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Depiction of Tyranny in the Cornish Miracle Plays: Tenor, Code Switching and Sociolinguistic Variables

  • Independent Researcher


The Cornish miracle plays were written in the Cornish language in the late 15th and early sixteenth centuries. On the surface, these plays might appear to merely relate stories from the Bible and the lives of certain Saints. Underneath, however, lies a smouldering resentment of the tyranny and genocide following brutal repression of two popular uprisings: the 1497 rebellion against Henry VII’s poll tax and the rebellion 4 months later in support of Perkin Warbeck’s claim to the throne. As a result of these insurrections, a significant proportion of the Cornish speaking population were exterminated. In the miracle play, Passio Domini, written in the Cornish language shortly after 1497, Jesus is referred to as the Son of Joseph the Smith. This reference to ‘the Smith’, alludes to Michael Joseph a smith of St. Keverne who was one of the leaders of the first 1497 rebellion. Code-switching further reinforces the allusion; when Christ’s torturers speak phrases of English. Two other Cornish plays, Bewnans Ke, the Life of St Kea, and Beunans Meriasek, the Life of St Meriasek , depict a pagan tyrant King Teudar, persecutor of Christians, and namesake of Henry Tudor. In Beunans Meriasek, St Meriasek is driven out of Cornwall by King Teudar, a self-styled “reigning lord in Cornwall”, “prince”, “emperor”, “governor” and “conqueror”. As a result, Teudar is pursued by the Duke of Cornwall who calls Teudar a “tyrant of unbelief”and an “alien”, and challenges Teudar’s right to be in Cornwall at all. In Bewnans Ke also we find Teudar referred to as a pagan tyrant. In these plays, much use is made of code-switching, with sentences of English being spoken by torturers and by Teudar. Lexical choices between synonyms of differing etymologies subtly convey nuances of attitudinal meaning and power relations.
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... Even if there may have been some room for Cornish in the religious domain (Berresford Ellis 1971: 14), the church was instrumental in ending the tradition of Cornish-language mystery plays in this period (Smith 1947: 3), removing a cultural stronghold for the language. The use of English code-switches in sixteenth-century mystery plays (by devils, demons and tyrants) suggests that English was understood, if negatively evaluated, but as the plays rework earlier material, the form of the language is not necessarily reflective of that in use in Cornwall at the time (Mills 2012). ...
It has been observed that language-shift varieties of English tend to be relatively close to Standard English (Trudgill and Chambers 1991: 2–3). An often-used explanation for this is that Standard English was acquired in schools by the shifting population (Filppula 2006: 516). In this paper, I discuss three cases of language shift in the Early Modern period: in Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and Shetland. I offer evidence that the role of Standard English education was, in fact, fairly limited, and suggest that the standard-likeness of Cornish English, Manx English and Shetland Scots is most likely due to the particular sociolinguistic circumstances of language shift, where not only language contact, but also dialect contact contributed to a loss of non-standard-like features and the acquisition of a standard-like target variety. This atelic and non-hierarchical process is termed apparent standardisation.
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