Oliver Padel (Cambridge)

Glasney College, Penryn, Cornwall

By the mid-fourteenth century Cornwall had been under English cultural influence for five centuries, and fully incorporated as a county of England for four. The eastern half of the county, as far as Bodmin, was by this date thoroughly anglicised, but west of Bodmin the Brittonic language, sister to Welsh and Breton, survived, though with an increasing use of English. At the mid-point of this linguistically distinct region the college of secular canons at Glasney, outside the town of Penryn, had been in existence for nearly a century, founded in 1265 by Walter Bronescombe (bishop of Exeter 1258—80). A group of plays was later to emerge from Glasney, written within the western tradition of religious drama, but distinctive within England. As far as is known, Glasney was the only centre of Cornish-language literary production within this small linguistic zone, half of one county (about 1,800 square kilometres), much smaller than any of the single dialect areas of Wales or Brittany and with a largely-rural population of perhaps around 30,000. The amount of literature written here, between about 1400 and the early sixteenth century, is surprising in view of the small and scattered population which formed its potential audience.

The reasons for the bishop of Exeter to have founded this college can only be surmised, but the cultural distinctiveness of the westernmost quarter of their diocese may have been one factor. The diocese of Exeter covered the two English counties of Devon and Cornwall, and officials, including the bishops, were necessarily conscious of the differences present in the western half of Cornwall, and to some extent in the whole of the county. Apart from the difference in language in the far west, the churches over the whole county tended to be dedicated to obscure saints, known otherwise (if at all) only in Brittany and Wales. These obscure cults caused unease to John Grandisson, bishop of Exeter in 1327—69, who issued an ordinance in 1330 instructing that written lives of these saints should be preserved in triplicate. At this period, too, clergy appointed to parishes in the western sector sometimes asked to be moved, because of the linguistic problems which they encountered.

Glasney college was situated within the estate of Penryn, which the bishops of Exeter had held since before the Norman Conquest, and which already contained a flourishing international port. It may be that the establishment of this centre in the western quarter was partly intended to ease the cultural and linguistic difficulties, a means of ensuring that episcopal orthodoxy would percolate among the priests (including Cornish-speaking ones), for whom the college would serve as an intellectual focus, and thence into the parishes.

Four main Cornish texts survive, all having links either with Penryn or with Glasney College. The Ordinalia is a trilogy of 8,734 lines, telling the Biblical story from the Creation of the World to Christ's Ascension, and incorporating apocryphal material, notably the Legend of the Rood. A related narrative poem of 2,074 lines, presumably intended for private devotional use, tells the story of Christ's Passion. Two plays of local saints, one of St Meriasek of Camborne parish and a fragmentary one of St Ke of Kea parish, combine the stories of their saints (both honoured primarily in Brittany) with other material: in Bewnans Meriasek the story of St Silvester, the first pope, and in Bewnans Ke the story of King Arthur's downfall, drawn directly from Geoffrey of Monmouth, and the only medieval dramatic treatment of King Arthur in any language.

Local references show that the Ordinalia was written for production at Penryn, probably in about 1400 and presumably at Glasney College. The narrative Passion Poem has textual links with the second play of the trilogy. The two plays of local saints are textually linked, and both have associations with Glasney College itself; Bewnans Meriasek was written in 1504 and Bewnans Ke at around the same time. All these works are distinctive within England in both their subject-matter (the apocryphal material of the Ordinalia and the local saints' lives) and in their manner of staging in circular amphitheatres, some of which survive today. The reasons for these distinctive cultural features are instructive, in so far as they can be surmised, arising partly from Penryn's position on the south coast of Corwnall, providing a focus for the continuing linguistic links which Cornwall retained with Brittany, and hence with the wider Continent. But Cornwall had been under political, administrative, economic, and cultural dominance from England for half a millennium, and the language shows much English influence. Metrically the texts are a mixture of inherited prosodic patterns foreign to English (syllabic line-lengths and rhyme-patterns), combined with Middle English stanzaic forms. The texts thus show a rewarding mixture of Brittonic, English and Continental features.