Out of the Ordinary

Confines, Cornish Plays and Community

Walking near to midsummer, it can be hard to see beyond the edges of the path. The solid fronds of many ferns, and the feathered strands of tall, seeded grass that stands above them, give a varied and textured edging. At this time of year, stone walls, too, are a matrix of stones, flowers and moss, with the varied sizes of the stones in the oldest walls, adding yet more pleasing variation.


Stone walls with enormous granite blocks are my favourites; the immense size of some of the rounded boulders that have been pressed in to service in hedges, sometimes as tall as a man, exude a sense of their permanence and belonging. But even stone walls made from more manageable-sized blocks are interesting, and engage the passer-by more than the most carefully-pointed brick wall or constructions from uniform, grey breeze blocks. Old stone walls have a character derived from the place where they are, and often incorporate some interesting extraneous additions to reflect a previous history – rather like the communities where we live.


Looking back to earlier communities, we can see that many changes have happened to the way we live – and many more changes are ongoing. In Cornwall, the importance of community in the past is evident in the old photos that show huge crowds at Methodist church events, such as tea treats and funerals of prominent citizens, and also in the social history of mining communities, where generations from a single family worked together underground.

Going further back in time, the organisation of our societies is probed by Joseph Henrich, as he analyses how - since the dawn of Christianity - the framework of our lives in the west has evolved away from intermarriage within families, resident in one place, towards a more individualistic, mobile community, where marriage to relatives is the exception. These themes are explored in his most recent book: ‘The Weirdest People in the World’, (where WEIRD is used as an acronym for Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic).



Joseph Henrich considers that teachings from the Church, encouraging newly married couples to establish a separate home from their relatives, drove a trend towards greater mobility than had previously been the case. Significantly, this was accompanied by an increasingly cultural trend for land and property to be owned by individuals (rather than families) which gave more control over the choice of where to live. So as mobility of individuals became more commonplace, and opportunities for work arose away from the areas where people lived, the size of towns and cities began to increase, even before the wheels of the industrial revolution began to turn in earnest. Guilds of craftsmen in the most populous centres concentrated knowledge and sparked new practices, leading to more specialisation in the jobs market, apprenticeship schemes, and more motives to move to where these skills could be put to use.


Henrich’s intricate and readable view of society through the ages already had me pondering past-communities, and this was fuelled further when I had the opportunity to see the Medieval scripts of the Ordinalia and Saints’ Plays, which are currently at Kresen Kernow for the exhibition ‘Out of the Ordinary’. These are some of the earliest playscripts in the UK, predating Shakespeare by at least one hundred years. From the scripts – the earliest of which are written in Cornish - and the stage directions that accompany them, it is evident that the staging of these Biblical excepts were a community undertaking, involving much cooperation and organisation, and providing a spectacle for the wider community to come together to enjoy.


In the context of long-range community changes, these plays seem to stand at a curious juncture: their performances united the community, and yet the spreading of Christian values of individual responsibility towards God, and the emphasis on individual achievements and attributes, was a seed that would - over centuries - germinate to create more splintered communities. In the century from 1900 to 2000, numbers of regular church-goers halved, and in the same period, the importance of individual characteristics has come to dominate our collective consciousness - accelerated by the emergence of social media and its attendant focus on ‘followers’ and ‘influencers’.

Perhaps there are parallels between the types of boundaries we build and the community we inhabit. In a society uniformly dominated by materialistic values and individual identity, boundaries tend to be functional, vertiginous, quickly assembled and narrow: uniform, evenly-spaced blocks, each one similar to the others, or simple wooden fencing. Walls built in earlier times, when individuals retained more spatial and relational links to familial lands and oral histories, seem to produce lower, wider walls, made from natural, local stone and errant blocks of ‘other’, and with sympathetic, rounded edges, irregular joints and space for nature to establish.


As our communities re-emerge after multiple Lockdowns for Covid-19, and we peer uncertainly in to the future, maybe it is time for the reintroduction of the ‘rounded edges’ of a kinder society. We don’t need to loose the importance of the individual to recognise the value of the wider community: our variations, together, can make an inter-locking whole which is harmonious and durable.


References & Inspiration from:


Out of the Ordinary - four historic manuscripts under the same roof for the first time, at Cornish Studies Library, Kresen Kernow. Exhibition until September 2021.

More information at: Out of the Ordinary – Kresen Kernow


The Weirdest People in the World - How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. Joseph Henrich.

Book published by Allen Lane.

Available from: edgeoftheworldbookshop.co.uk and other outlets

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