Cornish Literature 1350 to 1611AD
From the Historical Texts

The Cornish Language: an Kernowek or an Kernewek.


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The surviving Cornish literature of all periods is not noted for its abundance. There are only six main pieces of literature in the years of approximately 1350 to 1611 and all but one of these is religious in nature. These are the main sources in this period:

  1. The Charter Fragment

  2. The Passion Poem

  3. The Ordinalia

  4. Beunans Meriasek

  5. The Homilies of Tregear

  6. Gwreans an Bys.


This consists of 41 lines of verse written on the back of a charter dated to 1340. It seems to have been written in the years from about 1350 to 1400. This passage seems to be a fragment of a longer work. The passage begins with a monologue in which someone offers a girl in marriage apparently to a young man. The two are introduced by the speaker and told to hasten away. The second half of the passage concerns advice to the girl on how she should conduct herself and what to expect from the young man. Here are a few lines from this poem (lines 17-24). The number 3 is used here for the Cornish long-tailed letter z on the charter. It is pronounced th as in the English word 'this':

lemen y3 torn my as re
ha war an grey3 my an te
nag us y far
an barth ma 3e pons tamar
my ad pes worty by3 da
ag ol 3e vo3 hy a wra
rag flog yw ha gensy do3
ha gassy 3e gafus y bo3

Now in thy hand I give her
and on the cross I swear it
there is not her equal
this side to the bridge of Tamar
I pray thee to her be good
and all thy will she will do
for a child she is and gentle of heart
and let her have her desire.

The PASSION. This long rhymed poem consists of 259 four-line verses. The earliest manuscript is from the 15th century. Its subject is the passion of Christ. Here is a verse 71 from the poem:

Pedyr an neyl tenewen , yn mes a dennas cle3e
hag a drohas ryb an pen , scovern onan ane3e
crist a settyas yn tyen , an scovern arte 3e dre
hag an dy3gthtyas pur lowen , maga tek del rebye

Peter on the one side , pulled out a sword
and cut beside the head , an ear of one of them
Christ set it back , the ear again to home
and gladly restored it , as beautiful as it had been

ORDINALIA is a trilogy of three miracle plays, 'Origo Mundi', 'The origin of the world', (full title: Ordinale de Origine Mundi), 'Passio Christi', 'The passion of Christ', (full title: Passio Domini Nostri Jhesu Christi), 'Resurrexio Domini', 'The resurrection of the Lord', (full title: Ordinale de Resurrexione Domini Nostri Jhesu Christi). These are all written in rhymed verse. The earliest manuscript of 'Ordinalia' dates from the 15th century.

ORIGO MUNDI is 2846 lines in length. This play concentrates on the creation of Adam and Eve, the Fall of Man and the subsequent sinfulness such as Cain's murder of his younger brother Abel. It includes the stories of Noah, of Abraham and Isaac, Moses, David and Solomon and concludes with the story of Maximilla, a martyress. The early history of the cross involving the legend of the rood is interwoven into this play beginning with the journey of Seth, the son of Adam, back to the Garden of Eden and ending with the episode of Maximilla. In the following lines, Eve persuades Adam to eat the fruit (241-48):

Aba na vynta cresy
ty a kyl ow herense
vynytha hedre vywy
vmma nym gwelyth arte

eua kyns del vy serrys
me a wra ol del vynny
drov e thymmo dysempys
ha my a ra y dybry

Since you don't want to believe
you will lose my love
for ever as long as you live
here you won't see me again

Eve, rather than you be angry
I will do all as you want
bring it to me right away
and I will eat it.

PASSIO CHRISTI is 3242 lines long. It tells of the last period of Jesus' life ending with his death on the cross. It begins with the temptation of Jesus in the desert, continues with a scene on Palm Sunday, the betrayal by Judas, the judgement by Pilate, a knockabout comedy section when Jesus and the thieves are brought out for judgement and condemnation. The legend of the smith who does not wish to make the nails for the cross is mentioned. This is followed by the crucifixion and death of Christ after which the body is collected and embalmed. In the following lines from the beginning of the play, Jesus is being tempted by the Devil (lines 59-64):

thyso gy y leuara
mar sos map dev awartha
dysempys argh ha lavar
then cals meynma bos bara
me a wothvyth yn vrna
pyth yw the gallos hep mar

to you I say
if you are the son of God above
right now command and tell
these hard rocks to be bread.
I will know in that moment
what your power is, without a doubt.

RESURREXIO DOMINI is 2646 lines in length. This is naturally about the resurrection of Christ and following events including the story of Pilate which ends in the black comedy of Pilate's recalcitrant dead body, and the play ends with the theme of salvation and the ascension of Christ to Heaven. In the following lines, the thief who was crucified beside Christ finds himself talking to Adam in Heaven (lines 265-70):

lader of a fue iuggys
ha ryp ihesu cryst gorrys
yn crous a pren
me a gryes warnotho
rak paynys pan nan gefo
tyller thy pen

A thief I am who was judged
and beside Jesus Christ put
on a cross of wood
I believed on him
when for pain he did not have
a place for his head.

BEUNANS MERIASEK, 'The life of Meriasek', is 4368 lines in length. This is a saints play that presents the life of Saint Meriasek who originated from Brittany but who was also an important local saint of the Camborne district in Cornwall. It seems to have been written in 1504 by Rad Ton who signed and dated the manuscript. The play is in two parts and written entirely in rhymed verse. The following lines are spoken by the master of the school to which Meriasek is sent (lines 76-81):

My yv mayster a gramer
gvrys yn bonilapper
vniversite vyen
me a wor mur yn dyvyn
pan ve luen ov 3os a wyn
ny gara covs mes laten

I am master of grammar
matriculated in Bonilapper
a small university.
I know a lot in citation.
When my mug is full of wine
I love to speak nothing but Latin

THE HOMILIES OF TREGEAR is a document of 131 pages of Cornish. Twelve of the 13 homilies in this document were translated by a cleric named Johan Tregear from the homilies in English in the book of Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, apparently shortly after 1555 when Bonner's book was published. A termination date of translation appears to be 1558, the year when Mary Tudor died, or 1559, the year of the deprivation of Bonner's bishopric. The 13th homily in this document is either original in the Cornish or translated from another source. It was logically also written before Mary Tudor's death in 1558 or 1559 when Bonner was disgraced.

The homilies present various doctrinal points and a strong theme in them is the need to return to the Catholic Church. This is consistent with the role of Bonner in the pro-Catholic movement in the time of Mary Tudor's brief reign.

The following are the first five lines of the first homily (1.1-5). The large amount of English vocabulary incorporated in it reflects the fact that English was the language of the English church in Cornwall in this period.

Ima an profet dauit in peswar vgans ha nownsag psalme,
ow exortya oll an bobyll the ry prayse hag honor the du
ha thy servya in lowendar, ha gans perfect colonow the reiosya
in sight agan creator ha redemar. yma an profet dauid ow
allegia helma kepar dell ewa sufficiant cawse agan redempcion.

The prophet David in the ninety-ninth psalme,
exorts all the people to give praise and honour to God
and to serve him in joy, and with perfect hearts to rejoice
in the sight of our creator and redeemer. The prophet David
alleges this as sufficient cause for our redemption.

GWREANS AN BYS, 'The creation of the world', is 2548 lines of rhymed verse. This miracle play seems to have been written in 1611 by William Jordan. This work presents only the first day's play of a two day performance so it is only half a complete work. Despite some quotations from 'Origo Mundi', it is a very different work from 'Ordinalia'.

The story begins with God's creation of the universe and of the world, Satan's rebellion and fall, followed by the creation of Adam and Eve. The serpent tempts Eve who eats the fruit and takes some to Adam who capitulates and also eats it when threatened with the loss of Eve's affection. This is followed by expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and Cain's murder of Abel. Cain is sent away, together with his wife, Calmana, and this is followed in the dramatic action by the birth of Seth. Cain is killed by Lamech, one of his debauched descendents who is out hunting and mistakes him for a wild beast. The story of the flood is told, ending with the episode of the rainbow. This completes 'Gwreans an Bys' and the first day's play.

The following lines come from a conversation between Noah and Tubal who is falling about helpless with laughter at the sight of Noah's huge ship (lines 2296-2308):

praga ew genas she omma
buyldya lester mar worthy
yn creys powe tha worthe an moare
me a syns tha skeans whath
tha voes in cost an parna
oll tha lyvyer nyn dale cathe
me an to war ow ena
gucky ythoes

ow hothman na gymmar marthe
ty an oole ha lyas myell
kynthota skydnys in wharthe
in dewathe heb tull na gyle
why a weall deall vskys

What's got into you here
to build a ship so large
in the middle of the country far from the sea?
I consider your intelligence a puff of wind
to go to such great cost
all your toil is not worth a cat
I swear on my soul
you really are foolish.

My friend, don't be amazed
you will weep for it and many thousands
although you have fallen into laughter
in the end without deceipt or gile
you will see a disaster very soon.

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