Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

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Stephens, Thomas

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    Stephens, Thomas
    Stephens, Thomas

    Thomas Stephens, the most important 19th-century Welsh scholar before the 1893 foundation of the University of Wales, was born at Pontneddfechan in 1821 and, after schooling by his grandfather and at the Unitarian boarding school in Neath, was apprenticed at the age of 14 to a chemist in Merthyr Tydfil, whose shop he took over in 1840. He prospered in his trade and died, only 54, in 1875. His private library of 180 books in Welsh, English, German, French and Latin he bequeathed to the Merthyr Tydfil Library.

    1840, the year in which Stephens set up business as a chemist, also marks his first success at an eisteddfod, when he won the first prize for his essay on the “History of the life and times of Iestyn ab Gwrgant, the last native Lord of Glamorgan”. Competing at eisteddfodau was an important incentive and platform for amateur scholars in Victorian Wales, like Stephens (who had continued his self-education during his apprenticeship). He won a number of prizes at most eisteddfodau in which he competed (on literary and historical subjects) between 1840 and 1858, culminating in the main prize and high praise at the Abergavenny Cymreigyddion Society’s 1848 esteddfod for his essay on “The literature of Wales during the twelfth and succeeding centuries”. That essay became the basis for Stephens’s The literature of the Kymry, which won him international renown. Stephens’s eisteddfod participation ended when at the Llangollen event (1858; later notorious for this reason) a prize was withheld from him because his contribution disproved the fondly-held national legend that the medieval prince Madoc had discovered America. (Unpublished during his lifetime, that essay confirmed Stephens’s scholarly stature in Celtic scholarship when it appeared posthumously in 1893.)

    The financial support of Lady Charlotte Guest (translator of the Mabinogi tales) and her husband, the iron industrialist Sir John Guest, ensured that The literature of the Kymry appeared in 1849. The first monograph on medieval Welsh literature to apply modern techniques of textual criticism and manuscript analysis, it sold well and was extremely well-received by Celtic scholars in England and Europe, like Matthew Arnold, Theodore Hersart de La Villemarqué, Henri Martin, Max Müller and Albert Schulz; a German translation appeared in 1864. A second edition (prepared by the lexicographer and first holder of the post of lecturer in Welsh at Aberystwyth University, Daniel Silvan Evans) came out in 1876. The literature of the Kymry established Stephens’s authority on medieval Welsh literature and history, and paved the way for the new school of Welsh learning which arose in the 1880s with academics like Sir John Morris-Jones and Professor Griffith John Williams.

    Even before the rise of academically institutionalized scholarship, Stephens source-critically demonstrated the unreliability of much of the material on which Romantic histories of Welsh culture had been based. His detailed, incisive and innovative essays contributed to Welsh periodicals (the Cambrian Journal, Archaeologia Cambrensis, Seren Gomer, Y Beirniad and Yr Ymofynydd) combined wide reading in English, French and German with an intimate knowledge of Welsh history and literature; they corrected received opinions on prehistoric and medieval subjects such as the fabled Welsh leader Hu Gadarn, the alleged massacre of the bards by Edward I, and Madoc’s discovery of America. The various series of articles and letters he published in Yr Ymofynydd, Seren Gomer and Y Traethodydd in the 1850s demonstrated the very recent origin of the bardic script and its nod cyfrin, and contributed considerably to the discrediting of Romantic Neo-Druidism in Wales.

    Stephens was, in fact, a seasoned controversialist writer. Still in his early twenties, he harshly criticized the nature and organization of current eisteddfodau in a series of letters in The Cambrian (1842-43). In a controversy over Church-organized vs state-funded education, in the Monmouthshire Merlin in 1847, Stephens took the unpopular (but later generally accepted) position that large-scale education could not rely on Church-organized voluntary teaching and would have to accept government funding.

    Stephens also acted on his principles. From 1846, he worked towards the founding of a public library in Merthyr Tydfil, the establishment of which he saw as essential for educating and civilizing the working classes of his home town, and as whose secretary he acted for many years. In this undertaking, too, he was supported by Lady Charlotte and Sir John Guest. He was one of the founders of the town’s Board of Health and furthered the cause of anti-alcoholism by taking a leading role in the construction of the Temperance Hall. Among the many beneficiaries of his philanthropism was the lexicographer Robert John Pryse.

    During the 1850s Thomas Stephens became one of the two instigators of a much-needed reform of Welsh orthography, a topic of debate since the misguided late-18th-century dabbling of William Owen Pughe. Fifty Welsh authors, poets and scholars met at the Llangollen eisteddfod of 1858 in order to discuss the problem, appointing Stephens and Pryse (“Gweirydd ap Rhys”) to suggest solutions. Over the course of a year both circulated numerous questionnaires and memoranda, which led to the publication of Orgraph yr Iaith Gymraeg in 1859, a valuable forerunner of the series of articles on the same subject published by Sir John Morris-Jones in Y Geninen in the 1890s, which ultimately led to the standard work on Welsh orthographic principles published by the University of Wales in 1929.

    Apart from two 19th-century sketches and some more recent short pieces, Stephens’s life and legacy have not been thoroughly explored. A full-scale study drawing upon his archive the National Library of Wales and his many contributions to periodicals is being conducted at the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, Aberystwyth.

    Word Count: 920

    Article version
  • Gethin Rhys, Hywel; “Thomas Stephens and the Abergavenny Cymreigyddion: Letters from the «Cambrian» 1842–3”, National Library of Wales journal, 34.4 (2009), 399-451.

    Jones, T.E.; “Thomas Stephens o Ferthyr Tudful gan Morgan D. Jones”, Barddas, 163 (1990), 20-22.

    Löffler, Marion; The literary and historical legacy of Iolo Morganwg, 1826-1926 (Cardiff: U of Wales P, 2007).

    Löffler, Marion; “Failed founding fathers and abandoned sources: Edward Williams, Thomas Stephens and the young J. E. Lloyd”, in Evans, Neil; Pryce, Huw (eds.); Writing a small nation’s past: Wales in comparative perspective, 1850-1950 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), 67-82.

    Löffler, Marion; “Thomas Stephens a Llythyru Cyhoeddus yng Nghymru Oes Fictoria”, Y traethodydd, 165.2 (2010), 35-49.

    Roberts, Brynley F.; “Welsh scholarship in Merthyr Tydfil”, Merthyr historian, 10 (1999), 51-62.

    Stewart Taylor, Margaret; “Thomas Stephens of Merthyr (1821–1875)”, Merthyr historian, 2 (1978), 135-141.

    Thomas, Mair Elvet; “Thomas Stephens: Fe ddrylliodd y delwau”, Y casglwr, 35 (1988), 9.

    Walters, B.T.; “The life of Thomas Stephens”, in Silvan Evans, D. (ed.); The literature of the Kymry [...] by Thomas Stephens (2nd ed.; London: Longman, 1876), xix-xlviii.

    Walters, Havard; “The literature of the Kymry”, Llên Cymru, 10 (1969), 231-240.

    “Stephens, Thomas”, Dictionary of Welsh Biography, http://yba.llgc.org.uk/en/s-STEP-THO-1821.html; last visited: 30 Nov 2015.

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    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Löffler, Marion, 2022. "Stephens, Thomas", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 04-04-2022, consulted 28-02-2024.