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WELLS IN DEPTH -  Tristan Gray Hulse

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The Documentation of Ffynnon Ddeier:
Some Problems Reconsidered

by Tristan Gray Hulse


   Almost no-one who has ever been led, over recent decades, to review the evidence for the well cult in the British Isles will have missed the important book by Major Francis Jones, The Holy Wells of Wales, first published by The University of Wales Press at Cardiff in 1954. Bipartite in structure, the second part of Jones' book is an extended referenced gazetteer of holy wells in Wales, listed alphabetically county by county. Each county issubdivided into up to five separate categories, intended to convey a rudimentary and provisional analysis of the different classes of holy wells to be encountered in the Principality (wells named for saints, God, or feastdays; wells associated with ecclesiastical sites and pilgrimages; wells reputed to have healing faculties but not included in classes A and B; wells named for secular personages, historical or traditional; miscellaneously-named wells). The first part is an extended commentary on the wells and their cults, generalising from the information gathered about the individual wells itemised in the gazetteer.

   Overall, Jones had encountered references to 1,179 holy wells presently or formerly to be encountered in Wales (Jones 1954, p.9 - not all of these have entries in the gazetteer). With regard to the book, considered as a whole, it can be said that it is simply inescapable, a magisterial pioneering study of the cults of the holy wells of an entire country, with particular regard to that country's well-defined and relatively well-explored individual culture (in this regard, Jones' study may be understood as ethnological, rather than simply as historical). The book is likely to remain the prime text regarding its subject for the forseeable future. It broke acres of new ground, and it is not unfair that Janet and Colin Bord, in their own important study of the phenomenon of well cults in the British Isles, Sacred Waters (Bord and Bord 1985), described it as the ‘bible’ of holy well researchers.

   However, The Holy Wells of Wales is now nearly fifty years old, and in certain respects is beginning to show its age. It can no longer be considered as having the absolute authority with which time and its own undoubted qualities have endowed it. Overall, it is now a text which requires to be approached with a certain amount of caution. Two particular points, in this respect, need to be made.

   The first is simply to appreciate that Jones' text originated as an academic thesis, and his prime and basic sources were deposited in archives and libraries. All his cited witnesses were literary and antiquarian, and no attempt was made to distinguish between holy wells which had once existed, but which may have disappeared hundreds of years ago, and those which survive to the present period.

   His researches and listings are in no way dependent upon field work and his text can be of no direct use to present-day fieldworkers attempting to assess the present survival or specific location of or present cultus at sacred springs in Wales (Jones nowhere makes any claim that it could be so used).

   His extensive gazetteer is historical and antiquarian, rather than topographical; a fact which the present writer, like quite a number of others, appreciated only after many fruitless hours and years attempting to trace wells whose sites may have been unidentifiable by the late middle ages!

   In addition, the fact that Jones' research was entirely library-based meant that he was automatically subject to the limitations imposed by the printed sources and archival deposits actually available to him. Thus, as a resident of Carmarthenshire, his research led him to discover references to more holy wells per Welsh county in South, and particularly in South-West Wales, than to such wells in the northern half of the country (according to the gazetteer, the numbers of wells noted for Cardiganshire, Pembroke, Carmarthen, and Glamorgan (123, 236, 128, 180 respectively), are the highest in Wales. None of the other counties can boast more than eighty-eight (Caernarfonshire), and the other North Welsh counties have fewer still, and this can considerably affect any overall analyses, as in fact the North is more or less as rich in wells as the South. This was not in any way orgueil de clocher, or carelessness.

   Jones conscientiously worked his way through such standard works of national reference as the numerous series of Archaeologia Cambrensis, or the individual county volumes of the Royal Commission Inventory of Ancient Monuments; through such important antiquarian texts as the Parochialia of Edward Lhuyd; through the topographical texts of writers such as Pennant and Carlisle and Samuel Lewis; and through the gatherings of folklorists such as Elias Owen, but the nature of the deposits in libraries and archives inevitably meant that he simply failed to encounter the particular, and often ephemeral, records of a large number of holy wells documented only in and for their own particular and specific localties.

   Thus, without in any way impugning Jones' work, it may be noted that my own researches can point to nearly one hundred North Welsh holy wells undiscovered by him; and that the work of other researchers can also add substantially to his totals. Such simple enumeration of wells overlooked by Jones is not in itself important, but the fact that the omitted incidental information relative to the cults at these overlooked sacred springs might well have altered various aspects of Jones' overall interpretation of individual facets of the Welsh well cult is fairly obvious. Jones' conclusions on the nature of the well cult in Wales, stated with confidence, may regularly require modification in the light of such additional information.

    Perhaps more specifically relevant to any contemporary reassessment of Jones' work is a consideration, not just of his collected materials for a study of the numerous individual Welsh holy wells, but of the sources available to him for the well cult per se. One of the most important considerations of Francis Jones' book must be its pivotal nature; it resembles no preceding study of holy wells and well cults, (in 1954 it was, in fact, sui generis, 'one of a kind'), and all subsequent serious English-language attempts to further such studies have been influenced by the book, either directly or indirectly.

   The earliest attempt to gather information specifically on the sacred wells of a country seems to have been that of Edward Lhuyd, who, circa 1698, circulated a number of ‘Parochial Queries’ to the incumbents of all the Anglican parishes in Wales. One section of the ‘Queries’ asked for the names and traditions of named wells in each parish. Only a fraction of the returned questionnaires, some of which were in Welsh, some in English, survived to be published by the Cambrian Archaeological Association in the early twentieth century (Lhuyd 1909, 1910, 1911). Furthermore, most of Lhuyd's correspondents were content merely to supply a list of the most important wells in their parishes, though numbers did add significant circumstantial details of the cults still surviving at the wells under their control.

   Besides Lhuyd's important source, which was utilised extensively by Jones, before the publication of The Holy Wells of Wales there had been a number of English-language works published on the subject of holy wells. The earliest was Philip Dixon Hardy's tract The Holy Wells of Ireland (1836), which, despite mentioning a few Irish sacred wells and their cults, was essentially little more than a deeply unpleasant piece of contemporary polemic; (Hardy's pamphlet is little more than a tirade against the Irish, early nineteenthh-century Catholicism, and the cult practices of Irish Catholics, which happens in the process to castigate the cults at a small number of Irish wells). More informative, though hardly more objective, are the relevant passages in W.G. Wood-Martin's two-volume work on Traces of the Elder Faiths in Ireland (1902), which as the title suggests was principally concerned to demonstrate the accuracy of the author's contention that all the practices of popular Irish Catholicism were no more than survivals of an earlier Irish paganism.

   Rather more useful, from a modern perspective, were two works dealing with English holy wells, Robert Charles Hope's 1893 county-by-county discussion of The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England, and the published notes of Thomas Quiller-Couch on the Ancient and Holy Wells of Cornwall (1894). Hope's work was essentially a gathering of historical and antiquarian materials, presented as a gazetteer of individual English holy wells, listed county by county, with a brief introduction attempting to discuss the origins of the cultus of sacred water sources, while ‘Q’ (and, as importantly, his loyal and assiduous daughters Lillian and Mabel, who edited his notes for publication) documented the contemporary condition of numerous Cornish wells, and their surviving traditions and cultic practices.

   A few further nineteenth and early-twentieth-century scholars and folklorists included holy well traditions in their more general works (such as, respectively, the relevant chapters in Sir John Rhys' Celtic Folklore, Welsh and Manx (1901), and Jonathan Ceredig Davies' Folk-lore of West and Mid-Wales (1911). To which one can only add a series of studies of individual holy wells (or groups of wells) or of particular aspects of the well cult in certain numbers of the journal of the British Folklore Society, Folk-Lore, or of the journals of various British and Irish national or county historical or philosophical societies. Further studies, whether scholarly or popular, had to wait until the final decades of the twentieth century, and reveal the influence of Jones' pioneer work.

   In any consideration of Francis Jones' book, it is essential to remember that the few works noticed in the preceding paragraphs, with the very few others I may have overlooked, were basically the only published specialist sources available to him for any evaluation of his subject overall. He was, in fact, heavily reliant upon works of nineteeth-century authors, few of which could be considered academic or scholarly even then, and almost all of which by 1954 were very badly outdated. Jones was not an historian specialising in the prehistoric, Roman, post-Roman, or early Medieval (‘dark age’) periods; he was not an authority on the phenomenon of the ‘Celtic’ Churches; he was not a student of comparative religion, nor a folklorist, nor a liturgist. Indeed, much of the material and literary witness to such aspects of his subject was simply not accessible even to the specialist at the time Jones was working, while the conclusions of specialists in such disciplines which we might nowadays take for granted in any present assessments remained decades into the future. Assaying an overall academic appreciation of his subject, Jones was severely hampered by the fact of his dependence on existing minimal published academic data, and on antiquarian, folkloric, and popular texts, the majority of which, in so many respects, were some fifty years out of date. This lack of any detailed specialist knowledge of many relevant disciplines inevitably led to many small errors of fact and interpretation in Jones' thesis, which the overall authority of the work as a whole has served to confuse, or to totally obscure. In the text which follows, numbers of such errors will be indicated in passing, which may stand as typical of the many such errors of fact or interpretation scattered throughout Jones' book.

   In any contemporary assessment of Jones' discussions of the various elements of the Welsh well cult, the principal tendentious component of his thesis must be his overall, though not total, and certainly not unquestioning, acceptance of the theory of what may be termed ‘survivalism’. That is, that some, and perhaps many, elements of the well cult which appear to be at variance with the culture within which the earliest records of the cultus of any particular holy well appears, are to be evaluated as the survivals of such elements from an earlier religious system. Thus, any examples which appear to show parallel cultic usages (in the widest sense) between Pagan and Christian religious systems, or which seem on the face of it alien to what is widely, if often uncritically, perceived as ‘Christian’ practice, are best understood as survivals of pagan religious praxis into Christian times, either because Christianity tried but failed to eradicate them, or because Christianity deliberately chose to incorporate such elements into its own praxis in an effort to win over converts by ‘christianising’ the older faith.

   In Jones, as in so many other writers still today, both interpretations are used, as seems best to fit the evidence in each individual instance, without, apparently, any awareness of a basic mutual antagonism between the two suggested ways in which ‘survival’ is said to occur. Any such interpretation is ultimately based upon a naive adoption of a Darwinian evolutionary model, most particularly, dealing as it does with things religious, as this was mediated and exploited wholesale by Frazer (in the The Golden Bough). However, this is a specious solution of the problems posed by parallel cultural and religious phenomena which has proved particularly tenacious, in holy wells and related studies (particularly, perhaps, by virtue of its convenience, and latterly, dare one suggest, because it appears to offer scholarly support for the purely private religious and/or philosophical convictions of numbers of would-be scholars or prophets), despite the fact that in all other disciplines specialists have long rejected the doctrinaire Darwinian-Frazerian model. In the wider fields of scholarship, such older models have been discarded, but in the intensive arenas of such specialities as holy well studies, these earlier simplistic modes of interpretation have survived intact. Jones, as an honest but unwitting inheritor of this earlier model, and without any subsequent relevant interpretation of the data which he was presenting being available, is still being cited as an authority for ideas which in other disciplines were rejected decades ago.

   Having said this, I would here wish to make it clear that I do not reject out of hand the idea that in certain instances sacred sites and elements of their associated cults may have survived from a pre-Christian past. But the evidence for such survival, to be convincing, has to be clear and unambiguous. For instance, here in Wales almost any element of the well cult which at first glance appears to be clearly ‘pagan’ can be paralleled elsewhere in the Early Christian world, in a fully-articulated cult of the saints, at a period anterior to the conversion of the country to the new faith, and this includes a thriving cult of sacred water sources. This cultus was received into Wales already fully formed. To argue otherwise, in general or in specific instances, demands archaeological, epigraphic, or historical witness, and in the case of the holy wells of Wales, I know of no single instance in which a shred of any such evidence is forthcoming.

    However, what follows here is in no sense an attempt to rectify such problems as these are encountered in The Holy Wells of Wales. Many researchers over the past few decades have been initially tempted (even if they have never done anything at all about it) to bring Jones' great book ‘up-to-date’: mostly (and I write as one once regularly so tempted!) to supply Jones' omissions, to amplify his already abundant references, and incidentally to rectify his interpretations of aspects of the well cult in Wales in the light of more recent and sounder scholarship. Like the rest of the would-be rectifiers of this seminal text, I eventually came to the conclusion that the only honest and profitable way to proceed would have been to rewrite the whole work, and like everyone else I know who has ever considered such a course, I have jibbed at the sheer scale of such a proposed reworking.

    Having outlined what seem to me to be the principal problems to be encountered in using The Holy Wells of Wales today, it remains for me to add that the present paper is no more than a presentation of the documentation available for the eventual compilation of a tentative outline history of a single North Welsh holy well. Using this small dossier to suggest the difficulties of offering any conclusive account of this well, its history, and its cultus (and it is worth considering, in this context, that this particular well is one of the best-documented of all Welsh holy wells), and, by extension, of virtually all Welsh holy wells. At the same time time, by noting what use Francis Jones made of such informations, and by indicating such errors of fact and interpretation which inadvertently occur in his text, I suggest that, for the future, Major Jones' great work must be appreciated as tentative and exploratory, rather than as definitive. Jones' gathering of relevant texts will always remain invaluable to the student, but all his conclusions on the well cult in Wales must be evaluated anew. My own indebtedness to Francis Jones' work is incalculable, and in offering this caveat I intend no more (or less) than to help towards a proper awareness of its considerable limitations, as the best way of preserving its integrity, and its usefulness, for the future.



Ffynnon Ddeier: legend

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Ffynnon Ddeier: cultus



How do wells become holy?

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What a picture!




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