A remarkable manuscript shows the classic circular Shakespearean theatre had deep and unsuspected medieval roots far from Stratford or London, says Will Coleman.

Dramatic discovery at the Bodleian

By Will Coleman (St Catherine’s, 1981; pictured below)

Dramatic discovery at the Bodleian

The Bodleian Library’s precious First Folio of Shakespeare is currently on display in the wonderful Marks of Genius exhibition. Much has been written about how the plays were originally staged in the circular theatres of Elizabethan London. Yet mystery has shrouded the question of why exactly the Elizabethan theatres were round and what sort of medieval antecedents these Tudor buildings might have had.

I was visiting the Bodleian’s Special Collections recently on the track of a set of play scripts that are far less well known and much older than the First Folio. Pre-dating Shakespeare’s works by some 200 years (thought to be written c.1375), the vellum manuscript catalogued as Bodl. MS 791 has several claims to fame.

It has been described as including

  • the earliest play scripts that survive from anywhere in Britain,
  • the earliest full cycle of religious plays that survives from anywhere in Europe and
  • the earliest stage diagrams that survive from anywhere in the world.

Perhaps one reason the manuscript has hitherto received little attention is the fact that it is not written in English. Here are the opening lines:

En tas yn nef ym gylwyr
formyer pub tra a vyt gurys.

(‘The Father in Heaven I am called
Creator of all that will be formed’)

Dramatic discovery at the Bodleian

Did you guess correctly? The language of this script is fourteenth-century Cornish, or Kernewek. Usually known as the Ordinalia, these plays rattle through the entire sweep of medieval Christian thinking from the Creation through the Passion to the Resurrection of Christ. The plays, explicitly intended to be performed over three consecutive days, are generally considered to have been closer to their continental European peers than the better-known English cycles. But there is another important difference between these plays and those famous ‘pageant wagons’ of York and Chester: the manner of their staging.

Strange diagrams appear at three points in the document. Not alchemical spell-charts, nor Arthurian seating plans, these circular diagrams lay out the staging for each day of the play. For example, the Latin labels on the first diagram include Heaven, Torturers, Hell, Pharoah, King David etc; all major locations or characters in the action. But why are the diagrams round?

In Cornwall today, at Perran Round and at St Just Plain-an-Gwarry, we have two surviving medieval amphitheatres. Each has a wide grassy ‘plain’ surrounded by a high bank. And yes, they are both round.

How might these two ‘playing places’ (plen an gwari) have been used to present plays such as the Ordinalia?

Dramatic discovery at the Bodleian

We believe that each label on the circular chart represents a ‘pavilion’; a raised stage which was the main performance position for that character. But a ring of such structures built around the circumference of the plain raises the million-dollar question: ‘Where did the audience go?’ Do not be misled by 21st-century notions of theatre (or indeed by ancient Greek amphitheatres). Rather than sitting around the sides looking inwards, we now believe the Cornish audiences thronged through the whole plen an gwari space, even while the action was taking place all around the outside as well as through the middle of the plain.

 

Imagine a crowd of people thousands strong, surrounded by magnificent palaces and castles, a smoking hell’s mouth, performers in splendid costumes, massed chorus and musicians, live animals, guns and fireworks, artfully constructed machinery and special effects. Richard Carew, in his 1602 Survey of Cornwall, described how in such ‘an earthen Amphitheatre’ people from miles around would witness devils and devices to delight as well the eye as the ear’. In my opinion the theatre culture of medieval Cornwall would have delivered an epic, immersive experience.

Place-name and other internal evidence from the Ordinalia locate its authorship within Glasney College in Penryn. Founded 750 years ago (in 1265, just one year later than Merton College, Oxford), Glasney College was to become the powerhouse behind an extraordinary flourishing of Cornish-language theatrical culture over the next 300 years. Evidence from account books, court depositions, and elsewhere builds a picture of a widespread and vibrant tradition. In addition, besides the two well-known complete examples, traces of another 30 plen an gwari sites have now been located across mid- and west Cornwall — a phenomenon unparalleled anywhere in Europe.

Dramatic discovery at the Bodleian

Later, the forces of the Protestant Reformation suppressed the plays and the Cornish language, and destroyed Glasney College itself. But it seems that the medieval theatre culture of Cornwall did manage to survive longer than parallel traditions did in many other places. The plen an gwari became a site of cultural activity that actively resisted the imposition of Puritan orthodoxy and of the English language. 

In Elizabethan London a new brand of secular theatre was to flourish, with professional players and playwrights including our favourite bard. But if we were to search for the dramaturgical antecedents of those round theatres loved by Shakespeare and his audiences, it is just possible that the Cornish plen an gwari and the circular diagrams in Bodl. MS 791 provide us with the best window onto the drama of an earlier age.

Will Coleman’s book Plen an Gwari: The Playing Places of Cornwall is published by Golden Tree Productions on 1 June. It is available to pre-order at pre-publication prices here.

Images, from top:

  1. Reconstruction of a plen an gwari, by Heidi Ball
  2. Will Coleman
  3. Opening page of the Ordinalia
  4. Diagram and cast list in the Ordinalia
  5. Schematic map of the plen an gwari as used in the Ordinalia, by Heidi Ball, based on the diagram in Bodl. MS 791

Images of the Ordinalia are reproduced by kind permission of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. All other images © Golden Tree Productions.

Comments

By Philip Terzian
on

What's pasty is prologue

By David Wrench
on

Excellent article.

By John caughey
on

Fireworks ? I thinks me not !

By Narcy (Mr) Calamatta
on

This theory tallies exactly with the origins of theatre in the middle ages. It first started in the Easter 'passio' (passion) readings of Quem Queritis? (The angel to the 3 Marys asking at Jesus' empty tomb. "Who are you looking for"). A priest had decided it was too long for him to read and asked another priest to share the dialogue. This dynamic exchange roused the natirual human instict for drama or the Roman theatre which had been condemned by the church for centuries. The event became so popular that it was repeated with other specifically written texts for Xmas. Even then the churches could not hold enough people so it was decided to take the dramatised stories out in the village square or threshing circus. In Italy the separate stages showing bible scenes became so popular that they were EVEN built on barges on a river. Eventually in Spain the processions started and decorated floats built on large carts (normally for carrying straw) rolled down the narrow streets of medeaval villages. They still have such processions in Spain for Good Friday and also in Malta where I come from. It is obvious that in Cornwall the epics were contained in a natural circular dip in the open country. That is a unique tradition I am happy to learn about. However Shakespeare's Wooden 'O' is really coming from the Spanish late medeaval 'corales' first used by Commedia dell' Arte players. But that is another long tale.

By Tom Varcoe
on

Fascinating article.
Whilst off topic, does anyone by anyone know of the connection between the 'Obby 'Oss and the Diabolito which appears in the carnival festivities of the Canary Islands? Whilst one is a devil and the other is a horse, the design and colouration of the costume (paticularly the mask) has notable similarities, including the use of a 'teaser'. The diabolito is said to have come from N Africa with the original Berber settlers to the Canaries and it would be easy to understand how the custom might have travelled from from there to Cornwall.

By Finn Jackson
on

To me the first picture looks just like one of the abandoned iron age hill forts that were widely used in Wiltshire during the middle ages for sheep fairs & c.

More important, perhaps, there is a smaller version in St Just (in Cornwall) called Plain-an-gwarry, used for plays for over 600 years, and known as "the oldest working theatre in Britain."

By Cliff Paul
on

I was aware of the 'Ordinalia' from my time in Penryn, Cornwall where Glasney College ruins are located - and almost became involved in a staging of them quite a few years back. So this article was interesting because of that. But perhaps more interesting is that sense I get of 'theatre in the round' and of the possible connection between those medieval guild cycles and development of a theatre like The Globe. And I find it more satisfactory to imagine mystery plays presented almost simultaneously in one circular space rather then think of them travelling around from site to site - which was my possibly erroneous earlier understanding. Thanks for the article.

By miriam grirffin
on

Very interesting.

By Alan James
on

Interesting, but the Ordinalia are worth reading and studying for their own sake, whether or not the plen-an-gwary had any influence on the Elizabethan theatres in London.

Is there any prospect of the Jesus Professorship of Celtic being revivied?

By Meg Twycross
on

As scores of cross medieval theatre experts have probably been telling you already, this is hardly news. We have known about the Cornish Ordinalia stage plans for decades, and written about them, especially with reference to the Caste of Perseverance diagram. Check before you publish!

By Peter Sergeant
on

We attended a performance of the Ordinalia at the St Just Plain an Gwarry a few years ago. It was staged just as outlined by Will Coleman, the audience in the middle, cast moving among them. I don't remember any fireworks, but then our performance covered the Passion and Resurrection. Well done, Will.

By Jack Brownrigg
on

In the wooden "O" the audience all faced in the one direction to the single stage; but if elabourate stage sets were needed, the large circular space could have several different sets, one for each different scene arranged around the perimeter. You can understand the practicalities and the evolution. Although there is no obvious connection to Roman theatres (or earlier).

By Will Coleman
on

Fireworks John?
Perhaps not in the sense we use the word today. Here's a stage direction (in English) from Beunans Meryasek -
Her a gonn yn y dragon ys mouth aredy & fyr
(Here a gun ready in the dragon’s mouth and fire)
So gun-powder and fire were used dramatically, but fair enough my short-hand 'fireworks' might conjure something that was still confined to China at that point!

By Will Coleman
on

Many thanks for your comments Narcy, I would be very interested to learn more about the historical developments in Malta. Actually, rather than 'a natural circular dip' it seems likely that at first the existing Cornish Iron Age 'Rounds' were re-used as theatres and then later purpose built plenys an gwari were constructed. I certainly don't pretend to be an expert on the origins of Shakespeare's 'Wooden O' theatre, but as Sydney Higgins has shown in his book 'Theatre in the Round: the Staging of Cornish Medieval Drama' there is a very plausible route whereby it could have developed from something very like the plen an gwari (there is also clear evidence of circular theatres in East Anglia).

By Keith Hays
on

Might not this circular playing field descend from another more ancient institution that has left its mark across Celtic Europe. The stone circles from one end to the other of the British Isles might well represent theatrical arenas varying in size in accordance with the expected audience.

By Alexandra Smith
on

I wonder if these places were also used by the Wesleys for preaching? John Wesley was said to preach to thousands at one time and this sort of circle would have held a great many folk.

By Moira Coleman
on

The language is so similar to Welsh in many ways that it leads me to wonder whether there is an otherwise unconsidered similarity with Welsh dramatic traditions.

By Keith Gardner
on

What a fascinating article. Cornwall has so much amazing history, both ancient and modern. From ancient theatre such as this, through tin mining, pilchard fishing, telegraphy and so much more.

By Will Coleman
on

Yup Finn Jackson: St Just Plain-an-Gwarry is mentioned in the article and opens the whole exploration in the book.

By Will Coleman
on

Thanks for your comment Cliff Paul. I am not an expert on English Medieval Theatre but when we staged our version of Gogmagog last summer we used 'pageant wagons' (a cavalcade of vehicles) drawn up to create a circle and surround the standing audience - it worked really well: http://goldentree.org.uk/portfolios/gogmagog.
Seems to me the obvious way to get the best out of those York and Chester wagons...?

By Will Coleman
on

I agree Alan James! Dunno about the Jesus Professorship, it would certainly get my vote! I would also like to do some digging about for pre-Reformation Cornish scholars at Exeter...

By Will Coleman
on

Thank you for your comment Meg. I agree that the word 'Discovery' in the title is rather unfortunate (and not one of my choosing). Rest assured that I am very aware of your own scholarship and that of Dr Richard Southern, Prof. Sydney Higgins etc etc (indeed, I am in close communication with your co-editor of MET, Prof. Gordon Kipling). You are correct: it certainly is not news that the Bodleian holds these treasures. However, if you would be interested to hear a Cornish viewpoint on the entire phenomenon (including newly-commissioned illustrations, previously unpublished material and the locations of more than 30 sites in Cornwall) please don't judge a book by its 'teaser'! Regards.

By Will Coleman
on

I agree Jack Brownrigg. In his 2014 book 'Theatre in the Round: the Staging of Cornish Medieval Drama', Prof Sydney Higgins shows diagrammatically how one form might evolve into the other.
(and, as you say, whilst some medieval theatre-makers may have deliberately wanted to invoke some 'ancient Roman credentials' there really is no link, culturally or practically.

By Will Coleman
on

Keith Hays - rather than stone circles, it seems more likely that (in Cornwall at least) the early medieval theatre-makers re-used the 'Iron Age Rounds' which are so plentiful here (and may have had a continuity of use as meeting/gathering/celebration sites)

By Will Coleman
on

Thanks for your query Alexandra. John Wesley DID preach at Perran Round in 1753 and probably at St Just Plain-an-Gwarry too. The plen an gwari is often confused with the purpose-built Methodist preaching pit, the most famous being Gwennap Pit (but other beauties exist at Indian Queens, Whitemoor and Newlyn East). These pits are a fascinating testament to the extraordinary non-conformist religious fervour that transformed Cornish communities in the 18th and 19th centuries. But (other than reminding us of Cornish opposition to the established Church of England) they have no real connection to the medieval plen an gwari tradition.

By Will Coleman
on

Yn gwyrioneth Moira! My a vynnsa trouvias mouy adro dhe 'twmpathau chwarae' po an gwariva gresosel Kembrek ollgebmyn.
You are right Moira! I would like to find out more about the 'playing mounds' or the medieval Welsh theatre in general.
The four surviving medieval Welsh plays do have seven-syllable lines like the Cornish but few other obvious similarities. I have struggled to find any information about the manner of their staging - and would be very pleased to benefit from some Welsh expertise. It seems that the medieval Cornish theatre had greater links with the Breton than with the Welsh.

By Will Coleman
on

Thanks for your interest Keith Gardner: please do get a copy of the book if you would like to see how the plen an gwari theatre tradition helps illuminate the (largely untold) history of Cornwall and the Cornish.

By Colin Rogers
on

Will is making a terrific contribution to our understanding of the history of theatre and preserving for future generations the cultural history of Cornwall. And incidentally, why not fireworks indeed? They were known to be used at The Globe which first opened in 1599. That first one burned down in 1613 in a fire allegedly caused by a prop cannon but of course an early Black Cat Mega Thundercloud could equally have been responsible.

By Nick Hart
on

It was wonderful to experience being immersed in the heart of a drama as happened with Gogmagog. Visceral in almost every sense. Much look forward to finding out more. Flash mobbing with a choir has a similar dramatic effect, so different from a formal concert.

By Crafty Theatre
on

Wonderful article. I hope I may ask you a question about the illustrations. It fascinates me that the Green Man appears on Christian churches from this period and that he looks somewhat related to Dionysus. Does anything like the Green Man appear within the illustrations?

By Anthony Murray
on

Wonderful piece of scholarship. The description of a crowd milling around throughout epic performances reminded me of my first encounter with open air Chinese opera, just outside Kuala Lumpur in October 1967 during the festival of the Hungry Ghosts. For days on end the scenes mixing folk tales and religious observances were performed on a proscenium stage, with energetic musicians on stage beside the players. Food, drink and trinket sellers worked their way through the groundlings who watched and chatted by turns. I felt then it must have been similar to a mediaeval festival in Europe. I am glad to read the evidence to support that judgment.

By Will Coleman
on

Dear Crafty Theatre, the short answer is 'no'. The stage diagrams in the Ordinalia are simple circles with a latin name for each character or location. We do have illustrations in the manuscript of 'Pascon Agan Arluth' but they are confined to strictly Biblical content.

By Will Coleman
on

Dear Anthony Murray, I agree with you entirely that those sorts of festive gatherings give us the best starting points for imagining the atmosphere at European medieval theatrical events (the word 'theatre' often conjures very different pictures nowadays and so can be rather misleading!) Hope you enjoy the book!

By Tracey Worrall
on

Will, i'm wondering now if the trading of Cornish tin particularly in the medieval period when the importance of this trade with the rest of the world cannot be overstated, had some significant influence on the spreading of the word regarding the nature and presentation of these productions. Also is there any link between the process of extracting tin by digging bell pits of various sizes in the 12th and 13th century in Cornwall and the location of the sites of the plays?

By Will Coleman
on

Now that is an interesting query Tracey.As you know Cornwall had well-established international trading relationships long before the medieval period. Also, a far amount of medieval mining expertise did come to Cornwall from the Continent, Germany in particular. I am not sure how we might investigate whether there were any links between trading and the transfer of religious drama practices...? Cornwall also certainly exported mining technology, culture and personnel globally, but that was much later, from the eighteenth century onwards.
As regards the distribution of the plenys an gwari; that can be summarised as 'pretty much everywhere in West Cornwall', whereas bell-pits were 'everywhere there was tin near the surface'. I think any correspondence would prove to be coincidental, though I'd be open to further exploration. Thanks.

By John Pole
on

Will,

First of all, what a n interesting theory. I must get the book.

Richard Southern published "The Medieval Theatre in the Round" in 1975. I believe Higgins referred to it in his book on medieval theatre in Cornwall. Southern's thesis is based on "The Castle of Perseverance" - do his views support your ideas?
I look forward to reading your book. good luck.

By Hugh Richmond
on

A very useful account. I might mention that a 16mm color film of excerpts from the Cornish production entitled “The Cornish Ordinalia” was for a time available for rental or purchase from the Extension Media Centre, University of California Berkeley, CA 94720 created by the late John R, Elliott Jr. of Syracuse University (one of my ex-doctoral students). There may be copies still around:

“The Cornish Ordinalia”: Publisher: University of California, Extension Media Center, 1971. Made by Film Production Department, it presents scenes from a 1969 performance by drama students at Bristol University, England, of the Cornish cycle of medieval miracle plays in Piran Round, an earthen amphitheater in Cornwall. It includes The Origin of the World, The Passion Play, and The Ascension. Adapted from a translation by Markham Harris.

Clips from it were used in our more recent documentary: "Shakespeare and the Globe" (Films for the Humanities, 1985 - still available in DVD). "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose: - still the new account is very welcome, rediscoveries are necessary. With best wishes, HMR

By Will Coleman
on

Dear John Pole, thanks. I must reiterate that, despite the title of the article, the theory is NOT my own; it has been knocking about for quite some time - in fact a link between Plen an Gwari and circular Elizabethan theatres as early as 1894 by Thomas Ordish. I largely agree with Southern's argument (even though his reliance on Fouquet's miniature has been shown to be unsafe by Gordon Kipling). My major difference with Southern is that he has the audience neatly corralled into segments whereas I would allow them pretty much free access across the Platea. Hope you enjoy the book - I would be very interested to have your feedback.

By Will Coleman
on

Dear Professor Richmond, good to hear from you. Many thanks for the information - I did not know that a film of the 1969 production exists and would be delighted to track it down (although I have got some stills from Sydney Higgins and an original programme from the mother of a friend). The possible link with Shakespearean form is really only a very minor part of my book. However, the book does contain several previously unpublished sources of information, shares our explorations that have resulted in more than 30 Plen an Gwari sites being located in Cornwall and attempts to understand the context from a Cornish point of view for the first time. I do hope you will give it the once-over. Very best wishes, Will Coleman

By Eileen Cunningham
on

Hello,
I am in the process of composing the medieval section of a book to teach drama at classical and Christian schools. The picture of the plen an gwawri at the top of this web page is wonderful. Would you grant permission for this image to be used in the book?

Eileen Cunningham
Wichita, KS USA

Add new comment