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Glasney College: reflection on a local scale

Looking towards the North Cliffs and the sea, from Tehidy

Through the trees still dappled with bluebells, and now speckled with pink campion – over the stile into the meadow and at last! – a view of the ocean.

From this distance, the sea is calm, blue and expansive, giving a sense of finality to the walk. The open seas make me think of the book I recently finished reading; ‘The Sea Kingdoms – the story of Celtic Britain and Ireland’ by Alistair Moffat. The author writes engagingly about his journey down the west side of the UK, exploring how from early-Christian times – and perhaps before – the seas have offered a conduit to connect the western peripheries of the UK more closely to each other than to the land-bound centre.

Ports have always been important for trade, of course, an entry-point for new ideas and practises filtering in to society. Back in a time when travel by road, particularly over the high-ground of Bodmin, was slow and hazardous, it seems logical that the extensive coastlines around the west of the UK could generate porous communities, and strong links with those across the sea.

Glasney College, on the Tregellas Tapestry of Penryn

On the south coast of Cornwall, Penryn was one of the major ports in Mediaeval times, much larger than its neighbour, Falmouth. Old etchings show the edifice of Glasney College towering over the entrance to the town, and I recently had the pleasure of seeing an interpretation from one of these etchings on fabric – part of the Tregellas Tapestry series, on rotating display at Kresen Kernow, Redruth. Glasney College is the likely location where at least some of the Ordinalia – Cornish Mystery plays – were written and performed (see blog about the manuscripts here), and it would have been an important centre of learning and teaching. The remnants are traced on a playing field near the quay in Penryn- but where is the centre of gravity for our culture, today?

The reassuring roar of the distant ocean is akin to an audible memory of a distant time when certainty was closer at hand. The move to modernity of the last 100 years or so has left culture without a rudder – and this is eloquently expressed by Lafcadio Hearne as he reflects on changes in Japanese society from the time that it was exposed to external influences in the mid-1850s: he was writing in the last years of the nineteenth century, and commented that “scientific education is destroying credulity in old superstitions…” suggesting that changes in societies are always noted with alarm throughout the ages!

Transient interests in celebrity lives pervades online content, in tandem with salacious comments and reactions to events: ripples on our consciousness, in the same way that the on-shore wind moves in waves the uncut grass. As the light reflects and plays from each of the densely green blades, I wonder at how the Canons and Bishops of Glasney would have marvelled at the internet we take for granted now – what power it would have put in to their hands to communicate the stories of the Bible! Yet in a time of low literacy levels, their communication of Bible stories was achieved via the medium of morality plays – The Ordinalia – performed to convey the teachings in the Old and New Testaments.

Perhaps the significance of the plays was greater for their local origin, with people known in the community taking part. Similar, in fact, to the way in which we today seek out information about issues close to our interests, though we do so on a world-wide web of networks inconceivable in the early medieval period when the Ordinalia and Saints plays were being written and performed.

Text of The Ordinalia Play, in Cornish

The term ‘perspective’ is often used in the context of placing a small, local issue in to a wider frame of view, yet perhaps we can also consider that it is natural for those things or issues closest to us look the largest. The internet distorts this, bringing issues from afar and placing them, quite firmly, under our noses. But in this context, our familiarity with facts doesn’t increase our ability to influence the outcome, and perhaps the awareness of issues outside our sphere of influence can become overwhelming.

Regional truths are not well served by the internet – they become diluted, contradicted and made part of a bigger picture in which we struggle to maintain focus. A return to living in a village-sized bubble would not seem practical or even desirable, but perhaps leavening the ‘global’ with the ‘local’ is a good way to move forwards, and reignite a sense of agency.

Page edges of The Ordinalia - written about 1400

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