Beunans Meriasek (The Life Of St Meriasek)

Reference: Peniarth MS 105B

Until Beunans Ke (NLW MS 23849D) came to light very recently, Beunans Meriasek was the only known saint's play in Middle Cornish, and its rediscovery in the 1860s was equally momentous. The manuscript (Peniarth MS 105B) was found by W. W. E. Wynne of Peniarth, Meirionnydd, among items from the Hengwrt library which had been bequeathed to him in 1859. After consulting the Rev. Robert Williams, Rhydycroesau, publisher of the first major Cornish dictionary, Wynne invited the Celtic scholar Whitley Stokes to edit the text, which appeared in 1872. The manuscript (if indeed it is this manuscript) is first noted by Robert Vaughan (c. 1592-1667) of Hengwrt c. 1659 in his own catalogue of his library (NLW 9095B, p. 83), but with no details. It was also seen by Edward Lhuyd, who had insufficient time to examine it.

The text opens with the Latin title Ordinale de sancti Mereadoci episcopi et confessoris but Beunans Meriasek is found elsewhere in the manuscript. St Meriasek was of Breton origin and the play presents his career from his early education in Brittany and his arrival in Cornwall, recounting the various miracles he performs, then moves on to his return to Brittany, where he becomes bishop of Vannes and eventually dies a Christian death. Incorporated into the narrative are a number of individual tales including incidents from the life of St Sylvester and a miracle brought about by the intervention of the Virgin Mary.

The play, which is divided into two sections, each representing one day's performance, is in rhymed verse, divided into stanzas. Stage directions are in Latin and Cornish, with further directions added in English, and diagrams giving stage plans for each day's performance are also included (ff. 51v, 92v). Two hands can be observed in the manuscript, of which one seems to have been responsible only for recopying ff. 2-6v. On f. 92, the main scribe has left his signature, which has been variously interpreted as Had or Nad or Rad[ulphus] Ton[ne], and the date 1504. In its present form the play itself may date from the second half of the fifteenth century. Although little is known of the early history of the manuscript, the play was almost certainly associated with Camborne, the centre of the cult of St Meriasek. However, it was most probably written down at Glasney collegiate church at Penryn, perhaps under the aegis of Master John Nans, provost of Glasney, who later moved to Camborne and died in 1508.

Further reading

  • Whitley Stokes, Beunans Meriasek: The Life of St Meriasek, Bishop and Confessor: A Cornish Drama (London & Berlin, 1872)
  • Myrna Combellack, A Critical Edition of Beunans Meriasek (PhD thesis, University of Exeter, 1985)
  • Myrna Combellack, The Camborne Play (Redruth, 1988) (verse translation)
  • Brian Murdoch, Cornish Literature (Cambridge, 1993), esp. pp. 99-126
  • W. Ll. Davies, Cornish Manuscripts in the National Library of Wales (Aberystwyth, 1939)

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