After the Roman collapse in Britain, our sources for history become very scanty. In Cornwall in particular we are almost entirely dependent on interpreting scraps in medieval saints’ lives – often written centuries later than the events – or making deductions from place names.
The pioneer in this area was Canon Gilbert H. Doble (1880-1945), who wrote and published a series of very attractive illustrated booklets from the 1920s until the Second World War. Today these booklets are hard to access. Indeed the Diocese of Truro in the 1960s felt obliged to produce a book-form edition in six volumes to satisfy demand. This is still being reprinted today, by Llanerch Press, and I have access to it in various ways. But I have always wondered whether the editor reproduced the original accurately or not.
Today I was able to visit Cambridge, and after purchasing a reader’s card for the university library, I made my way to the shelves where Doble’s work could be seen.
My first impression was shock. There were considerably more volumes than I had expected:
All this material is out of copyright, hard to access, and it ought to be online. I had naively thought to copy whatever I could, with this in mind. But that mass of small volumes made it clear that this was not going to be possible.
In fact I was only able to copy the booklet on “Saint Mewan and Saint Austol”, itself more than 40 pages long. I already had the Truro reprint; and I had a PDF of the first edition of it, which I had found on a French site. But this was the second edition, published in 1939. You can find it online here.
I was surprised to find that the original small booklets were far more attractive than the Truro reprint. Doble seems to have understood that the mass of text required illustrations, and so he included many photographs and drawings. None of this was included in the Truro reprint. The original booklets must have flown off the shelves.
Likewise I found that the second edition contained a mass of additional historical information by Charles Henderson, which the Truro editor had omitted. But this material was useful, and consequently its omission makes the Truro volumes far less useful.
The Truro edition also reorganised the material geographically. But Doble himself did not do this. The first booklet was that for Saint Mawes, near Falmouth, and it contains something of an introduction to the whole series. This I had never seen, as it was buried in the mass of other material:
One of the things that strikes a stranger coming for the first time to Cornwall is the number of places bearing the names of saints. He looks out of the window as the train passes and sees “St. Germans,” “St. Austell,” “St. Erth, for St. Ives”; at Penzance he sees the motor-bus going to St. Just, at Falmouth he finds the steamer waiting to take him to St. Mawes. His first thought is: “This is a land of Saints” : his next thought is: “What strange, unfamiliar Saints!”
The reason is that when he crosses the Tamar he enters a land which is not really English at all. He has come to a country which was once a kingdom to itself, and whose people differed fundamentally from the English in race, in civilization, in language, and in religion. The fact that nearly every parish in Cornwall is called after a saint reminds us of the difference in religion which once distinguished the people of Cornwall from the people of England. It was a Celtic custom — as soon as you enter Wales you find it.
There is still a train from London to Penzance, but these days the traveller will use his motorcar, and travel down the M5 into the West Country, and then, from Exeter, the A30 over the moors. But he will still have the same experience. It can be a bit of a shock.
A week ago, I returned from a trip to Cornwall. When I returned, as I crossed into Devon, I was struck by the immediate change in place-names on the road signs. The alien Cornish names vanished, and every name was English, of the sort that might be found anywhere in the south of England. The place names tell you at once that Devon is part of England. But they scream at you that Cornwall is not. Another tongue underlies the thinly-anglicised words.
There is a very obscure medieval text, dated to 1262, which is referred to in a couple of modern works as the “Miracula in Monte S. Michaelis in Cornubia” – “The miracles at St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall”. It is, apparently, listed in the 1986 supplement to the Bibliographica Hagiographica Latina, “supplementum novum”, published by the Bollandists and still available on the website for no less than 130 euros. The volume is itself not commonly held, and I have no access to it. But I understand the author of the BHL supplement assigned the “Miracula” text the reference number of BHL 5955b.
This information I derive from Richard F. Johnson, Saint Michael the Archangel in Medieval English Legend, (2002), p.68, n. 91. This is a comment on
… Mirk follows the Garganic myth with a rendering of an apparition of St. Michael to “another bishop at a place that is now called Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.” Although there indeed is a tradition of an apparition by St. Michael in Cornwall,…
The footnote is:
91. The apparition in Cornwall is designated “Miracula in Monte S. Michaelis in Cornubia” (BHL 5955b). On this apparition and St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, see G. H. Doble, Miracles at St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall in 1262 (St. Michael’s Mount, 1945) and J. R. Fletcher, Short History of St. Michael’s Mount (St. Michael’s Mount, 1951).
As printed this footnote can cause quite a bit of confusion. It would be clearer in this form:
91. The 12th century text recording healings by St Michael in Cornwall has been given the modern title “Miracula in Monte S. Michaelis in Cornubia” (BHL 5955b). For the text and translation see G. H. Doble, Miracles at St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall in 1262 (St. Michael’s Mount, 1945). On St Michael’s Mount see J. R. Fletcher, Short History of St. Michael’s Mount (St. Michael’s Mount, 1951).
For the “Miracula” text itself does NOT in fact record any apparition; instead it records the miraculous healing of three people who came into the church of St Michael. St Michael does not appear to anyone, unlike the situation alluded to and referenced to Mirk’s Festial which reads (p.258):
He aperet also to another byschop at a place that ys callet now Mychaell yn the mownt yn Corneweyle, and bade hym go to a hullus top that ys fer, and theras he fonde a bull tent wyih theues, ther he bade make a chyrche yn the worschyp of hym.
The Doble item is merely a couple of sheets of paper, with no title page, nor indication of date. The catalogues that I have seen date it to the 1930s; which is perhaps more likely than 1945. Thankfully it is online here. The footnote does NOT make clear is that it is, in fact, the editio princeps of the “Miracula” text, together with an English translation of it. In fact it contains nothing else of consequence. (The Fletcher item is a small hardback, but I have no access to it.)
Let’s look further at the “Miracula” text. From Doble we learn, by close reading, that he took the text from manuscript Avranches 159, folio 3r, at the foot of the second column. This manuscript he says contains miscellaneous material, as well as its main text. The “Miracula” is one such.
But we have an advantage over Canon Doble. For we live in the age of digital manuscripts.
The surviving manuscripts of the great abbey of Mont S. Michel are now to be found at the public library – Bibliothèque Municipale – at Avranches, where the agents of the French Revolution deposited them. Doubtless there were many losses. But their modern heirs have placed the manuscripts online. Our manuscript may be found here, and you can see the page images by clicking on the binding image at the bottom.
Avranches BM 159 is a 12th century manuscript of the Chronicon Eusebii, plus supplements. But that work is preceded by three leaves of parchment in a different hand. Folio 1r has an unreadable paragraph, at least to me; folio 1v starts talking about the books at the abbey of Bec; and fol. 2r, v and f.3r contain a catalogue of the books, giving their titles. The red splodges seem to be intended to highlight such things as a change of author. It is quite an impressive collection, for a 12th century abbey. It is followed by a short paragraph, then more books; and then our text.
Our text is clearly visible on folio 3r. It has no title, so “Miracula in Monte S. Michaelis in Cornubia” is a modern coinage, presumably by the Bollandist editor. Doble does not give the work any title; indeed it is probably just a translation of the English title of his pamphlet! That this is indeed the same work can be seen by looking at the incipit (the starting words) and explicit (final words) of the text, as printed by Doble; as visible in the manuscript, and as given for BHL 5955b on the Bollandist website which gives no other details:
Incipit: Nulli monasterio S. Michaelis in Cornubia accedenti Desinit: …anno Domini MCCLXII, XIII kal. septembris.
So all these items are the same item.
Let’s look at folio 3r:
Look at the right-hand column. The top section is just the list of books. Then there is a blank line, then a chunk of text, then another blank line. Then a paragraph with red marks, which seems to be additional “libri”. And then, without any blank line, our text begins with a capital N beginning “Nulli…”. The whole text is contained here, with abbreviations, and ends with “septembris”.
Here is the transcription by Canon Doble:
Nulli monasterio sancti michaelis in Cornubia accedenti vertatur in dubium quin quaedam mulier nomine Christina de partibus glastonie per sex fere annos occulorum luminibus orbata ad dictum monasterium orationis et peregrinationis causa cum maxima deuocione accedens ii ydus maii anno domini m cc lx ii ante magnam missam quadam die dominica in conspectu populi in maxima fide perseuerans intercessione beati archangeli michaelis clausorum recuperauit diuinitus lumen occulorum testibus presentibus quamplurimis religiosis & aliis. Eodem anno iii ydus Junii quedam mulier nomine matildis de parrochia lanescli que per duos dies & duas noctes sensum amiserat & loquelam a parentibus suis ducta ad illud monasterium die dominica statim cum intrasset ecclesiam precibus celestis milicie principis sensui & loquele fuit restituta. Ego vidi & interfui. erat tunc temporis prior illius loci Radulfus viel. Eodem anno quedam iuuencula nomine aalicia de partibus de herefort engales nata per septem annos elapsos occulorum luminibus orbata ad dictam ecclesiam orationis et peregrinationis causa cum maxima deuotione accedens iii i kal. Februarii ante solis ortum quadam die lune in maxima fide persuerans precibus beati michaelis archangeli clausorum recuperauit diuinitus lumen occulorum erant tunc temporis socii illius loci petrus de vallibus eng(elrannus) de baiocis mauricius taboeier quando illa iiii miracula in illa ecclesia acciderant quartum miraculum de quodam muto est in principio huius libri in vii folio anno domini mcclxii xiii kal septembris.
And his translation:
“Let no one going to the Monastery of St. Michael in Cornwall doubt that a certain woman, named Christina, of the neighbourhood of Glastonbury, who had been deprived of the sight of her eyes for about six years, coming with the greatest devotion to the said monastery for the sake of prayer and pilgrimage, on 14th May, 1262, before High Mass, on a certain Sunday, in the sight of the people, persevering in the greatest faith, by the intercession of the Blessed Archangel Michael, recovered miraculously (lit. divinely) the sight of her closed eyes. There were present as witnesses many monks and others.
In the same year, on the 11th June, a certain woman named Matilda, of the parish of Lanescli (Gulval), who for two days and two nights had lost consciousness and the power of speech, being brought by her parents to that monastery, on Sunday, immediately she had entered the church, by the prayers of the Captain of the Heavenly Chivalry, was restored to consciousness and power of speech. I saw it and was present. The Prior of that place then was Ralph Viel.
In the same year a certain girl named Alice, of the parts of Hereford, born in Wales, who for seven years past had been deprived of the sight of her eyes, coming with the greatest devotion to the said church for the sake of prayer and pilgrimage on the 29th of January, before the rising of the sun, on a certain Monday, persevering in the greatest faith, by the prayers of the Blessed Archangel Michael recovered miraculously the sight of her closed eyes. The socii of that place then were Peter De Vallibus, Engelran of Bayeux, Maurice Taboeier, when those four miracles happened in that church.
The fourth miracle, on a certain dumb man, is in the beginning of this book on page 7, in the year of Our Lord 1262, on the 20th August.
Mr Doble adds,
Unfortunately the page containing the record of the fourth miracle has disappeared.
These few leaves at the start of the manuscript evidently were part of a larger volume before being found in as endleaves to Avranches BM 159.
I hope that anybody in search of “Miracula in Monte S. Michaelis in Cornubia” will find these notes useful.
Gilbert Doble did not have a clear mind. He was fully capable of deep erudition, combined with a child-like inability to imagine what others might think about it.
He held office in Cornwall as an Anglican parish clergyman in the first half of the twentieth century, and was vicar of Wendron for almost twenty years until his death in 1945. His knowledge of Cornish history, folksong and hagiography was enough to gain him membership of the Cornish college of bards, the Gorseth.
In his time Cornwall was almost entirely Methodist. Dislike of “the church” was widespread. Even in 1979 my own grandmother shared this feeling, and had no time for its Hymns Ancient and Modern. There was good reason for this dislike. The Anglican church was not the church of the people of Cornwall, who preferred “the chapel”. Worse, within living memory, there were cases of evangelical clergymen being harassed out of their parishes. Similarly arrogant behaviour in Wales led to the disestablishment of the church in Wales in 1906, and feeling in Cornwall was not less.
In such a world, in 1927 Rev Gilbert Doble solemnly proposed the “recatholicisation of Cornwall”. He was foolish enough to do this at a time when he was promised the incumbency of a Cornish parish; which offer was promptly withdrawn, presumably on the basis that the man was clearly an idiot. And so he was. Down the centuries Oxford has produced many a learned fool. Indeed I recognise something of myself in this combination.
Evidence of this failure is to be found in his pamphlet, “Saint Petroc, Abbot and Confessor”, which I have been browsing in the last couple of days.
The paper seems to have been first published as a standalone item in 1928, with a second edition in 1930, and a third in 1939, I think. The final version was reprinted in the combined The Saints of Cornwall, part 4, (ed. D. Attwater, 1960-70), and in the Llanerch Press edition (1998) it appears on pp.132-163.
On the first page he states without footnote that:
The present writer in 1928 printed a translation of the Vita Petroci formerly kept at the Breton abbey of Saint-Méen.
Note how little information this conveys to the reader. There is no indication of the title of the publication, or where it might have appeared. Nor does he tell us any useful information about the manuscript. Cunningly he tells us only that it was at one time at Saint-Méen, a statement utterly useless for locating it. If you want to follow this up, you are stumped.
He then wanders off into discussion of an epitome by John of Tynmouth, then into a Paris manuscript (BNF lat. 9989, fol. 142) containing a text from which John seems to have made his epitome. After more verbiage he says that he will give a translation of this below.
Then he starts to talk about another Life of St Petroc, in a Gotha manuscript, and in passing says that he will now refer to the Saint-Méen Life as “the First Life”. Then off he goes into another unrelated subject, the medieval theft of the relics of St Petroc. After almost five pages of rambling, he starts to talk about the defects of “the manuscript in the National Library in Paris” – no shelfmark – and finally presents a translation of it.
As a parting gift to the baffled reader, he indicates the folio number at which the text starts in his translation – in Roman numerals! Not all of us will realise without a moment of concentration that “cxlii” = “142”. But this means that this is a translation of Paris BNF lat. 9989.
I suspect that some of those reading this will find this confusing, even in summary.
The text simply rambles. Worse yet Doble seems to avoid using the same description twice for the same item.
The facts are actually simple. He could have said this (Imagine some references where I put [***]):
This paper contains an English translation of the medieval Latin Life of St Petroc, preserved in Paris BNF lat. 9989, folios 142-nnn, once the property of the Breton abbey of Saint-Méen. This translation was first printed by me in 1928 and in a revised form in 1930.[***] In 1937 a manuscript containing a different version of the Life was discovered at Gotha[***] which clarified certain points in the damaged Paris manuscript. What follows is a revised translation to take account of this, together with a translation of certain passages from the Gotha manuscript.
That’s short, simple, and to the point. It should appear at the start of the first page. Once you know that, you can cope with his diffuse digressions.
Was it worth writing about all this? I feel that it was.
It is a reminder to us all. When we write, we write to be heard. We write to convey information. This paper fails to do so. It alludes. It hints. It requires several readings to get the key points. It is a burden to the reader.
If the reader has to strain to work out what we mean, then we have failed. We all have much to read. We do not need to spend time sifting and rereading, just to work out what the author has to say.
Sadly a failure of this kind is very common in writers of textbooks. I still shudder at the memory of some of the chemistry textbooks – all long since sold – with which I suffered at university.
Poor Gilbert Doble. So much learning, vitiated by a failure to sit back and think what a reader new to the subject will make of his words.