John Davies

A History of Wales
The Making of Wales

Penguin 2007, The History Press 2009
A book review by Danny Yee © 2012
Over 700 pages long, A History of Wales is dense but rewarding, fitting in some fascinating details as well as capturing the broad sweep. Its core focus is on political, economic and social history, but it also includes material on culture and national identity and on the history of Welsh language, literature, music and so forth.

Eleven chronological chapters are each titled, in an interesting touch, with three place names that were significant in the period covered. So we have "800-1282: Aberffraw, Dinefwr and Mathrafal" and "1914-1939: The Somme, Brynmawr and Penyberth". (Aberffraw, Dinefwr and Mathrafal were competing great houses, Brynmawr reached astonishing levels of unemployment in the Great Depression, and a bombing school at Penyberth was set on fire by Welsh nationalists in 1936.)

Within these chapters, there are no structural units above the paragraph. Davies segues straight from one topic to another in a process that seems less driven by any structural logic than by the convenience of the transitions. So we go from the life of Dafydd ap Gwilym to the Black Death to the effects of inheritance law on landholding. Or, in the early 19th century, from the development of the coal industry to migration to South Wales to — via the effects of increased migration from England on the Welsh language — developments in Welsh literature.

The only interruptions to the text come from thirty-five simple but effective and informative maps, for example "Wales in 1267: The Treaty of Montgomery", showing the extent of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd's power, and "The percentage of the population born in Wales according to the census of 2001". There are a fair few numbers, especially in the later chapters, which offer economic and demographic and electoral data, but these are readably embedded in the text, not dumped in table form.

The approach is quite scholarly in feel, but Davies provides no references or footnotes, not even a bibliography, on the grounds that "the publication of the notes would double the size of the book". Half a page of "further reading" suggestions is included as a preface, however, while the body of the book contains some discussion of sources and historiography. And Davies ends with a paragraph which states "publications can also be considered to be the building blocks of a nation" and describes some important recent publications.

There is a decent index, so using A History of Wales as a reference is possible. But really it's a book to be read and enjoyed.

The Making of Wales is a rather different book. Lavishly illustrated, it is an account of how Wales came to look the way it does, with a focus on landscapes and architecture, on castles, towns, settlements, fields and so forth. (There's not much, however, on planning, water management, and other aspects of broader human geography.) As well as the many colour photographs, taking up perhaps half the space, there's also an assortment of small maps and plans, of settlements and sites but also of some individual buildings.

The Making of Wales is a useful resource for travellers, though it has no practical information and is not a guidebook as such. (Neither of these two books has a general map of Wales to help outsiders who may not know where modern Welsh towns or rivers are, perhaps reflecting that both were originally published in Welsh.)

April 2012

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%T A History of Wales
%A Davies, John
%I Penguin
%D 2007
%O paperback, index
%G ISBN-13 9780140284751
%P 767pp

%T The Making of Wales
%A Davies, John
%I The History Press
%D 2009
%O hardcover, 2nd edition, colour photographs, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9780752452418
%P 234pp