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The Surprising History of Medieval Cornwall: Pirates, Princes, and Gentlemen-Criminals

There can’t be many books that contain characters as varied as King Arthur and the Black Prince, pirates and lawless judges, knights and London aldermen, bishops and disaffected rebels. Neither can there be many volumes that explore subjects as diverse as identity, peoplehood, migration, and the workings of connectivity, that is the movement of people, goods, and ideas across the realm and beyond. But then medieval Cornwall was a strikingly remarkable place that demanded an ambitious study of its own.

In this book, I sought to engage with all these debated subjects and write an ‘in the round’ history of a particular place and its contacts with the wider world in the fourteenth century. My research led me to dozens of document classes spread across archives and libraries all over the country. In each, I sought out references to the lives and activities of Cornish folk, many of whom bore names the likes of which you find nowhere else such as Bodrugan, Carminow, and (my favourite!) l’Ercedekne. At every point the county and its residents – well, in a good few cases its medieval diaspora – did me proud. I found a rich and varied range of Cornish people active outside the bounds of their natal peninsula, amongst them diplomats, vice-admirals, and London brewers. At the same time there was bountiful evidence about life in Cornwall itself, from gentry feuds through to wrecking, tin dealing, and the Black Prince’s rulership. (I would say ‘read: Medieval Poldark’, but I’m sure there are copyright issues….)

In considering all these subjects I sought to show that Cornwall was strikingly distinctive, but that at the same time it was a place powerfully connected to a wider world. Indeed, it was the combination of these twin aspects of the peninsula – as both distinctive and connected – that made late medieval Cornwall what it was: a quite remarkable place.

After the book was published, I waited with some trepidation for the reviews to arrive. It was definitely not the most enjoyable of waits! When the reviews trickled in, I started reading each with my heart beating in my ears. I needn’t have feared, however, for they were overwhelmingly positive. I especially liked The Medieval Review describing my book as ‘magisterial’ (what a compliment!). I was even more honoured that Cornwall, Connectivity and Identity won not one but two Holyer an Gof Publishing Awards from the Gorsedh Kernow, an organisation that promotes Cornish identity and history. I even heard the news announced live on the radio!

All of which brings me to the excellent news that Boydell have decided to bring my book out in paperback. I’m over the moon about it. Not only will this make the book more accessible for the academic community, but it will also mean that people in Cornwall, and of course people outside Cornwall who love the peninsula, can acquire a copy at an affordable price. At every point I strove to write a book that was academically rigorous and engaging, and I was aided in this by the county’s medieval residents and their remarkable lives. I feel that it’s immensely important that people across Cornwall have access to their own history, both to help make sense of their present and because history has great value in its own right..

It’s no exaggeration to say that this volume has opened a whole new vista of Cornish history, not least because it’s the first book-length study of the medieval peninsula for more than 60 years. From my research it became clear that medieval Cornwall was no backward, isolated place ‘at the very ends of the earth’. On the contrary, it was a place powerfully connected to the wider world, and a place that can tell us a great deal about identity, migration, and the workings of localities in the wider realm and a yet wider Europe.

Now that Cornwall, Connectivity and Identity is out in paperback, I hope it goes some way to dispelling the idea that there was ever such a thing an unchanging middle ages in the Cornish peninsula or anywhere else for that matter. I also hope that, as Medieavistik wrote, it ‘puts medieval Cornwall on the map’ – this is the least that this remarkable peninsula of granitic moors and sub-topical valleys which elicits such strong opinions in both its people and its historians deserves.

This guest post was written by S. J. Drake, Honorary Research Associate at the University of London. He was born and brought up in Cornwall.

Cornwall, Connectivity and Identity in the Fourteenth Century
S. J. Drake
9781837650088, Paperback,
List price: £29.99 / $39.95
Offer Price*: £19.49 / $25.97
*Offer is non-transferable and subject to change without notice.

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