Skip to main content
Kent Academic Repository

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

Mills, Jon (2012) Depiction of Tyranny in the Cornish Miracle Plays: Tenor, Code Switching and Sociolinguistic Variables. In: Mac Amhlaigh, Liam, ed. Ilteangach, Ilseiftiúil: Féilscríbhinn in ómós do Nicholas Williams: A festschrift in honour of Nicholas Williams. Arlen House, Dublin, pp. 139-157. ISBN 978-1-85132-068-4. (KAR id:32245)


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.

Item Type: Book section
Uncontrolled keywords: Cornish language
Subjects: D History General and Old World > D History (General)
D History General and Old World > D History (General) > D111 Medieval History
D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain
P Language and Literature > P Philology. Linguistics
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of Culture and Languages
Depositing User: Francis Mills
Date Deposited: 15 Jan 2013 15:26 UTC
Last Modified: 16 Nov 2021 10:10 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

University of Kent Author Information

Mills, Jon.

Creator's ORCID:
CReDIT Contributor Roles:
  • Depositors only (login required):

Total unique views for this document in KAR since July 2020. For more details click on the image.