Situating the Holy: Celtic Community in Breton and Cornish Saint Plays

By Scherb, Victor I. | Comparative Drama, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Situating the Holy: Celtic Community in Breton and Cornish Saint Plays


Scherb, Victor I., Comparative Drama


Although close relationships between Brittany and Cornwall in the later Middle Ages have long been acknowledged in terms of their common linguistic background, reciprocal trade, and changing political affiliations, their mutual dramatic traditions have been given less attention. (1) By the later Middle Ages, connections between these two regions dated back a thousand years, to the time of the British migrations to Brittany--popular movements now generally thought to have occurred between the late fourth and early seventh centuries, with particular concentrations of immigrants coming from the Southwest of England in the first half of the sixth century. (2) The early Breton and Cornish languages were so closely related that, perhaps not surprisingly, it remains difficult for modern scholars to distinguish between the two in documents written prior to the twelfth century. (3) Our understanding of Breton and Cornish medieval dramatic traditions is largely based on a small group of surviving dramatic texts and records from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and limited archaeological evidence. As in much of Europe, for Brittany and Cornwall this was a time of political and cultural upheaval, a time during which both communities felt the need to assert local and Celtic identity--an assertion apparent in their surviving saint plays: the Breton Buez Santez Norm and Buhez Sant Gwenole, and the Cornish Beunans Meriasek.

Since Breton drama remains virtually unknown to most students of medieval theater, a brief excursus on the manuscripts, contents, and performance traditions of these saint plays is perhaps appropriate before proceeding to a more developed statement of my argument. Written mostly in couplets and sestets, the Buez Santez Nonn survives in five copies, four of them made by eighteenth-century antiquarian Louis Le Pelletier. The fifth copy, dating to the early sixteenth century, was discovered at the beginning of the nineteenth century at Dirinon, near Landerneau in Brittany. (4) Recently reedited in a new, lavishly illustrated edition with an accompanying French translation, this manuscript seems to be a fair copy, with few corrections or marginalia, but with speech headings, stage directions, and an occasional capital in red ink. The play has many Celtic affiliations, including appearances by a number of Celtic saints: Patrick, Gildas, David, and Nonn herself. (5) Although not a saint, Celtic soothsayer Ambrosius Merlin also makes a brief showing to prophesy of David's future greatness (424-40). The plot delineates how God commands Patrick to leave Britain for Ireland, and how Nonn, a sister in a British convent, is later raped by King Keritic of Britain. (6) She then leaves England for Brittany where she gives birth to St. Davy (also known as St. David or St. Dewi) who later returns to Britain to become the archbishop of Menevia in Southern Wales. Before his holy death, Davy works many miracles, among them the healing of his blind teacher Paulinus. Nonn meanwhile goes on pilgrimage, ending up near Dirinon, her tomb itself becoming the site of many further miracles. Although no local records describe performances of the play at Dirinon, the play's repeated references to the site of her tomb there (14, 16, 1512, 1520) make such a connection highly likely.

Le Pelletier also transcribed the two existing copies of the Buhez Sant Gwenole, a play of some 1278 lines in Breton quatrains--one based on a text of 1580 and another upon one of 1608. Neither text from which he worked was the original, for the final section of both copies is incomplete. (7) Both surviving transcriptions relate the life of St. Gwenole the founder of the Breton monastery of Landevennec: his parents' flight from England, his early history, his preaching, his prophetic powers, his miracles, and his time as abbot. If the transcriptions were complete, they would probably go on to recount his holy death as described in the play's principal source, Wrdisten's ninth-century Vita Sancti Winwaloei. …

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