Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Cornish Witch-Finder

As I have often mentioned, I originally hail from Cornwall on the Southwest tip of Great Britain. It is often called an 'enchanted' place by tourists because of its wonderful landscapes and inspiring coastline but also because of its sense of place. Cornwall is the 'lost' Celtic nation and, unlike Wales, Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, it has had to fight a lot harder to retain its identity. It was slowly but surely chopped back in size by successive waves of Romans, Angles, Saxons, Normans and the English, and its unique language (Kernewek) was swamped and, in some cases, deliberately subjugated (there were riots over that). It became just one of many English counties and it seemed that nothing would remain of the ancient kingdom. But in the past 150 odd years, there has been an enormous revival of interest in the language and the culture and folklore of Cornwall. There are now many Cornish speakers and the language is even taught in some schools. The Cornish bards once again hold an annual Gorseth - a festival of poetry, music and culture - and there are books published in Cornish. There have even been calls for Cornwall to once again run its own affairs by way of a Stannary Parliament, as it did from the Middle Ages until 1753. The Stannaries still technically exist in English Law as they were never officially dissolved. However, they are currently not recognised by Parliament and there is a growing political movement to redress this.

A gaggle of bards marching behind the Cornish flag. Their robes were once white but someone left a pair of jeans in the washing basket.

The interesting part of this whole revival for me is the upsurge in interest in folklore and mythology. I consider myself lucky in that my late father was a great collector of all things Cornish and he passed many of the old Cornish faerie stories on to me. I know them as well as I know Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and The Three Bears. I also had teachers at my school who promoted my interest: my chemistry teacher was Richard Jenkin who became Grand Bard of the Cornish Gorseth. My French teacher was Richard Gendall, arguably the most knowledgeable Cornish language expert in the UK. My careers teacher was Howard Curnow, now himself a bard, storyteller and occasional TV personality. And others were Cornish artists and writers and poets. So I grew up with a passion for these stories and surrounded by people who shared my passion.

I read and absorbed every piece of lore that I could find and began accumulating my now huge library of Cornish interest books. In time, I co-founded the Cornish Folklore Society to promote our folk stories and even re-wrote some of them in a 21st century idiom for a new generation of children. Sadly, other pressures in my life (the least of which was an emotionally and financially draining divorce) meant that the society withered and died. But I retained the website pages and you can still find them here, attached to my personal site. By clicking on 'legends' you will find hundreds of pages of material to read. Meanwhile, the stories I re-wrote are here. They include tales of the giant Cormoran, the witch of Stithians, Bolster and St Agnes and the Mermaid of Zennor. I hope they amuse you. I'm not apologetic or ashamed of the way I have mercilessly played around with these traditional tales. As I have discussed previously, faerie tales soon lose their resonance with audiences if they do not 'move with the times'. In this post back in January, I explained how Little Red Riding Hood, for example, has changed beyond all recognition in under 200 years.

Meanwhile, I've continued to read and research these stories. The primary sources for most Cornish folklore are the works of three writers: William Bottrell, Robert Hunt and Margaret Courtney who, between them, travelled the length and breadth of Cornwall in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, speaking to locals and collecting stories that they then catalogued. The fact that they did this entirely independently of each other means that the widest range of stories, and variants of stories, was recorded. However, barring a few other minor works by other writers, there has been no real addition to the corpus of lore for maybe 100 years. Until now, that is. Yesterday morning, with a resounding 'Plap!' a thick book-sized package dropped through my letter box and onto the floor. Inside was a copy of my good friend Jason Semmens' long-awaited book on William Henry Paynter, the last great Cornish folklorist.

Jason has painstakingly pulled together every piece of information he could find about the man who called himself the 'Cornish Witch-finder' (Cornish: Whyler Pystry). Paynter (1901-1976) was fascinated by the existence of 'cunning folk' still operating in Cornwall in the 20th century and Jason's book roots around in Paynter's archives to bring us hungry readers a whole new gang of ghosts, traditions, spells and charms that we would otherwise never have seen.

Paynter has been called the last great Cornish folklorist and, I hope, will one day have his name spoken in the same revered tones as Bottrell, Hunt and Courtney. But I often wonder, and secretly hope, that somewhere out there in an attic gathering dust - maybe even an attic in the 'New World' as so many Cornish men and women sailed away to the USA and Australia in search of new lives - is maybe another lost treasure just waiting for someone like Jason to discover it.

I do hope so.

Get rooting people.

The Cornish Witch-Finder: William Henry Paynter and the witchery, ghosts, charms and folklore of Cornwall by Jason Semmens is published by the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies and can be ordered from Amazon.

9 comments:

willow said...

What a delicious book!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Willow - Oh it is ... but many of the charms are anything but delicious. To treat warts, you apparently have to slice open a slug, rub it on your wart and then nail the still living beastie to a tree. As it withers and dries so will the wart.

I think, on the whole, I'd rather suffer the wart.

Me said...

We think its the slug that suffers to be honest Steve....
LOL
Me and Mini-Me!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Me (and Mini-Me) - Yes, you're probably right there. Just don't get me talking about things you can do with toads and kittens ...

chris hale said...

Stevyn,

I'm pretty sure you're already aware of this site, but just in case you aren't...

http://www.cornishstannaryparliament.co.uk/

Stevyn Colgan said...

Chris - Oh yes. Rabid bunch aren't they? The slightly more reasoned approach comes from Mebyon Kernow (Sons of Cornwall) - the Duchy's attempt to have an equivalent to Wales' Plaid Cyrmu. They're at http://www.mebyonkernow.org/. Or there's the campaign for a Cornish Assembly (Senedh Kernow) which can be found at http://www.cornishassembly.org/.

But if you just fancy chilling out with some druids, try http://www.gorsethkernow.org.uk/

Ent said...

I have a blog with lots of out of copyright Westcountry folklore on it, including plenty (most?) from Cornwall. I have a map to help you find folklore near you. There really is at least one story for every village, and the piskies and Giants are everywhere!

http://westcountryfolklore.blogspot.com/

Stevyn Colgan said...

Ent - Thanks for the link. I'll drop in from time to time. I do have a book of Cornish folktales - rewritten for the 21st century and illustrated by me - coming out soon. It's being published by the Cornish Language Council (Kowethas an yeth kernewek) in both English and Cornish. More on this blog when I have publishing dates. Thanks for popping by. x

Ent said...

Sounds good. I will look out for it - It would be good to have some Kernewek around the house, especially with translations!