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Welsh History Review


Vol. 15, nos. 1-4 1990-91

History and literature. Book review.

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Such speculations serve as a reminder that the volume's sections on England can
also be of relevance to historians interested in medieval Wales, by providing
comparative material and highlighting problems which need to be explored. If the
specific discussions of Welsh agrarian society and economy are ultimately
disappointing, this is because they are excessively cautious and narrow in their
approach, thereby failing to address a number of fundamental questions. As a
consequence, the reader gains little sense of the scale of changes in agrarian
exploitation, rural settlement and social relations during the three centuries under
consideration. Anyone seeking to attain a more rounded view of these developments
will, however, be grateful for the data presented in this volume and be sure to come
away from it with a keen appreciation of the need to recognise and explain a great
diversity of local conditions.
HISTORY AND LITERATURE. By Sir Keith Thomas. The Ernest Hughes Memorial
Lecture 1988. University College of Swansea, 1989. Pp. 31. £ 1.50.
In common with all those who had the good fortune to hear this sparkling lecture
being delivered, this reviewer is delighted that it has now been made available in print.
Not only because it will reach a larger audience, not only because it will give those
who read it more time to ponder on the crucial issues it raises, but also because they
will have available to them the range of references it provides-references which are
extraordinarily wide, varied and up-to-date within so restricted a compass. The lecture
was particularly appropriate as one in memory of Ernest Hughes, who liked to recall
that, at the outset in Swansea, he had constituted in his own person the whole of the
Faculty of Arts, and who, to the end of his life, retained his interest and delight in
literature and drama as well as history. He would keenly have relished the author's
robust but thoughtful and elegant defence of what history and literature have to offer
one another. In a brief introduction, Sir Keith acknowledges the hostile contemporary
currents against which he is swimming and illustrates-and deplores-the widening
gap between those historians, who think that literature is at best peripheral and at
worst positively misleading as an historical source, and the literary critics, who have
become unrepentantly anti-historical in their perception of their studies. He then
embarks on his central thesis, designed to counter the unnecessarily impoverishing
influence both schools have had on the study of history and literature. His main thrust
is understandably directed at an assessment of the value of literary sources to the
historian. Although, as he himself recognized, there were other arguments that might
have been adduced, he wisely concentrated on four and argued them with compelling
clarity, subtlety and wit. First, literature is in essence no different from other written
evidence employed by the historian and can be tested by his familiar methods of
criticism. Second, literature is a form of social and historical action and so a legitimate
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