Let’s talk about early Cornish history. Or let’s try to, anyway. It turns out not to be an easy topic.
I spent a year or so searching for a good book on the subject and was met with blank looks in both used bookstores and unused bookstores. (What do we call those? New bookstores, even if they’re old? Just plain old bookstores, even if that’s not clear enough in the context?)
I didn’t do much better when I asked friends.
The books I did find fall into two and a quarter categories: 1, archeology; these books tend to be technical enough that I don’t get much out of them; 2, later history, which wasn’t what I was looking for; 2 ¼, school history, and this consists of one lone book for kids that has all the depth and reliability of any school history, which is why I’m not going to grant it a full category.
So it’s pretty dismal out there in the bookstore aisles, and in mid-September, I finally found out why. We’ll get to that, but first let me drag you through the tale of how I found out. It’s damn near relevant.
Some miles down the coast from where I live is Tintagel Castle. That’s pronounced tin-TA-jell, and the A in the middle syllable—oh, hell, English is impossible—is pronounced like the A in cat, although I don’t promise that’ll work in all accents everywhere.
Just do your best, okay? It won’t be on the test. The main thing is to put the emphasis on the middle syllable.
Tintagel Castle was built in the 13th century on a bit of cliff that juts out into the ocean and catches every bit of wind coming from the west, south, or north. And since it’s joined to the mainland by a thin spit of land, it’s called the island.
Sorry, I don’t make the rules. It’s just called that. Erosion being what it is, especially with sea levels rising, sooner or later it’ll catch up with what it’s called and become the island it aspires to be. In the meantime, there’s a footbridge so you don’t have to clamber over the rocks and an impressive (not to mention rough) set of steps.
The castle’s a ruin now, having been subject to by wind and rain, not to mention people running (or staggering) off with chunks of stone after the place was abandoned. Hard as it is to steal stone that’s already been worked, it’s easier than digging up the unworked stuff, shaping it, and then having to move it anyway. Theft–or re-purposing, if you like–is one of the important ways that ruins get ruined. But what contributed most to the castle’s ruin was that the land bridge joining the headland to the mainland collapsed, taking the landward side of the hall with it.
If you’re intrigued, check out English Heritage’s website for photos and history. It’s well done and worth your time, even if many a Cornish eye rolls at the name English Heritage, because Cornwall was once independent, and had its own language, and the Cornish haven’t forgotten it and don’t consider themselves English.
Or some of them don’t. I’m an outsider and can’t pretend to talk for all of them. Or any of them. I can report what I’ve heard, though.
But the castle’s a relic of relatively late history and not what I was haunting the bookstore aisles for. If you hang around this country long enough, you can get snobbish about your history. Seven or eight hundred years ago? Phooey. I’m holding out for fifteen hundred or better.
Well, further out on the island, behind the 13th-century ruin, are much earlier stone foundations. The walls stand roughly knee high and grass forms a floor and grows on top of the walls. When I first visited Tintagel, the going theory was that they were the remains of a monastery. The current theory is that they’re the remains of a village dating back as far and the 5th and 6th centuries.
A number of the foundations were excavated in the 1930s, but the notes from that dig were lost in the blitz.
For five weeks this past summer, archeologists assembled a team of volunteers to dig out an unexplored patch of the island where the humps of foundations were visible, and so many people wanted to help out that they had a waiting list. The crews dug out three buildings (and found older foundations beneath them) and a number of trash pits, which are where archeologists find the really interesting stuff, in this case oyster shells, pig bones, and bits of Spanish glass and Mediterranean pottery.
I wasn’t one of those volunteers. I joined the smaller, unglamorous crew that came to fill in what the glamor-pusses had dug up. It’s the latest in high-tech archeology: You dig a site up, you find out what you can, then you fill it all back in before erosion wrecks it. In another thousand or so years, someone will dig it all up again and wonder what the hell happened. In the absence of any better idea, they’ll decide it was a religious ritual: People in the early 2000s dug up old buildings and then filled them in again, probably to honor the ancestors.
On the first and third days of the back-filling (I skipped the second day, and on the days I went I only stayed for the mornings; I’m 609 years old and thought it would be smart to quit while I was still in condition to come back)–. Let’s start over: On the first and third days, the crew consisted of five people: two archeologists and three volunteers. The larger, stronger people dug soil and pushed wheelbarrows. The smaller, older ones filled pails with rocks and dumped them into the pits. That sounds heavier than filling wheelbarrows with dirt, but believe me, it’s not.
On the third morning, the winds were just short of gale force and whipped soil off the rock pile that Wild Thing–that’s my partner, in case you’re new here; I haven’t mentioned her in an age–and I were crawling around in. I spent most of the morning trying to figure out where upwind was, but upwind had been suspended that day so that no matter where I knelt dirt blew into my eyes. Then the mizzle started—that’s a combination of mist and drizzle. You’d think water would settle the dirt down, but all it did was make it sticky as well as airborne.
By the time we climbed down off the island at lunchtime, we looked like some goth makeup artist had gotten loose on our faces. Our eyes were rimmed in black and Wild Thing’s mouth was neatly outlined in it. My hair had turned from white to tan and our clothes were a good match for our faces. I’d have taken a picture but I was afraid of what my hands would do to the camera. You’ll have to take my word for it: We looked fabulous.
So there we were at the sinks in the public toilets, surrounded by frighteningly clean tourists, and getting the sinks dirty without—and I can’t really explain this—managing to get ourselves clean. One woman finally gathered up the courage to ask, “What have you been doing?”
We didn’t say, “Burying the bodies,” and that turned out to be a good thing, because she decided we were safe and found us a couple of tissues, which let us scrape off a layer or two of the dirt.
Archeology’s such an elegant profession.
But–and here’s where we rejoin that path marked Early Cornish History–in the process of accumulating all that dirt, I learned a few things, not from the dig itself but from the archeologists.
One is that when Cornwall was conquered, in the tenth century, the Saxons burned pretty much everything. Why did they do that? No idea. You’d think it would be more profitable to leave the farms and villages intact and the people alive so people could continue farming and streaming tin, but war has a logic of its own once it starts.
So whatever records people had kept up to that point were presumably torched, and that would explain why I had trouble finding the book I wanted, and also why Cornwall Heritage Trust’s history of the period before the Saxon conquest is brief and general and relies so heavily on phrases like “seems to have.” Early Cornish history is a sketch with rough outlines—a muddle of archeology and guesswork, hearsay and reports from outsiders.
As an example, look at the information that’s come out of the dig at Tintagel: The settlement was a center of trade. The evidence indicates that the people there lived well. They had wine and olive oil from the Mediterranean. They drank from Spanish glassware. In return, they would have traded Cornish tin and copper.
Or at least some of them lived well. I’m guessing that the social structure was unequal and that some lived better than others–that’s how things worked in that period–but nothing I’ve read mentions that and I doubt the evidence can tell us how far into the ranks of ordinary people all that good food reached. I doubt we can even tell if the best fed ate well year around.
One archeologist on the site has a theory that the place might have been settled by refugees from the Mediterranean, which in the post-Roman period was in turmoil. Why does he think so? Because the foundations on the island are rectangular, and at that time the houses in the rest of Britain were round.
It’s educated guesswork but it’s intriguing. And possible.
“Would they have traded with a place they fled?” I asked, thinking of Syria and assuming that a place you flee from would be too dangerous or too chaotic to trade with.
“Think of the Plymouth colony in America,” he said.
It was settled by religious refugees, but it was also a colony. It maintained links to the land the settlers fled. The lines between refugee and settler aren’t as clear and dark as the words led me to believe.
The absence of hard information is one of several factors that let us romanticize the past. Another is that we don’t live there. It’s kind of like falling in love with the one person who’s least likely to fall in love with you. You never find out that they fart in bed.
On the first day, as we were climbing one of the sets of stairs that lead to the top of the island, a volunteer told me he’d love to have lived in the past. He started out wanting to go back to the period we were about to back-fill, then switched to the 16th century.
“At least for a while,” he said, leaving himself (and I’m guessing here) a chance to duck home for a shower, a sausage roll, and a Red Bull.
“Wouldn’t you?” he asked.
“It wasn’t a great time to be a woman,” I said.
It also wasn’t a great time to be Jewish. Or a lesbian. Or, while we’re at it, an atheist. Oddly enough, I didn’t think to say any of those things. It’s an interesting oversight but that’s too much of a digression even for me. If anyone wants to discuss it, we can duck into the comments and dissect it there.
In the meantime, let’s go back to the idea of living in the sixteenth century. I have another reason for refusing to live there. The clothing was ridiculous. I’ve never cared much about fashion–in fact, I’m dyslexic in it–but please be serious. Even for me, there are limits.
But I told this tale for a reason, other than that it happened. When you romanticize the past, you’re taking the present, with all the beliefs it allowed you to form and you’re importing them onto the past. You’re shaping it to suit you, and amateurs aren’t the only people who are guilty of it, although when professionals do it they’re much more convincing. Consider the story of a recently discovered grave in Sweden containing the bones of a woman buried with a sword, an axe, a spear, arrows, and not one but two shields and horses. Which must’ve made her grave the size of half a village.
Was she a warrior? I’d like to think so, but when I make that jump I’m importing my own hopes and beliefs backward in time to interpret the evidence. I do know that among the Maori, some women fought alongside the men, so I know women can’t be ruled out as warriors. But that’s as far as I can go without spinning fantasies: The woman in Sweden may well have been a warrior.
Before DNA testing was available, whenever slender bones were found buried with swords and so forth, archeologists wrote them off as “anomalous” and pulled back from exploring the possibility that a woman used those tools. Even with DNA testing that can now establish the sex of the person, some experts are still skeptical because everyone knows women weren’t warriors, right? And that’s the problem with archeology. What it finds can’t speak for itself; it has to be interpreted, and its easy to let our assumptions contaminate the evidence.
So early Cornish history is not only a rough sketch, it needs to stay that way. What we don’t know, we can at least try not to invent.
But back to Tintagel: I mentioned that we had five people working on the days I was there. What they needed to finish the job was at least twenty. But sensible people want to dig stuff up, not rebury it. On our last day, with most of the dig still unfilled, the people in charge were talking about calling the probation service to ask if they could borrow some strong young people who’d been sentenced to community service.
Wild Thing and I talked about going on the fourth day, but the winds were even stronger than on the third and we stayed home. The first named storm of the season, Aileen, had blown in. I haven’t read about anyone being blown off the island, so I’m guessing everyone else did as well.