Reference > Cambridge History > The Drama to 1642, Part One > The Origins of English Drama > Cornish Miracle-plays
  Importance of the Corpus Christi Festival Variety in dialect and metre in the English Mysteries and Miracle-plays  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume V. The Drama to 1642, Part One.

I. The Origins of English Drama.

§ 12. Cornish Miracle-plays.

The Cornish miracle-plays, their language being the native Cymric dialect, stand apart from the English; but though the illusion of the still existing amphitheatres or “rounds” may carry the imagination of the modern visitor back into the past to a time when York, the home of the earliest English cycle, was young; and, though it is not impossible that the Cornish cycle, in its original form, was earlier than any of the rest, there is not much in these plays to distinguish them from French and English dramatic mysteries, and, indeed, French words occasionally make their appearance in them. Their language is stated to carry back the date of their composition to a period earlier than the fourteenth century, though the earliest MS., apparently, dates from the fifteenth, 21  and though we possess no notice of the actual performance of plays in Cornwall earlier than that in Richard Carew’s Survey, first printed in 1602, where mention is made of the representation of the Guary miracles in amphitheatres constructed in open fields. The extant Cornish plays consist of a connected series of three subcycles: Origo Mundi, a selection of episodes from the creation to the building of the Temple; Passio Domini, the life of Christ from the temptation to the crucifixion; and the resurrection and the ascension; and the whole cycle ends with a chorus of angels, and an epilogue by the emperor. But to the first subcycle (or first day’s performance) is added a saint’s play on the constancy and martyrdom of Maximilla, and in the third is inserted an episodical play on the death of Pilate, which stands quite apart from the rest. 22  In addition to this cycle a further saint’s play, The Life of Saint Meriasek, Bishop and Confessor, was discovered in 1869, and edited with a translation by Whitley Stokes (1872). Its language is by him described as Middle-Cornish, and rather more modern than that of Passio. 23    19

Note 21. This assumption is supported by the fact, noted by Gayley, that in the opening scene of Passio Domini a verse-form is used which closely approximates to the nine-lined stanza used with great effect in Secunda Pastorum (Towneley Plays). [ back ]
Note 22. See Norris, E., The Ancient Cornish Drama, 2 vols., Oxford, 1859; where these plays are translated as well as edited. [ back ]
Note 23. The scene of part I of this long drama is partly Britanny, where Meriasek, the son of a duke of Britanny, is sent to school by his loving parents, returns home with the best of characters, declines a splendid marriage, preferring to be “consecrated a knight of God,” and, after incurring much resistance, performs his first miracle, sails for Cornwall, miraculously tames a wolf and builds himself a hermitage. He then performs a miracle on a larger scale, which purges Britanny from outlawed robbers, and beholds the defeat of his pagan foe. The rest of the action is at Rome, where Constantine is healed by pope Silvester and converted. In part II, the double action continues; but a sort of unity is given to it by the consecration of Meriasek as bishop, in accordance with the pope’s bull, before his last miracle and death. At the close of each of the two parts, the audience is invited to drink and dance. The comic element, which Stokes states to be de rigueur in all Cornish plays, is supplied by the torturers, a quack doctor and one or two other characters; but its humour has evaporated, and, with the exception of a pathetic passage or two, the play may be pronounced devoid of literary merit. The metrification is varied and elaborate. [ back ]

  Importance of the Corpus Christi Festival Variety in dialect and metre in the English Mysteries and Miracle-plays  

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