Relative stability: 1300 to the early/mid 1500s

For some time, writers on Cornish have noted the marked division in terms of placenames between west and east Cornwall. We have already seen how the sound changes of the 12th and 13th centuries suggest a boundary somewhere in mid-Cornwall. This is reinforced by other evidence. Paul Dunbar and Ken George in 1997 produced an interesting map of settlements that had been divided and the language used to name those separate parts, i.e. upper/lower, great/little. They wrote that the geography of the use of English and Cornish in these names ‘first appeared before 1550 … during the period 1250 to 1550’.

The map of two-part settlements in Dunbar and George, 1997.

But when exactly? New, divided settlements can be expected to have emerged during periods of population growth, when landholdings were being divided or nearby wastelands put under the plough. So we need to put this in the context of Cornwall’s demographic history. Like elsewhere in western Europe, population grew from the 11th century to the decades before the Black Death in the mid-1300s. The population total then fell abruptly before drifting downwards through the 15th century. It didn’t begin to rise again until the early 16th century. Given this background, we would expect most of the new, divided settlements to have appeared well before the mid-1300s.

And this is exactly what the placename evidence indicates. Using Gover’s list we find that more than half the attestations of Cornish-language dual names first appeared before 1400. The demographic history therefore suggests the division in mid-Cornwall had already been established before the Black Death and lasted to the early 1500s. Here’s a map of Cornish names for divided settlements. It can be seen that the distribution of wartha/woles names was in fact significantly more restricted than mur/byghan, This may suggest that wartha/woles was adopted as descriptors rather later. The median year of first appearance would support this, wartha/woles being 1379, while mur/byghan was much earlier, in 1330. This in turn implies that at some point from the early 1300s to the early 1500s, parishes around the Camel estuary may have turned from Cornish to English.

Nevertheless, in contrast to what happened before and after, these two centuries look to have been a period of stability, when the geography of Cornish changed relatively little. East of a line from north of the Camel estuary through Bodmin to the Fowey estuary most communities by the 1300s were English-speaking. West of it, the majority of people spoke Cornish, although in towns and among merchants and traders, people were more likely to have been bilingual. In fact, it may even be the case that the Cornish-speaking area expanded a little at times in this period, with the divide between predominantly Cornish and predominantly English speaking areas being driven back eastwards to the Camel-Fowey line. (For example, Woon in Roche was named in English Netherwoyn in 1350 but was called Woen woles in a document of 1524.) This would be by no means unusual as there are examples from Irish and Welsh regions where the Celtic languages re-established themselves in the medieval period. The idea of a steady westwards retreat of Cornish is one of those myths that lack solid foundations.

This is also the period when the Cornish language emerged over the horizon of literacy and when we meet documentary references to the language. The language was protected in these centuries by two institutional props, the church and the Crown, the first was the more critical. In the late 13th century church authorities began to encourage the use of vernacular languages in religious instruction. In Cornwall, this led to the production of religious dramas. The surviving texts come in two guises. There are mystery plays, the majority of which were written in the later 14th century, although with one – the Creation of the World – dated to 1530-50, and there were saints’ lives. Two of the latter survive, both dated to around the 1460s. Some uncertainty exists over the date of composition of these plays as the texts are mostly copies of lost originals.

Meanwhile, the Duchy’s protection of the customary rights of tinners from the 14th century onwards guaranteed the economic underpinnings of a society relatively free from lordly interference. This may have also had the effect of indirectly protecting the traditional language of that society.

Direct and indirect references to where the language was spoken also begin to appear from the 14th century. In 1328-29 the Bishop of Exeter wrote that the language of people ‘in extremis cornubie’ was British. However, we can read little into the vague words ‘in extremis’. In 1336 the parishioners of St Buryan made submission to the bishop after a dispute over the status of their church. The majority did this in Cornish, while a sermon by the bishop was translated into Cornish by the Rector of St Just. This tells us nothing too startling as we’d expect communities in west Penwith to be Cornish-speaking at this date. However, some 13 parishioners were able to submit in English or French, indicating a level of bilingualism among the elite even this far west.

In 1339 a licence to preach was given to a vicar in St Merryn and Cornish specifically mentioned, while in 1437, 1450 and 1477 clergy at St Erme, St Ewe and Goran resigned for reasons including their ignorance of Cornish. In 1349, at the height of the Black Death, and in 1355, two more interesting references occur in comments that the prior and brethren at Minster, near Boscastle, ‘know not the English or the Cornish tongue’. This has been taken to mean that at least a pocket of Cornish-speakers survived into the mid 14th century this far north, well to the east of the Camel-Fowey language divide. In 1354/55 two priests were appointed to hear confessions. The one based at Bodmin was appointed for those who knew Cornish and English, while at Truro the appointment was made for Cornish only. This implies that Bodmin’s hinterland included both Cornish and English-speaking communities and Truro mainly Cornish-speaking, which supports the notion of a linguistic boundary somewhere near Bodmin.

The geography of Cornish and English at the end of this period in the first half of the 16th century can also be examined through the presence of Cornish language occupational surnames (and more general naming practices). This was a time when, in Cornish-speaking communities, hereditary surnames were not always fixed but still changed from one generation to the next. Therefore, if someone was called Trehar rather than Tailor, or Angoff rather than Smith, we can assume they really were a tailor or a smith and known as such in Cornish, implying the language of the community was Cornish. The next map, based on taxation lists of the 1520s and 1540s, reinforces the model of two language communities. It looks, however, as if the dividing line had moved west to a line from St Mawgan through St Columb and Roche to St Austell. This is reinforced by the second map, of two part surnames, indicating non-hereditary surnames. (Someone might be called James William, but his son’s name would become Simon James, with the second name denoting the father.) Moreover, it’s possible that the westwards contraction indicated in these maps was a relatively recent phenomenon, as Cornish came under pressure after the Reformation.