So I’ve spent the last months freaking out about writing black- and brown- skinned characters in my Morocco set romance series. I started out just wanting to write about an area I’d enjoy reading about, but which lacked a base of romances that weren’t cringeworthily over the top in fetishizing slavery. I wanted to write black slaves as well as white ones, for feck’s sake and I didn’t foresee any difficulty.
Sure, I’m white but why would that be a problem? I asked in my white privilege, autistic naievete…
Since I completed the first book in the series, the #OwnVoices movement has taken off, and I have learned a lot about what fetishisation is, and that you should never, ever used food to compare a skin tone. Comparing a black man’s skin to chocolate is comparing him to something to be devoured, not loved. I am still searching for a guide on what is, in a medieval or fantasy setting, acceptable and not only that, alluring!
I have used earth tones a lot, trying to draw the metaphor of potential in a man’s skin being comparable to freshly rained on earth, but no one will tell me if that’s offensive.
So, in the spirit of don’t ask for what you won’t give, here is a blog about writing welsh people, particularly in a medieval context.
Let’s get to it…
So you want to write some welsh mercenaries. Or a welsh woman in an english town. Or you want to transpose a norman woman into a welsh setting. You have your names from s.gabriel and you’ve managed to create a cast of characters without reusing the name Gwenllian too many times.
But you don’t want to seem too norman about it. Well done you! Sharon Kay Penman, one of the best and most revered authors of the medieval era, wrote an inches thick book called Here Be Dragons, which chronicled the lives and marriage of Joan Plantagenet and Llewelyn Fawr.
And all the normanised welsh were goodies, and all the welsh welsh were mean and horrid and unwelcoming and waaaaaaah…
Now, the prose is excellent, and Penman had obviously done bags and bags of research, but her attitude was extremely normanised/anglicised. So let’s get some basics on the table:
- history is written by the victors. During Edward I’s invasion of Gwynedd (north wales), a mysteeeeeerious fire burned down Aberconwy Abbey, and it was the seat of all the records in north wales. All the burial sites there were lost, and all the old records of dynasties were too. Much of the knowledge we have of the families of the time comes from norman/english families who had recorded their connections before the fire. And normans don’t give a shit about women. So many sisters, mothers, wives and mistresses became nothing more than ‘oh, and this guy had daughters, but who cares, amirite?’ So much knowledge was lost, and the chronicles that remained were either norman, or gerald de bloody cambrensis…
- gerald de cambrensis is a lying, pompous, egotistical sack of crap. His account changed over and over depending on which norman lord he was trying to get support from. All he wanted was to be a welsh bishop. When he says he was accompanied by a prince of the land, what he means is the lord of the area sent his youngest son to make sure the bishop didn’t secretly have english mercenaries among his throng. I honestly have not been able to read the entire account, because I always end up throwing the book across the wall, or spending hours bitching at my best friend about how fucking ridiculous Gerald was. He really thought he was god’s gift to the world, and he wasn’t. He was also anglo-norman, from a family living in the conquered south of wales, so yeah, he wasn’t fully welsh. His focus was always on his norman masters, licking their boots like a dog so they’d give him a bishropic. Hilariously, they never did.
- Welsh women had a great deal more civic rights than norman women did. They cut their hair shorter because it was practical. They were allowed to divorce their husbands for cheating on them three times, or once in the marital bed. They had rights to their children and to property. Welsh women marched at the head of armies, they commanded political maneovreing, and they caused wars and brought them to a close. If your view of womanhood is the norman sweet girl who is so unhappy about her arranged marriage and needs to be rescued, you won’t like the welsh women who would bare their teeth and stand up to their attackers.
- The welsh had christianity before the english, but the celtic church did not require massive cathedrals. It was more similar to early islam, with priests travelling from place to place and preaching outside or in homes. It was only abbeys and the occasional church in the middle of nowhere (Betws Gwerfyl Goch) which were built in stone. Whatever english chronicles say about the welsh being heathens is not based in their being pagan, but in them rejecting the hierarchical need to answer to English Bishops in York or Canterbury. They answered to the Pope, they did not want English dominion in their religion. A wise move, given how often the English kings got their countries excommunicated for either fucking stuff, or refusing to fuck their wives.
- The welsh had parliament before the english. In Machynlleth there was a parliament, where every so often the people of Gwynedd could air grievances against anyone, even their princes. It was part magistrate and part law-making body.
Most importantly: ‘welsh’ is a false construct. It is an english word meaning ‘enemy’ (originally welisce). Even ‘cymraeig’ is a false construct, born in the days after Llewelyn Fawr. It is a response to attack, not an identity. Just as the army joke about the navy being crap and everyone lampoons the RAF, you will often hear the welsh mocking each other’s regions. The south is all saxon really, and the north is mostly scots. Blah Blah…
This is because Wales is a conquered area consisting of many countries. See map!
These are not counties, they are kingdoms. They warred against each other, they had feuds going back to the dark ages. They had their own royal families (frequently wiped out to the last child by the english), and within those families were their own feuds and wars. If you are writing a welsh character, they will know what kingdom is their origin. The language they speak will differ. Someone from Gwent would have to concentrate hard to understand the dialect from Gwynedd. See if you can find a northumbrian speaking ‘pit yakka’, or listen to the creole dialect in the US, or the variant dialects in the Caribbean.
A welsh person might say “I’m welsh” now, but they would never say it in the 12th Century or earlier. It is an insult, even if we took back the word.
At the time I write, the late 12th Century, Gwynedd had very few towns. It was largely agrarian (sheep… sheep are pretty much all that grow up in the hills), with fishing villages along the coast and small towns around the castles with craftsmen etc. Trade was difficult as the countryside was frequently warring, but they would sail merchant boats into Chester, and attent fairs there. In Powys they went to Oswestry and Shrewsbury, Maelienydd would have attended fairs in Hereford, but the Mortimers there were systematically razing their castles, murdering their people, and picking the royal family off even under writ from King Henry to not do so.
If you are writing modern welsh people, please visit. The towns are poor, the tourism is minimal, and there is still resentment if you speak with a posh english accent (like I do, Dad’s RAF, boarding school). In tourist towns like Conwy it might not be a problem, but stop off the beaten track in Denbigh, and you get glared at. They may not instigate a fight, but 1000 plus years of rebellion being taken out of the gene pool will do that to a people.
Now, here I’m talking about genetic welsh people. Brythonic. Celts with smatterings of gael and saeson in from invading forces.
Heart shaped faces and blonde hair – the south.
Witchy-poo chins and noses and dark hair – the north.
For the most part, this stands as true, but obviously there was a great deal of travel between mining communities in the last two hundred years. Scots and Manx influence brought the copper light into people’s hair, so by the sun or cande light the dark hair lights up with fire. Rather than the gorgeous curls of Africa, welsh black hair tends to be wavy. Think Harry Potter’s hair, how he could never get it to do what he wanted, it just did its own thing. That’s welsh hair, there! If your left side curls demurely under, the right side will stick out.
Eye colour tends toward browns and hazels, with some stone-grey and moss-green if you’re super lucky. Blue eyes are viking, so if you do blue eyes they’d be southerners, or on the coasts were irish vikings pirated and pillaged for hundreds of years.
The welsh. hold. grudges.
If you’re writing a welsh heroine, she will never, ever forget and forgive. She might move past an insult, or accept that her idiot husband did the thing he did, but it will always be there. It will always come out in arguments. We are not a zen people. Hey, you might have noticed that I hold grudges that are a thousand years old. The irish will always be pirates, the english will always be conquerers, the normans will always be oppressors. A welsh person is not gonna go “sure, johnny depp abused his wife, but i’m over it…” A welsh person is not gonna go “oh, mate, you’re back after twenty years? i totally forgive you shooting my father”. Part of the reason the english did conquer us is that we fought amongst ourselves so long. The english encouraged the war of succession in Gwynedd after the death of Owain Gwynedd. They gave Deheubarth money to attack Meirionydd. And all the while there’s the Mortimers killing the house of Rhwyng y Hafren, and the de Braoses massacreing the princes of the south.
And a welsh person will never not correct someone who says “Oh, so you’re english.”
“Je ne suis pas anglaise. Je suis galloise.” “Nein, Walesiche, nicht Englisch.” “Erm…no, I’m welsh… not English…”
There was a swathe of poor, baffled americans left behind with a new history of welsh independence when I visited, and I don’t even think Wales should be independent from England. Mainly because after a thousand years, our trade has been marginalised (think the way entire african nations only produce coffee, because all other trades and crafts and crops have been wiped out for export) even if our people were not sold oversees, and our water is largely controlled by English concerns.
An entire welsh village was evicted and flooded to make a reservoir for Birmingham.
And this shit is under the skin of every welsh person.
I went to school in England, and while my prep school genuinely did not allow bullying, at senior school I was constantly, for five years, told my country’s identity was bullshit, that we were a county, not a country, that there was no reason to be proud to be welsh. Let me tell you the 2005 rugby grand slam was a vindication! Once walking down the street in York wearing a welsh rugby shirt a small boy baahed at me, and his parents laughed.
Because all the welsh fuck sheep. Ha ha ha. No, it’s just the english stole our land and forced us further and further west until the only thing that could grow was sheep and cows that are smaller and tougher than others because the weather…the weather is bad.
When it snows in Gwynedd the roads are blanketted. An American with your big wide roads will not comprehend the single track, hedged in roads with potholes and sections of flattened earth rather than tarmac. My American bestie gets anxiety attacks from the claustrophobic roads and the speed the locals drive on them. If it snows, no one comes in and no one goes out. The rain can be soft drizzle in summer or driving near-hail in February. It breeds people with freckles (we rust…) not with golden tans.
Farmers will have a deep red-tinged leather colour to their skin, but for the most part we are pale, with reddened cheeks and chins and freckles.
I personally loath the comparison “peaches and cream”, but I am good with comparisons to alabaster or quartz, since the welsh tend to have skin like white quartz with rose quartz beneath. Beige is such an unflattering word, so steer clear of that one. It just cuts the romance right out of things. The undersides of arms are white and the blue veins show through, so again, comparisons to stone make sense. Just steer clear of the Edward Cullen marble chest because that’s just…super dumb.
Welsh beaches tend to be rocky, the sand only turned up in the big storms of 1815, so a welsh person before then would not use sand as a comparison unless they had been on crusade. A deep tan is comparable to welsh clay and shropshire sandstone.
Wind makes us go pink. The rain pales us out but raindrops chase pure white light over our skin, and a white welsh person never looks better than when they’re getting rained on.
I recommend you go sky. White as clouds and just as soft. Pinks like November sunsets.
Lips tend towards a dull pink. Darker by dint of being surrounded by the palest part of the face. They purple in the cold (frequent weather).
We are hairy. Hobbits were based on the welsh and even I, a cis woman, have hairy toes. Not quite hobbity but still started getting bullied for it when I was five (primary school). We tend towards chubbiness, rounded, hourglass figures at best, pearshaped most likely. If you didn’t store fat, you starved. English overlords blah blah blah.
We are frequently shortsighted. That brown haired, bespectacled internet girl stereotype? That’s ninety per cent of what welsh women look like in the north.
While not as bold as our northumbrian counterparts (seriously, do you just not feel the cold?), welsh women are quick to strip down to tank tops in the summer. While christianity continues, and there are a lot of baptists and evangelicals in Wales, they have not been able to make us ashamed of our bodies. Magasines do that, but we tend to just strip down to as little as possible as soon as the sun comes out. This year, we think, we’ll get a tan instead of dappled freckles where the sun breaks through our arm hair.
Also, the welsh flag is the best. We don’t worship it, but we grin when we see it flying from the castles our conquerors built 800 years ago.
Because fuck you, Edward Plantagenet. Fuck you.
I hope this helps write welsh people, especially welsh women. If people want more I can go into attitudes to sports in different regions, and food and such. I just felt that since I was looking, I should also provide.
Please feel free to add questions, or your own take on how you like the welsh to be written. I expect to get a fair whack of racism from the english, believe me, there is nothing that I have not already heard.