Out of the Ordinary
This year, for the first time ever, four historic Cornish manuscripts are reunited in Kresen Kernow’s Mes a’n Kemmyn / Out of the Ordinary exhibition.
The four manuscripts are all dramatic works. The oldest manuscript, the Ordinalia, is perhaps the best know piece and is made up of three separate plays, Origo Mundi (Origin of the World), Passio Christi (The Passion of Christ) and Resurrexio Domini (The Resurrection of Our Lord). These plays tell biblical stories from (you guessed it!) the Creation Story through to the Ascension of Jesus. Interestingly the nativity story is not included, and the second play begins with Jesus as an adult.
The Ordinalia is unique and special for many more reasons. For instance, it includes what may be the world’s earliest stage diagrams and is also the oldest complete text in the Cornish language. The play weaves the biblical tales with Cornish elements and references, my personal favourite being the comparison to Jesus as a Mermaid (he is half man half God like the Mermaid is half woman half fish!). It could also be considered to be a hugely advanced work when compared to those written in England in a similar time period due to the inclusion of the Legend of the Rood which ties the pips from the apple Adam eats to the wood that makes the Cross for Jesus through various happenings. The plays are such a rich and positive part of Cornwall’s cultural history.
Also featured in the exhibition are two Saints Plays, Bewnans Meriask (The Life of St Meriadoc) and Bewnans Kea (The Life of St Kea). Whilst these plays both dramatise the lives of Saints they are very different and Cornish scholars have studied the texts to find similarities, differences, and to try and date the composition of both plays.
Bewnans Meriask tells the story of Camborne’s first Celtic patron saint, as well as two other plays, woven in together. As well as nudity, parades and a dragon, it is also a complex political drama and includes tales of the tyranny of King Teudar Mawr.
Bewnans Kea was entirely unknown until 20 years ago when it was discovered in some papers that had been donated to the National Library of Wales. Although a large chunk of the play is missing, the surviving script reveals an epic double narrative. The first section tells of the life and miracles of St Kea. The second tells of King Arthur’s struggle with the Romans and his betrayal by Guinevere.
The final manuscript is Gwrians an Bys (The Creation of the World). It tells the Christian creation story, which is similar to the version in Origo Mundi, as well as the story of Noah’s flood. It was signed and dated by William Jordan in 1611, but is also likely to be a copy of an earlier script. These texts represent a slice of Cornwall’s dramatic history, likely spanning over 200 years. It feels very special for them to be reunited at Kresen Kernow, and looking at the manuscripts was unexpectedly moving.
Accompanying the manuscripts is an exhibition exploring contemporary versions of the plays. From Miracle Theatre’s 1970s version, to the St Just community plays, to Bill Mitchell’s fantastic imaginings. This part of the exhibition shows us that the plays are not just documents that can be admired in a glass cabinet or studied by scholars but also living scripts that are ripe for interpretation, staging, and exploration by Cornwall’s thriving theatrical community.
This week sees the start of the St Just Mystery Plays which are seeking to do just that. The three plays will be performed over two weeks by 237 community volunteers led by a team of directors, animators, designers and builders. This September, the coming together of the Out of the Ordinary exhibition and St Just Ordinalia performances provides a unique experience. See the historic manuscripts, explore the history of their performance in Cornwall, and then experience a live retelling of the plays in a modern and exciting way.
The Out of the Ordinary exhibition runs until 25th September. Find out more and book here.
The St Just Ordinalia runs 4 -18th September. Find out more and book here.
About Kresen Kernow
Kresen Kernow (‘Cornwall Centre’) is home to the world’s largest collection of documents, books, maps and photographs related to Cornwall’s history. Everyone is welcome to visit and explore these amazing collections.