Posted on 2 October 2013
In the early Victorian times, the town of Merthyr Tydfil was one of the biggest towns in Wales. An industrial community which had rapidly swelled in numbers, it was a town full of slums, divided by social unrest and deprived of the most basic services or civic institutions. Yet it was in this dissolute atmosphere, in his pharmacy at 113 Merthyr High Street, that a young Thomas Stephens wrote the book Literature of the Kymry, a critical history which laid the foundations of modern Welsh learning.
By the time Stephens died in 1875, aged only fifty-three; he had toured Europe and Ireland and was an acclaimed scholar with a network of correspondents in England, Germany, France and Ireland. Literature of the Kymry had been translated into German, and Stephens’ further monographs and articles had fired the controversies by which Welsh and Celtic scholarship was moving from a romantic to a modern research model.
So how did a poor apprentice to a Chemist become an internationally acclaimed scholar? Dr Marion Löffler, a Research fellow at the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies (CAWCS) has been awarded a research grant of £85,302 by the Leverhulme Trust to support a two-year project which aims to answer this question.
Entitled Knowledge Transfer and Social Networks: European Learning and the Revolution in Welsh Victorian Scholarship, the project will research the local, national and European connections of Stephens and his patrons - among them Lady Llanover, Lady Charlotte Guest and Baron Christian von Bunsen (Prussian ambassador to the court of Queen Victoria). It will also research how knowledge was exchanged between countries like Germany, Wales and Ireland, thus enabling the modernist research concepts, which enabled Thomas Stephens and his supporters to revolutionise Welsh learning, to reach Wales.
Stephens left behind an archive, now at the National Library of Wales, which includes nearly six hundred letters, sixty-three unpublished essays, and even his German exercise books.
Forming a major part of the research project, Dr Löffler explains the importance of the material contained in the archives and what her first thoughts were:
“Encountering it for the first time, two things struck me. His manuscripts still have the smell of his pharmacy, where he catered for the sick by day and pursued his research upstairs by night. Here was an unschooled amateur who with the help of two main patrons reached the pinnacle of his field and succeeded in revolutionizing learning in his country.
Secondly, the notes in his essays and especially the letters to him show that his achievements rested on communication well beyond Wales. His correspondents included the Oxford Don Max Müller, the French folklorist Hersart de la Villemarqué and German philologists like Albert Schulz and Karl Meyer. Among the contacts brokered by Lady Llanover was the historian and philologist Baron Christian von Bunsen, Prussian ambassador to the court of Queen Victoria. Stephens’s footnotes referred to men like Barthold George Niebuhr, another Prussian statesman and leading historian, who was also both a friend of and co-author with Bunsen.”
The material contained in the archives raises questions and highlights the importance of the financial and social patronage of local upper classes, here exerted by two influential women, for success and social mobility. They also provide possible answers as to how exactly ideas and knowledge travelled in early Victorian Europe, from Prussia’s developed university system and caste of professionals to Wales, a marginal region whose university would not be founded until 1893.
Over the next two years the Leverhulme grant will enable the project to pursue these questions and find answers. A research assistant will research and analyse the correspondence at the National Library of Wales, which will enable Dr Löffler to hunt for letters from Stephens at the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford, the German Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, and at archives in south Wales, Brandenburg and in Ireland. She will also study the newspapers of the time and scan Stephen’s unpublished essays in pursuit of new connections.
The Project aims to produce a monograph and anthology of letters as well as organising a workshop and exhibition on Thomas Stephens and his patrons at Merthyr Tydfil Library. Through this research, Dr Löffler hopes to reveal the hidden personal and European history behind the astonishing revolution of Welsh learning in the second half of the nineteenth century.
For more information about the Leverhulme Trust, please visit their website - www.leverhulme.ac.uk