Collaborative writing is one of academia’s great pleasures, and the four co-authors of A History of Christianity in Wales—David Ceri Jones, Barry J. Lewis, Madeleine Gray, and D. Densil Morgan—do well to distribute their expertise across the volume’s eleven chapters. Given the vast chronological scope promised by the title, it is a praiseworthy achievement that this handsome volume totals less than 400 pages. Within, the authors provide a coherent narrative that will be especially helpful for readers approaching the long history of Welsh Christianity for the first time.
At chapter 1’s onset, Lewis notes the anachronism inherent in projecting the modern national idea of “Wales” onto the premodern period, and addresses the paucity of written sources for Britain before c. 400 (1-2). He thus turns to material sources, deploying the archaeological record with clarity and tact, albeit sometimes with an overabundance of interpretive caution. One idea inherent to Lewis’ survey of the Roman period is that Wales, like the rest of the empire, contained “innumerable varieties of landscapes and local economies, and just as many different ways of being Roman” (6). This thematic thread is particularly welcome, as it works to disrupt teleological narratives of Romanization that often rely on outdated binary oppositions, such as Roman-native or civilized-barbarian.
Chapter 2 covers the post-Roman period, c. 400 to c. 600, and Lewis does well to balance his discussions of material evidence (such as inscriptions and burial sites) with linguistic and literary analysis. Studies of monks, saints, and conversions in this period tend to focus upon elite narratives grounded in textual sources, but even still, it is clear that locales such as Llanilltud Fawr were beginning to provide pastoral care to the peasantry as part of what Lewis calls a “vibrant” British church (44).
Chapters 3 and 4 together address the period from c. 600 to c. 1070, covering the expansion of the church in Wales before, during, and after the Viking invasions and up to the Norman Conquest. Throughout, Lewis discusses the relationships among Britain’s many early medieval churches, exemplified by his concise introduction to the famous Easter controversy (60-64). Importantly, he takes time to disabuse readers of the outdated notion of a primordial Celtic church, noting that this pervasive idea originated with early modern Protestant propaganda and flourished during the nationalistic fervor of the 1800s (65-67). In countering this anachronistic understanding, Lewis is correct to state that “the labels ‘Celtic church’ and ‘Celtic spirituality’ do [early medieval Wales] a disservice” (67).
In chapters 5 and 6, Gray picks up the narrative with the Norman Conquest in 1066. Next, she turns to the late 13th century English incursions, before concluding with developments in the church up to around 1420. A significant theme in these chapters is that high and late medieval Wales was neither “on the periphery of western Christendom,” nor was it “a cultural backwater” (100). The region was not merely a passive tabula rasa, and Gray does well to caution readers against simplistic narratives of totalistic Norman (and later English) hegemony in this period.
Gray addresses Wales’ so-called Y Ganrif Fawr (“The Great Century”) in chapter 7. Here, she presents the Welsh cultural floruit between c. 1420 and 1530, which occurred despite demographic devastation, English repression, and general socioeconomic disorder (149). Working to disrupt teleological narratives, Gray argues that Y Ganrif Fawr should not be relegated to the status of Reformation predecessor, or misunderstood “merely as a preparation for the events of the 1530s” (170). Indeed, the period’s artistic flourishing supports her case. For example, Y Ganrif Fawr saw the production of spectacular rood screens across Wales, and the roods themselves (such as the rood at Llangynwyd, in Glamorgan) were often the subjects of sophisticated devotional poetry (160-163). Gray also details the development of distinctive macabre church art (such as at Llancarfan, in Glamorgan) and the artistic coherence of the extraordinary stained glass at Llandyrnog, in Denbighshire (165-169). For Gray, Y Ganrif Fawr should be understood sui generis, without relying on references to subsequent Protestant incursions or early modern theological conflicts.
Following Gray, in chapters 8 and 9, Jones discusses the Reformation and the resulting spread of various forms of Protestantism between 1530 and 1760. Like Gray, he argues for a more complex narrative of Protestant disruption not as a single event, but as a lengthy process—one that was at first more political than theological, and one that took until the 1700s to see Wales become more solidly “a nation of Protestants” (178).
In chapter 10, Morgan continues the story by providing a helpful overview of Nonconformist and other Protestant movements between 1760 and 1890, and chapter 11, co-written by Morgan and Jones, addresses what they call “secular Wales” up to the year 2020. Bringing the saga to the present, they skillfully weave together various stories of Nonconformity, Disestablishment, evangelical Protestantism, Welsh Anglicanism, and Roman Catholicism (among others). Here, the theme of Christian decline predominates; the authors note that only 4.3% of the current Welsh population regularly attends church (307). Still, even in this story of secularization, they are careful to avoid an overly linear narrative, pointing out the success and growth of certain denominations in recent years, such as the Roman Catholic Church and the Nigerian Redeemed Christian Church of God (306-311).
A History of Christianity in Wales succeeds at offering a valuable introduction to its eponymous subject. Indeed, any book that can—in less than 400 pages—present a clear narrative beginning with the birth of Jesus and ending with the COVID-19 pandemic is worthy of praise for both scope and concision. One minor critique is that the book lacks maps, images, or visualizations of any kind. Simple maps, especially with reference to premodern sites and polities, might have been useful for readers unfamiliar with Welsh geography and the region’s oft shifting political landscape. Furthermore, images of medieval artworks in the middle chapters, or data visualizations of modern statistics in the later chapters, might have helped augment some of the book’s more specialized arguments for its introductory audience. Regardless, as promised in its preface, A History of Christianity in Wales skillfully presents the story of Welsh Christianity “in an accessible and attractive way” (xiii), and should faithfully serve a new generation of students and scholars as the subject’s go-to introductory text.