Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 12. Cornish Miracle-plays

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

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, 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. 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.