious conflict with English rule.

Much of the conflict between Wales and England started in the sixteenth century when Henry VIII passed the Laws in Wales Acts. These laws attempted to snuff out Welsh identity and strengthen English control. The Acts abolished the existing system of laws in Wales, annexed the country, eliminated lordships, changed the country’s religion from Catholic to Protestant, and established English as the official language. A later charter from Queen Mary also granted the authority to seize and destroy any material deemed unacceptable to the Stationers’ Company, the London-based trade organization that monopolized printing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. With each new set of restrictions, Welsh people desperately tried to maintain their identity.

Because of the difficulties the Welsh faced when printing their own literature, Welsh people had three options for publishing: printing in England, printing in Europe, or printing in secret. Interestingly, printing in secret was the most effective way to preserve Welsh identity, but it was also the most challenging. In 1587, seven men hid a printing press in a cave on the coast of Wales. For seven months, they worked to produce the first book published in Wales, The Christian Mirror. However, when they were discovered, a local mob raided the cave and threw the printing materials into the sea. The published book survived and became a symbol of resistance and preservation.

Image of the title page of the book, The Christian Mirror.
Title page of The Christian Mirror from Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru (The National Library of Wales)

The struggle to preserve Welsh identity continued into the nineteenth century. By this time, restrictions on publishing had been lifted, but the Industrial Revolution was sweeping through Britain, bringing with it a host of other conflicts. Threats to Welsh identity arose from an influx of foreign coalminers whose language (principally English) and culture clashed with and diluted Welsh culture and lead to religious tensions.

Publications in the 1800s highlighted the intense religious conflict between the Welsh and converts from other denominations. For example, printer John Davis published Methodist materials for Reverend John Jones by day, but by night, Davis printed Latter-day Saint materials for Jones’s brother, the Welsh missionary Dan Jones. The opposing publications coming from Davis’s press drew attention. Rawlins explained, “The Reverend John Jones’s press acquired this name (the Prostitute Press) when it was printing day and night for two different masters and fighting with itself. The other ministers started to call it the Prostitute Press.”

Once religious tensions subsided in the 1860s and ‘70s, Wales “entered a Golden Age of . . . printing,” Rawlins remarked. Welsh printers started publishing literary magazines and journals for women, children, and workers. Publishers “were printing in Welsh, they were printing in English, on every subject imaginable and returning to their roots in publishing poetry, literature, and songs that were then shared.. . . It was a remarkable time that set the stage for the renaissance of Welsh writing and poetry in the twentieth century,” Rawlins said.

One example of this renaissance is in Welsh songs, many of which were translated into English, then distributed for use in hymnbooks across a number of Christian denominations. Rawlins added, “If you look at our hymn book, or any Protestant hymn book, you’re going to find a lot of Welsh songs from the nineteenth century.”

In our time, Welsh culture and language are being preserved through print, as well as radio, television, and the internet. Additionally, the creation of a Welsh typeface in 2016 highlights continuing efforts to preserve the language. Through these efforts, Welsh identity has reclaimed its place in Wales. Publishing in Wales has not only preserved a culture, but it has also shown the impact literature from a single country can have on the world.