The Federation of Old Cornwall Societies
"Cuntelleugh an brewyon us gesys na vo kellys travyth"
(Gather up the fragments that are left that nothing be lost.)
The Organisation for those who love Cornwall.
by R. Morton Nance,( past President of the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies, Editor of Old Cornwall, and Grand Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd.)
shall take it that there is a difference between Culture in Cornwall .
and Cornish Cu1ture. Of the former there is much to be said. With its
drama and musical life, and the many artists and writers who make
Cornwall their home, we may claim to have no ordinary share of
cultural amenities here. But it is only to a very small extent that we
can connect these with any indigenous tradition of culture, and
leaving them aside, I should prefer to search for something like a
continuous tradition of culture that is natively Cornish.
have still with us things visible and- invisible to remind us of very
ancient cultures in Cornwall. Every common granite field-hedge formed
of stones cleared from the land it encloses has in its great
“grounders” and its well-adjusted smaller fragments some
suggestion of the pre-celtic raisers of megaliths or the builders of
Celtic hill-forts and British villages, and this is not lost even in
the masonry tradition of recent times, with its preference for great
masses of stone to form doors and windows rather than using small
units. To a Celtic culture, at least, we can trace our choice of
long-hilted ”showls" (1)
rather than Saxon crutch-handled ones such a treatment of the soil as
“beat-burning ”, or the tiny hamlets or isolated farms which
spread in Celtic fashion over a Cornish landscape instead of gathering
themselves into large villages and leaving homeless tracts between, in
the usual Saxon way. Some of our customs, such as that of midsummer
bonfires, and old beliefs, as in the creative ties of certain wells,
are 1ikely to be pre-Celtic as well as pre-Christian in their origin,
giving us here and there some slender thread of which has survived the
fabric of a lost culture to which they belonged.
whole known history of Cornwall accounts far ’more readily for gaps
in tradition than for anything continuous. The Celtic influx caused-
the non-Aryan language of an older people to vanish without a trace to
be identified, even from the place names of Cornwall, which implies a
very thorough break with the past. The effect of a very partial Roman
occupation was slight as compared with that, introducing a few Latin
words into the Celtic speech, but not ousting this language, as it
seems to have done in most parts of Britain, and scarcely affecting
Cornish place names at all. Neither were these at first affected
except over a comparatively small area by the later Saxon invasions.
Far many more Cornish place names contain the personal names of men of whose lives we have not even a fictitious account. These are the only memorials of the secular great men, founders of the first Celtic homesteads or hill-forts, whose British names have car [fort], tre [homestead], bod or bos [dwelling] as the commonest prefixes before them. It is only to be believed that for some generations at least tales of these great ones would be ’handed down, but unless they later became mixed up in folk-lore with giants, as some of the saints certainly did, there has been here another terrible break with tradition, and scarcely one modern inhabitant of a place with such. a name as Carveddras, Tregassick, or Tremellick would know that he owes it existence to some ancient Modred, Cadoc, or Maeloc. Still less could a place called now “Crumplehorn” recognize itself as Tre-Maelhorn, though in Elizabeth’s reign it was still at least Tremblehorne. Such names, especially as Anglicized, are often terrible puzzles to us all, yet they may throw light on the darkest places in our history at least as well as the saint’s names, when they find their own Doble to sort them out. The reading of a saint’s legend or a miracle-play ’about him kept the holy man in mind, but can we assume that hero-tales paid similar tribute to the secular great?
they were written in verse or handed on orally in prose, there seems
no doubt that we can, for the Breton scholar Loth has shown that one
of the finest tales of all, that.of Tristan and Yseult, was first put
into French from a tale told with all the circumstance that accurate
topography could give it of actual places in Cornwall, and thus
originated here. Whether the tale was one among many, and whether we
had Cornish bards to versify such romances, we can only ask, but it
seems likely enough that we had here a Celtic culture like those of
Wales or Brittany, to which such romances would be a
necessity. That they should pass without leaving a trace is
less difficult to believe than that all our Celtic folk-songs and
music of a much later period should have perished as completely as we
know they did. During the earliest Middle Ages Cornwall and Brittany
had what was still a common language and culture, with Cornwall as the
parent country, so that other tales of the Arthurian cycle gathered by
French authors in Brittany could well have originated here.
was in West Cornwall and in ’the fifteenth century and early
sixteenth that we had the most evident approach to a native Cornish
culture – a reflection, no doubt, of the common European culture,
but moulded by its surroundings so as to take a very local turn. This
is most obvious in the very Cornish use of granite and oak in our
adaptations of contemporary styles in stone and wood-work which are
still seen in most of our churches, but even more evident is it in the
surviving remnant of manuscripts written in Cornish. All with a
religious intention, these allow little scope for originality in their
authors, but advantage is taken of opportunities to localize their
detail by introducing Cornish place names and to lend life to
incidents by expanding the bare story.
language of them is a later development of the ancient British that
was common to Brittany and Cornwall, and, like the contemporary
English, had adopted many words from Anglo-French as adornments. The
bulk of these writings takes the form of
Besides place names our mystery plays give us hints of such non- scriptural beings as the mermaid [morvoren] and the hobgoblin [bucca nos], but it is in the miracle-play Life of Merpasek that we get what is most to our purpose – a hint of a continuous tradition from the days of Arthurian tales. The manuscript is mainly in the attractive handwriting of a priest named Ralph Ton, who signed it as finished by him in 1504, 3. but the first ten - pages are in another hand, which may be that of its author, as Thurstan Peter suggests, John Nans, the then parson at Camborne, whose church was dedicated to Meryasek (4) and who had been trained at Glasney. The author has used the Latin Life of the Breton saint Meriadec, who never came to Cornwall, and either joined to it incidents that belong to the Life of another – Cornish – saint of the same name (in Latin Meriadocus) who was associated with Camborne, or else invented all the Cornish part. A point in favour of the latter view is that the play itself admits that there were no relics of the saint at Camborne, an unlikely thing if there had been a local Meriadocus. As in the reputed Lives of some other Cornish saints, a usurping “ tyrant ”, Teudar, is Meryasek’s persecutor in the play. In a scene where this heathen chief, who has strongholds as Lesteader, ”Teudar’s Court”, and at Goodern”s Roman camp, is about to give battle to the lawful Christian Duke of all Cornwall, unnamed, whose headquarters, like those assigned traditionally to King Arthur, are Castel an Dynas and Tintagel, following the convention usual in mystery or mumming play battles, he begins with big talk and threatens: ”King Alwar, and Pygys, noble King Mark, as well as a king called Casvelyn, are coming to my with assistance ”.
such names, thought of as those of petty kings in Cornwall, should
still have been familiar in 1504 seems to imply that semi-historic
traditions such as we have guessed at, did exist, even if unwritten.
Again, attached as an interlude to Meryasek is a play taken from the
medieval “Miracles of the Blessed Mary ”, and acted in honour of
Mary of Camborne, whose chapel preceded Meryasek’s church. Much new
detail is added to the tale ”The Woman’s Son ”, as usually told,
in order to localize it in
mystery or miracle plays were acted in Cornwall until the Civil War
put an end to such pleasures. The latest manuscript of one in
existence was transcribed by one William Jordan in 1611, and has full
stage directions for an actual performance. This –” The Creation
of the World ’with Noah’s Flood ”– uses bits of the
fifteenth-century Creation play, and 1540 would be a likely date for
the rest, apart from some possible re- spelling. By 1611, if we can
take Richard Carew’s funny story of a volunteer actor in one as
typical, performers in such plays were no longer expected to learn
their parts (we have a written-out actor’s part to show that in the
fifteenth century they did), but only to say aloud what the ”.
ordinary” spoke softly behind them. Carew’s gentleman brought the
play to a close in bursts of laughter by repeating, instead of the
ordinery’s words, his curses against the fool who would not say
them. Carew, as a Cornishman of the
non-Celtic fringe, would have only a slight curiosity about
Cornish, but we can forgive this lack when we think of the rest of his
wonderful Survey of Cornwall,which gives us such a picture of life in
the county in Elizabeth’s time. If miracle plays were thus crudely
acted then, they had much more time to degenerate for lack of help
from the clergy before Dr. William Borlase saw the last relics of them
in the “miserable dialogues from Scripture.” that in his youth
were taken round from house to house with the mumming-play of St.
Christmas. This tradition of acting, however, gave guise-dance plays
in Cornwall an importance that they did not get elsewhere. By 1800
Scripture subjects had given way to local folk-lore, but ”Duffy and
Devil ” was a versified play in several acts, as Bottrell and
Hunt’s extracts show, and another, ”Tom and the Giant Blunderbore
”, (5) was known though its doggrel lines are
lost. Probably there were many more, some improvised, others versified
by .the best rhymester of the village, schoolmaster or otherwise.
spite of shattering breaks with tradition during the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries, we find Scawen writing.his Dissertation on
the Cornish Tongue after the Restoration with a very decided wish
to keep intact such links as Cornwall still had with its Celtic past.
Still more do we find this wish inspiring Nicholas Boson of Newlyn,
who was modestly writing at, about the same time ”improving”
stories and recording folk-lore in Cornish for his own children, a
forerunner of all who have since gathered up the fragments of popular
culture in West Cornwall, of whom William Bottrell, ”the Old Celt
”, is chief. Such men, like the old wandering entertainers of whom
Hunt and Bottrell tell us, were surely in the direct line descended
from the bards of ancient Cornwall. Most of Boson’s work can only be
surmised from extracts made by the Welsh antiquary Edward Lhuyd, to
whom they were sent, but we have one of his folk-taIes, ”John of Chyanhorth
", (6) intact, all in Cornish; a fanciful
” Duchess of Cornwall’s Progress ”, in Cornish and English,
’only part of which remains, showing that the imaginary progress was
the pretext for a little survey of - the popular antiquities of the
Land’s End district, and a Cornish essay, Nebes Geryow adro dhe
Gernewek [A Few’Words about Cornish].
was about this time, too, that John Keigwin was trying to understand
the fifteenth-century Cornish manuscripts, and so became the
recognized head of a group of local antiquaries and amateurs of the
Celtic language that was becoming less and less spoken by the
illiterate fisherfolk and country people to whom it had long been
relegated. It is to these enthusiasts that we owe ’most of our
knowledge of the latest Cornish, as preserved in the Gwavas and Tonkin
MSS. or later printed by Pryce and Davies Gilbert. There was certainly
a.little centre of native Cornish culture around the shores of
Mount’s Bay just then, from 1660 to 1730.
As the eighteenth century went on it may be that Dr. William
Borlase, with his works on the Antiquities and Natural History of
Cornwall, turned the thoughts of his neighbours towards speculations
about Druids and researches into local history and biology, the
latter following up the work done by Ray and Willughby in Cornwall in
the previous century, so that popular traditions and linguistic
diversions ceased to attract. Borlase compiled a Cornish vocabulary,
but recorded no spoken Cornish, and we have no saying of Dolly
Pentreath save one from late folk tradition, and should have had no
Cornish from William Bodinar if he had not been able to write a letter
in it in 1776. Dr. Pryce printed the collected work of others only
nothing of his own. The break between the Celtic enthusiasts of the
beginning of the century and the cultured Cornishmen of its end was
thus a wide one.
Coming to the nineteenth century, we reach a period when general culture in Cornwall was expanding greatly along with the scientific, engineering, and mathematical studies that were encouraged by the prosperity of.Cornish mining. To this period we owe the beginnings of our Cornish learned societies, and ’Penzance, Sir Humphrey Davy’s birthplace, became a little centre of seaside fashion as well as, with its Library and societies, one of learning. To mention even the books that were written on all manner of Cornish subjects by local authors during the nineteenth century would fill pages. Cornish culture, in my restricted sense, was not neglected either. Popular traditions and local dialect, including surviving words of Cornish, were ’well looked after by Bottrell, Hunt, and Miss M.A. Courtney or Dr. Jago. Davies Gilbert had even printed some Cornish texts for the first (and worst) time in 1826-7, though the new knowleage of Cornish among a few Cornishmen was due rather to the work of non-Cornish scholars: Norris, Williams, and Stokes. With the twentieth century came Henry Jenner’s work to arouse interest in the language as well as the ancient history of Cornwall, Charles Henderson’s researches into Cornish documents, and Canon Doble’s investigations to enlighten us about the Age of the Saints which Canon Taylor had already made more alive for us. As with all these, Cornwall has usually been fortunate in inspiring friendship and co-operation among its workers, and it was easy to add many others to form a Cornish Gorsedd in 1928 that should foster especially what I have called Cornish Culture, and keep alive in Cornwall whatever-is most Cornish and most Celtic. More workers constantly come and give their help, but always there will remain plenty for them to do in gaining, instead of that vague feeling of living in a land haunted by a forgotten past, some sense of belonging to a very long series of cultures none of which is quite as hopelessly lost, perhaps, as we used to think.
1. ”showls” = shovels
His name, Radulphus Ton, has been misread as ”Hadton” and ”Nad
6. See Old Cornwall, 11th October 1931, p14. A traditional version of the folk-tale of John of Chyanhorth—S. A. Opie.
Please note that all material on this site is copyright and may not be used without permission.
The Federation of Old Cornwall Societies is a Registered Charity. No. 247283
George P Web Design