Beunans Ke (The Life Of St Ke)

Reference: NLW MS 23849D

This Cornish manuscript, now NLW MS 23849D, containing an incomplete, sixteenth-century copy of a hitherto unknown play in Middle Cornish, is a very recent and exciting discovery. It was found among the personal papers of Professor J. E. Caerwyn Williams (1912-99), after they reached the National Library in 2000, but its previous history is unknown. Not only has it added to the corpus of Middle Cornish literature, it has increased substantially our knowledge of the language itself, for many of the words are not attested elsewhere. The modern title has been supplied by the National Library after consultation with Cornish scholars, since the manuscript itself has none.

The play is based on the Life of St Ke or Kea, who is particularly associated with Cornwall as well as Brittany, Wales and Devon. According to a surviving French summary of a Latin text now lost, St Ke was summoned from Brittany to intercede in the conflict between King Arthur and his nephew Modred. This part of the narrative, which evidently draws on the twelfth-century Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) by Geoffrey of Monmouth, probably explains the presence of the Arthurian section in the play.

The manuscript now lacks many leaves, as the original foliation shows, but the scribe who copied it in the second half of the sixteenth century complained (ff. 2r and 20r ) that the older copy from which he was working was defective. The original manuscript may have been written around 1500. The play is written in rhymed verse divided into stanzas, with stage directions in Latin. Like Beunans Meriasek (now Peniarth MS 105B, dated 1504), the only other surviving Middle Cornish saint's play, Beunans Ke was probably originally written down at Glasney collegiate church at Penryn, Cornwall, and it is not impossible that the single surviving manuscripts of each came to Wales together.

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