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Iolo the Ovate 2: the fruits of the earth


It will come as a surprise to many people to learn that Iolo Morganwg was a farmer; and not just a farmer but a competent one.

The myth that has grown up around Iolo, slanted and misleading, reflects his poetic and antiquarian talents. It over-emphasises his literary forgeries, misunderstanding and misrepresenting what he was doing. It pays lip service to his career as a stonemason, while not recognising that this undermines the myth itself: as we saw in the last post, no drug-addled dreamer could have cut and carved stone as well as Iolo Morganwg.

But a farmer? Who knew about that? In fact, this is an important aspect of Iolo’s life, and one which would have informed his vision of the world.

Iolo married Peggy Roberts in July 1781. Peggy had been his sweetheart since they were young, and had been the inspiration for some of his early poems. Shortly before their marriage, she had inherited a 28-acre farm. Iolo hoped that this would support the family more reliably than being a wandering stonemason, and he applied his intellect and energy fully to this new career.

Fittingly for a man like Iolo, agriculture was then in the midst of a revolution.  At the time of Iolo’s birth in 1745, agriculture in Britain had changed very little for more than a thousand years; the Romans would have recognised the methods and technology (and, in some cases such as the quality of the ploughs, the Romans might well have had the better tools). However, the mid-eighteenth century was seeing the beginning of a transformation that saw Britain produce far more food than was needed by its own population – even though that population was growing rapidly.

Charles ‘Turnip’ Townshend, for example, introduced the system of four-field crop rotation to the UK in the years before Iolo was born. For the first time, farmers did not need to leave fields fallow for a year, but were able to keep all of their land in production. More than that: by popularising the growing of turnips, Townshend provided a way to keep livestock fed over winter. The impact is hard to overstate: farmers no longer needed to slaughter their cattle when winter began, as they had had to do ever since the Iron Age and before.  This system introduced the practice of planting clover in one year out of the four-year cycle; this allowed the soil to recover its fertility whilst also providing another new source of food for livestock.

Another aspect of the Agricultural Revolution was much more controversial. This was the process of enclosure, by which wealthy landlords fenced off, and thereby privatised, land which had previously been used in common by local villagers. This led to huge improvements in productivity – but it also led to great suffering, as traditional farming methods were now unviable. As a result, huge numbers of rural inhabitants were forced to leave the land to seek work in the cities, where they lived in dreadful poverty.

Iolo Morganwg was an enthusiastic student and practitioner of the new farming methods. He planted maize, brought back by veterans of the American War of Independence, and studied carefully how it grew in different locations, under different conditions. We know that he was well-read in the works of William Marshall and Arthur Young; when the British government established the Board of Agriculture, he studied its reports carefully. He planted clover, and became a great advocate of its use. As noted previously, he was an expert geologist, and he was able to make the connection between the underlying rock, the soil, and the performance of crops planted. Iolo threw himself into farming to the extent of renting extra land in 1783.

Unfortunately – and how often we have to use the word with Iolo, but here it is again –  his talent and energetic work were not enough to save him from disaster.  Iolo and Peggy did not only inherit land; they also inherited very substantial debts, secured on the farm. Iolo, recognising for once his lack of financial acuity, delegated the management of the debts and their repayment to a solicitor. In itself that was wise, but he chose the wrong person; his solicitor did nothing at all for two years, before declining to do anything henceforth. This was a disaster; not only had Iolo lost two years when he could have been repaying debts, he lost all the documents relating to them, including the deeds to the farm, which the solicitor did not return.

His creditors, naturally, were less than happy with the situation, and became increasingly unforgiving. The debts connected with the farm were one of the major factors – though not the only one, as he owed substantial sum to a local surgeon for various medicines, for example – that led to Iolo being incarcerated in the debtors’ prison in Cardiff in August 1786; he remained there for a year. Ultimately, he was forced to put his finances in order by selling the farm, which he did in 1793; at that point he had already moved to London for the second time, in an attemp to make his fortune by writing.

This was not the end of Iolo’s involvement with agriculture, though. As we have already seen, by 1795, Iolo had finally succeeded in publishing his English-language books of poetry to critical acclaim, though they did not bring him the financial success he had hoped for. Having returned to Wales that year and opened a bookshop, he became aware that the Board of Agriculture intended to appoint an agricultural surveyor to report on the state of farming in south Wales, which was lagging behind other parts of Britain in its food production (no small matter, with the ongoing war with France, and the commercial blockades this involved).

Iolo wanted the job, and spent two weeks in June of 1796 travelling around the region, taking detailed notes on the farming practices he encountered, and using his own experience as an agricultural reformer to suggest improvements. The report he compiled, and submitted to the Board, was intended to demonstrate his suitability for the post. He also strongly suggested to the Board, which was composed of Englishmen, that the best way to inform farmers in Wales of the improved farming methods of the day would be to publish its pamphlets in Welsh, rather than English (as we have already seen, the efforts of Griffith Jones and his followers had led to an unusually high level of literacy in Wales – but only in the Welsh language).

Despite his efforts, Iolo did not get the job; instead it went to his fellow poet Walter Davies (bardic name: ‘Gwallter Mechain’). Why was that, when Iolo had already conducted so much research? It seems that he had become too dangerous: his years of radicalism, and his London association with revolutionaries, social reformers, and religious radicals put him too far outside respectable circles for the government-linked board to employ (and it probably didn’t help that this very report included outbursts about political and social injustice!). No-one questioned his ability, though; Davies’s own report acknowledged its debt to Iolo’s research and, indeed, at the urging of mutual friends, Davies took Iolo on as an assistant – though it seems that Iolo added little more to what he had already written beyond a new set of political rants, which Davies sensibly edited out.

There’s one more aspect of Iolo’s knowledge of the fruits of the earth which deserves mentioning here. Although it’s not as well documented as his farming experiences, Iolo is known to have been an expert herbalist. As a man who suffered from many ailments himself, he became determined to become his own doctor. (His position on this no doubt also owed something to the fact that his debts for medicines had contributed to his imprisonment in the Debtors’ Gaol).

Drawing on the formulae of the Physicians of Myddfai (descendants of one of the Gwragedd Annwn, or fairy women) and other traditional lore, he was able to treat himself and his family for cuts, burns, broken limbs, and a range of other illnesses. Ever the radical, Iolo also treated “the poor victims of grief” amongst his poor neighbours. He was even known to treat strangers who had fallen ill while travelling close to his home, simply because he believed it was his duty to do so.

So, as we discuss Iolo the Ovate, we are discovering that he was far more than the laudanum-addled mystic of popular legend: he was a genuinely knowledgable agriculturalist, and an able farmer, committed to improving the production of food. He knew a great deal about the value of plants as medicine, and used his knowledge for the benefit of the poor. As he applied his knowledge of stone to a scientific approach to archaeology, so he took a scientific approach to farming. Here we can see clearly how the Druidry that he conceptualised in Barddas was firmly grounded in rationalism, and the thorough testing of knowledge.

[I]t is incumbent upon an Ovate to endeavour after learning and knowledge, as he can, by means of hearing, seeing, and devising. That is, a poet ought to maintain all learning and knowledge which may be privileged by an efficient Gorsedd; an Ovate ought to improve and amplify learning and knowledge, and to submit them to the judgment of Gorsedd, until it becomes efficient[.]
Barddas: The Triads of Privilege and Usage.

For this post, I have leaned heavily on the following two sources:

Jenkins, G.H. (2012) Bard of Liberty: The Political Radicalism of Iolo Morganwg. Cardiff:University of Wales Press

Jones, D.C. (2009). Iolo Morganwg and the Welsh Rural Landscape. In: G.H. Jenkins, ed., A Rattleskull Genius: The Many Faces of Iolo Morganwg. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Other useful material came from other chapters in Jenkins (2009) and also from:

Charnell-White, C. (2007). Bardic circles : national, regional and personal identity in the bardic vision of Iolo Morganwg. Cardiff: University Of Wales Press.

Jones, Ff. M. (2010). “The bard is a very singular character” : Iolo Morganwg, marginalia and print culture. Cardiff: University Of Wales Press.

Löffler, M. (2007). The literary and historical legacy of Iolo Morganwg, 1826-1926. Cardiff: University Of Wales Press.


2 replies on “Iolo the Ovate 2: the fruits of the earth”

Iolo certainly had a very tumultuous life. Your series is very interesting, and it does sound regrettable that his accomplishments should be overshadowed by the infamous forgeries. What do you think should be his lasting legacy?


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