Sunday, February 01, 2009

Semmens, Jason. The Witch of the West or the Strange and Wonderful History of Thomasine Blight. Plymouth, 2004, £3.99. (review)

Semmens, Jason. The Witch of the West or the Strange and Wonderful History of Thomasine Blight. Plymouth, 2004, £3.99. (review)

Cornwall certainly holds an important place in Britain's esoteric history and culture, and in terms of witchcraft, Cornwall has a particularly 'witchy' reputation. Local legends of standing stones and other landscape features suggest a history of witches' night meetings, Cornwall is the home of the Museum of Witchcraft, and today the territory hosts a vibrant Pagan community and receives Pagan spiritual tourism from around the globe. There are witches, pellars and cunning folk who were captured in legend by Cornish folklorists such as Robert Hunt and William Bottrell, but what of the stories behind the legends? It is doubtful that Cornwall was historically any more witchy than other place in Britain, but the idea that Cornwall is perhaps a more suitable conduit for supernatural activity has certainly helped to establish quite a reputation for this western peninsula. There have been quite a few small books addressing witchcraft in Cornwall but the majority has been written ! to suit a popular or tourist interest in the topic. Despite the incredible interest in witchcraft in Cornwall, there have been very few rigorous and unbiased studies of actual historical Cornish witchcraft traditions.

Finally, some of the history surrounding legendary Cornish witches and witchcraft practices is starting to emerge. Jason Semmens' valuable contribution The Witch of the West: or the Strange and Wonderful History of Thomasine Blight is a microhistory and biography of the Cornish Cunning Woman more popularly known as Tammy Blee. This book is truly a step forward in research about Cornish witchcraft traditions. Semmens, who hails from the Camborne area of Cornwall, is certainly no stranger to the material. Currently a documentation officer for a museum in South Wales, Semmens holds an MA in Witchcraft and Literature from the University of Exeter, and was previously a curator for the vast witchcraft related holdings in the private library of the late Robert Lenciewicz. In The Witch of the West, Semmens provides a detailed account of Blight's life and work in Cornwall in the mid nineteenth century, drawing upon archival material, newspaper accounts and early folklore research! .

We learn that Blight was born Thomasine Williams in Gwennap, a mining town near Redruth in 1793, and had two marriages. It's likely that she practiced her trade in conjuring in Redruth market at first, and then later took private clients in her home after her reputation had been established. Her trade consisted of finding lost objects, taking spells off of ill wished livestock, keeping people from being bewitched, and telling fortunes. Blight was a keen strategist, moving to Helston after her first husband's death, to expand her trade and opportunities, and was often able to manipulate local gossip and personality conflicts to her advantage. Semmens portrays Blight as a resourceful and independent woman who was cunning in many senses of the word, defying the common stereotype of such people as being simple and superstitious. Blight was certainly a dynamic personality, and well known as a local character which ensured that a number of her escapades and encounters were chro! nicled by well known Cornish folklore collectors of the nineteenth century, William Bottrell and Robert Hunt. Yet despite her contribution to our understanding of popular beliefs of the past, we must remember that Blight was a shrewd, individualist business woman who was thriving off of her wits in an often harsh economic and social climate.

Perhaps the most important contribution of this volume, however, is that it places Cornish witchcraft and Cornish conjurors in a historical context. Cornish witchcraft is moving out of legend and speculation into the realm of history and ethnography. These were real people, who had motivations and good reasons for taking up this trade. Almost more importantly, we learn about the people who became her clients and what they believed. The stories, especially those of ill wishing, healing sick animals and securing a good harvest, are similar to stories of witchcraft worldwide and we find almost identical practices in Ireland and Africa.

This microhistory and biography is an excellent contribution and a great companion piece to wider studies of witchcraft and folk belief such as Owen Davies' book Cunning Folk: Popular Magic in English History. Of course it has special relevance for anyone specifically interested in Cornish folklore or the supernatural in Cornwall, which is generally a pretty hot topic.

Amy Hale


Blogger chrisbrooks2280 said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:51 PM  
Blogger Dolly said...

Well all in all I feel the book is well researched but it does fall down a bit on the derivation of the word Pellar.

2:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Would you care to share how you feel the book falls down on the serivation of Pellar?

5:45 AM  
Anonymous Gerens Pendarves said...

Pell-far, distant, for a long time.

Pella- farther, longer.

Pellhe- to send far, drive away, expel, banish.

Pellar- One who sees and can reach far, expels/ drive away illness/evil.

8:35 AM  
Anonymous Jason Semmens said...

Sorry but that list proves nothing. The argument advanced in the book that Pellar was not a word used during the historical lifetime of the Cornish language (i.e. up until c.1800 at the latest), and was therefore not used with reference to cunning-folk, is supported by scholarship on the Cornish language that identifies Peller/Pellar as an English dialect word*. This is backed up by the fact that Pellar is not attested until 1865. Moreover all the evidence is that Cornish cunning-folk referred to themselves as either the conjurors or wizards of their respective localities before this time. Peller is simply not met with until the mid-nineteenth century when it has the specific meaning of a cunning-person with powers inherited from their ancestors. It is apparent from the context that Peller is not meant to refer to cunning-folk in general, though it became a common term after the 1860s.

* for example see Ken George, Gerlyver Kernewek Kemmyn (1993) p. 246.

12:56 PM  
Anonymous Mark Kentish said...

'The esteemed OED - lists Pellar as a Cornish dialect word meaning 'wizard, exorcist or conjurer' perhaps derived from the obscure verb 'Pell' - to drive away or strike. Its origins are uncertain but it MAY BE 'Peal' means 'to pound with a pestle and mortar' or Latin 'Pellere' 'to drive away'.

Given that it is such an old word with uncertain origins I'm wonder how you can be so certain that it is a loan word from English?
Could it not as easily be a loan word from Latin, occurring anytime in the last 2000 years or indeed borrowed from a common store of linguistic roots?'

5:28 AM  
Anonymous jason semmens said...

You misunderstand my meaning. I mean English dialect word in the sense that it is an English word in the dialect speech of Cornwall, not that it is a "loan word from English." As the Cornish all spoke English in the ninteenth century they could hardly be importing loan words from the language they spoke, could they?

Peller is not an "old word" but is first attested in 1865. Robert Hunt included the 1863 newspaper account of Blight and Thomas's shenanigans where the sense and meaning of 'Peller blood' is first articulated although in the newspaper it is refered to as 'Pillow blood,' which suggests that the newspaper correspondent was unfamiliar with the word.

Personally I am happy with William Bottrell's explanation for the word, and after all he was there at the time and grew up in West Cornwall amongst such characters, that it derived from Expeller.

8:08 AM  
Anonymous Gerens Pendarves said...

I don’t think that anyone (as far as I know) would disagree that the Cornish spoke English in the 19th century, but this I don’t think has any baring on wether or not the word Pellar is derived from Cornish or not. The reason being that as is well documented many individual Cornish words servived until reasontly and may well still servive in for in instance among fishermen and miners.
So I can’t see any good reason why Pellar can’t also be derived from the Cornish.

5:33 AM  
Anonymous Jason Semmens said...

Robert Morton Nance, in his Cornish-English Dictionary (1938), was the first to identify Peller as a Cornish word (i.e. one derived from the Cornish language and surviving in English speech) in his Unified system of revived Cornish, where he noted that it meant a white-witch or charmer (and the two are not synonymous, by the way). Nance was certainly not above using dialect words to beef up his Cornish lexicon, whether they derived from the Cornish language or not; he was also not infallible, and I may cite his inclusion of the word ‘Penglas’ into his lexicon as a Cornish word meaning ‘hobby horse,’ whereas it is apparent that it meant nothing of the sort as he misread a nineteenth century source - Penglase was actually the surname of the man associated with the Penzance guisers’ horse. Nance was so anxious to prove the Celtic origin of hobby horses that he included this wilful mistake to supposedly prove it. Up until 1938 Peller was regarded as a dialect word: see, for instance, Margaret Courtney and Thomas Quiller Couch, Glossary of Words in Use in Cornwall (1880) and F. P. Jago, The Ancient Language, and the Dialect of Cornwall (1882), and indeed as previously noted recent scholarship on Cornish has identified Peller as dialect rather than derived from Cornish, and none other than the OED similarly describes it thus.

In trying to derive Peller from Cornish you need to explain why it is nowhere attested in any of the surviving Cornish texts, despite there being a host of words for magical practitioners mentioned from the oldest examples to the latest works in Late Cornish; why it is nowhere listed in any of the dictionaries of Cornish compiled during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (i.e. those of Llwyd, Price, &c.); why it should only be attested from 1865 onwards, significantly later than Cornish was last spoken in the far west of the Duchy; and why all the evidence from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries relating to Cornish cunning-folk makes plain that they were known, without exception, as conjurors, cunning-men (or women), wizards or occasionally as the wise-man (or woman) of the neighbourhood. Never once before the 1860s does Peller appear.

Personally, as a Cornishman, I would be quite happy for there to be a specific Cornish word for cunning-folk in the historical record, in the same way that dyn hysbys is found in Welsh, but what I am interested in is evidence and I can see none that suggests Peller derives from the Cornish language. Once more I am content to leave the last word to William Bottrell: “The word Pellar is probably an abridgement of repeller, derived from their reputed power in counteracting the malign influences of sorcery and witchcraft.”

2:49 PM  
Blogger Mogg Morgan said...


Interesting post - the only thing i'm not clear about is that the The OED says that it is 'Cornish' ie not 'English' Dialect. If it had been English dialect surely the OED would have provided some citations for its use in English. The only citation is from Robert Hunt - ie from a Cornish context. Am I reading this wrong or have the lexicographers at the OED revised the entry?

5:52 AM  
Anonymous Jason Semmens said...

I think we need to understand Pellar as a regional, dialectal adaption of repeller (or possibly expeller), as Bottrell suggests. Therefore it is a word in the Cornish dialect of English but it does not appear to derive from the Cornish language as many other words in the Cornish dialect do.

The venerable OED says that Peller is from the verb 'pell' +er, as Mark Kentish noted, but does not say why.

12:03 PM  
Anonymous Carlos said...

I have read the book with interest, and though I am not an expert in the topic, it has made me want to know more about it. It is quite clear that it has been very well researched and from a literary point of view it is well structured, clear and easy to understand for those, like me, who did not know anything about the topic.

I would encourage Mr Semmens to keep on researching and presenting books like this.

3:24 AM  
Anonymous Mark Kentish said...

“I think we need to understand Pellar as a regional, dialectal adaption of repeller (or possibly expeller),”

An interesting and I suppose compleatly plausible hypothesis, though I’m still far from convinced. It could equally be from the French “Appeller” which means ‘to call’.

11:44 AM  
Anonymous Jason Semmens said...

Well, I've examined the evidence and that is the conclusion I have come to. I am not motivated by any agendas nor am I resorting to special pleading. I am though bemused as to why you think the mid ninteenth-century Cornish should have adapted French words to describe cunning-folk!

8:20 AM  
Anonymous Jason Semmens said...

As a P.S., no I don't think it could 'equally' be from French; you might as well say it derives from some Chinese or Arabic word for that matter if some similarity of spelling is all the connexion you have. Thomasine Blight is the first person we know of to have used the word. Is it reasonable therefore to expect that an apparently illiterate former bal-maiden from Redruth would have a working knowledge of the French language?

Refering to the OED once more, the definition given is:

Pellar, peller. [Origin uncertain; perh. < PELL v. + -AR3, although the semantic link is not clear, or perh. shortened < REPELLER n. With form peller cf. -ER1. Cf. Cornish peller (prob. < English).]

While the OED admits some uncertainty, the surrounding evidence, both positive and negative, all point to it being a word in the Cornish dialect of English and derived from Repeller.

8:37 AM  
Anonymous Mark Kentish said...

I have to say I’m rather surprised by your last response, Thomasine Blight, Robert Hunt, You, me and everyone else, who speaks English in it’s many forms use French derived words all the time! In 1973 a survey of around 80,000 words in the old Shorter Oxford Dictionary Showed that just over 28% of the words were loanwords from French. So not so unlikly after all.
As it happens we also use a few Arabic derived words strangely alcohol being one of them ;o).

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Jason Semmens said...

Well, rather obviously there are a lot of words in use in English that have French origin, we have William the Conqueror to thank for that.

What I mean by my comments is that you need to show how the usage of a French word (or indeed any other) accords with the evidence, and with studies on both the Cornish and English languages, which you don't. Just making some vague assertion doesn't equate to a reasoned argument. None of the evidence or scholarship on either language suggests anything other than has already been discussed above.

If we follow your 'words that look a bit similar' approach for one moment: let's see, it could be from Spanish pelar, to cut, or maybe we could find some ancient Egyptian word or Enochian maybe that it could come from. I dunno, is there some Icelandic word that's a bit similar? We could play this game all afternoon.

5:00 AM  
Anonymous Jason Semmens said...

Mr. Kentish, merely citing a word of foreign origin based upon a happy coincidence of consonants and vowels and imagining that it has equal validity as the origin of Peller based on the incidence of other words of similar origin within the English language is not an argument in favour of its acceptance, as you should know that English is the most eclectic language on Earth and there are probably few languages not in some way represented within the English vocabulary.

Once more I would entreat you to explain how your French word, or indeed any other of your choosing, might be the original of Peller based upon the available evidence and upon linguistic studies of both English and Cornish.

6:00 AM  
Anonymous bridget said...

Dear Mr Semmens,
Thank god you posted the last response. The comments made by the people on your site are so annoying. Your book is really well researched, any academic would agree, however I think these people have an agenda, I think its that old chestnut, the hereditary witch syndrome! I am sure you dont need an explanation. Please give up trying to join the dots for these people and give yourself a break. Your book is great, Bridget.

10:21 AM  
Anonymous Burevista said...

I do agree with Bridget and with Mr Semmens

I think some people should actually prove their ideas before commenting. Of course English is full of French words, the same as 20% of Spanish vocabulary derives from Arabic (Alcohol included).
As a linguist, I cannot see the link between pellar/peller and appeller.
I would welcome more a suggestion of pellar/peller being a late back formation from Latin ex-pellere, but I cannot defend this either.

Mr Semmens, please, ignore those comments. You have done en excellent job.

3:27 AM  
Anonymous Mark Kentish said...

Well I’m not to sure who is supposed to have an hidden agenda or indeed what such an agenda might be. As a rule I’m generally rather suspicious of those who suggest others of hidden agendas.
I just thought/think the issues of the origin of the word Pellar/Peller might be worth further investigation.

5:18 AM  
Anonymous Jason Semmens said...

I think Bridget is the only person who has so far suggested agendas (in her quip about hereditary witches).

I quite agree, the origin and meanings of the word Peller is of particular interest, and I have devoted a section to exploring it in my forthcoming book on witchcraft in Cornwall.

I am still waiting for you to explain with reference to the evidence and linguistic studies on Cornish and English why you think Appeller is equally likely to be the origin for Peller.

11:54 AM  
Anonymous Mark Kentish said...

Well I’m not sure whether this constitutes evidence and linguistics but here is my reasoning so far.
For a start I have to confess that was not totally sold on the idea myself but here goes.
First of you say that the word Peller is not attested until 1865 in this I guess you are referring to the article in the ‘West Briton’ newspaper titled “ Gross superstition in Hayle”.
It just stuck me that if the word was as both Hunt and yourself suggest a contraction of the word expeller or repeller then one might expect to find it, as one does of many such contracted words, more commonly used. I there fore thought it might be worth exploring were this ‘new’ word may have come from.
One answer I thought worth exploring is whether it could be a word misheard or mispronounced by Blight or a source she may have heard it from. One idea I had was appeller (to call) –to- a peller, were might she have got this French word from?
Well her husband was rather fond of sailors it is said and at least some of those he met would I imagine be French especially if’ as one might suspect, he had contact with smugglers. As a self styled ‘Wizard’ who claimed he could call spirits it is not so unlikely that one of them may have used the word appeller and heard it as a peller. This would have at least come some way to explaining how this word might come into being without other earlier sources.
Since coming up with this theory I decided that I should have a read of this article myself and having done so I’m far less certain of my first premise i.e. that it was a new word. She is said to have stated that ‘the virtue is in her and not in him (James Thomas) and that she was of the real Pellar blood’. Now this immediately suggests to me two things firstly that she fully expected that others would understand what the word Pellar meant and secondly that it was a virtue passed on in the blood i.e. inherited. If my interpretation of what she is saying is correct then it wasn’t a new word after all but one in more common usage but not for some reason otherwise earlier recorded. Didn’t Hunt somewhere in his popular romances refer to a Pellar living in Exeter?

5:19 PM  
Anonymous Jason Semmens said...

Having now been bothered to read some of the original source material before making assertions, I'm glad to see you're more moderated with your statements. From what you've said you've evidently not read my Witch of the West book, where I set out the argument for Expeller in more detail. Yes, the idea of the Peller was that of cunning-person who inherited their powers, and yes, for it to have been understood by the wider populace it must have had some wider currency. So far as can now be ascertained, Blight used the word about the time of her husband's propositions to the St. Ives fisherman William Paynter. This could not have happened later than 1851, as the census that year shows Thomas nowhere in evidence. There are 3 reasons why I think it was a relatively new word by 1850: i) because it was not picked up in the Cornish dictionaries compiled during the latter eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; ii) because the West Briton report of 1863 (not 1865 - Hunt reprinted that report and altered the word) calls it 'Pillow Blood' - which suggests to me that the original author of the report was unfamiliar with the term, which you would expect if it was still of recent coinage; and iii) because although it doesn't feature in any Cornish dictionary, it does start to crop up in the 1870s and 1880s in the dialect dictionaries for the west of Cornwall. By the end of the nineteenth century and into the early 20th, even those cunning-folk in East Cornwall wanted to be called Pellers, which suggests it started in the west and spread eastwards fairly quickly (in the matter of 2 or 3 decades). If it was some word of venerable antiquity, one would expect it to have been known across Cornwall by the 1860s and 1870s when it first started to be recorded in print.

4:07 PM  
Anonymous Jason Semmens said...

As a ps, there is a fourth and I think rather compelling reason for a mid-century origin for the word, which has already been described in an earlier post, but here we goe again: In all the evidence from the first half of the nineteenth century, cunning-folk are routinely refered to as cunning-men and women, wise-men or women, conjurors and occasionally as a white witch. This is what we would expect, as these are the words in English that we and our ancestors refered to them as. If this word Peller was in circulation in (say) 1800 one would expect to find it being mentioned earlier than it actually was. As it is, Peller does not appear so much as once before 1865, despite the good evidence for cunning-folk in early nineteenth-century Cornwall, and I am not sure that it is reasonable to expect that this word, if it was in circulation early in the century, would have been kept so far under a bushell as not to have been mentioned.

Mr. Kentish, the Expeller 'hypothesis' (if we can call it that) to my mind fits the evidence and it fits the linguistic understanding of the word as a mid-ninteenth century word in the Cornish dialect of English. I have yet to see anything that persuades me otherwise.

12:48 AM  
Anonymous Jason Semmens said...

As a further ps, it is not necessary that Peller was in common usage before 1850 in point of fact; no-one had heard of yuppies before 1984, and yet the word was coined and caught on. There may well be a direct parallel.

2:07 AM  
Anonymous Jon Williams said...

I would just like to point out the obvious, both the surnames Pellar and Peller pre date 1850 by at least 150 years.

4:49 AM  
Anonymous Jason Semmens said...

Quite so. I did wonder several years ago if this was what Blight was referring to by claiming to be of the Peller blood, but firstly her genealogy shows no links whatever any individuals with that name, moreover there are no known cunning-folk from eighteenth or nineteenth-century Cornwall with that surname. If a certain individual or individuals of a Peller family were so famed that Blight wanted to be seen to be connected with them, one would expect some mention of them to have survived in the record, but none exists.

It is also worth noting that Peller/Pellar was an extremely uncommon name in Cornwall, with less than two dozen individuals of that name recorded in the 1851 census, all mostly minors and found in the far east of Cornwall, around Callington and Calstock, and in only one place further westwards, at Breage. The eldest individual there was Joseph Peller, born in 1821. As conjurors’ reputations tended to require years if not decades to mature, is it likely that Blight would have been trying to associate herself with a 30 year old when she herself was of rather riper years?

10:03 AM  
Anonymous Jon Pellow said...

Now that’s quite odd as even after a brief look at Censuses for the 19th using the internet I have found a few hundred people with the surname Pellar and Peller in Cornwall and Devon alone and even more in Somerset and beyond and I’m sure there are many more I could find if I took the time.

7:41 AM  
Anonymous Jason Semmens said...

Using the surname search on produces 4 Pellars resident at Breage and 12 Pellers resident at Breage and Calstock in the 1851 Census - I don't think that quite equals hundreds of Pellars/Pellers resident in Cornwall at that time, unless the census search indexes are so deficient on that site - in which case perhaps we should ask for our money back.

10:48 AM  
Anonymous Jason Semmens said...

Interestingly in the 1841 Census there seem to be a few more Pellars, 14 in total, whereas there were 11 Pellers recorded in that census. Still a minute number of individuals of the surname in Cornwall.

If you can find hundreds of them in the 1841 and 1851 censuses living in Cornwall I should be interested to know what site you are using to search for them.

11:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Firstly, whether "peller" be Cornish dialect from English or Cornish dialect from Cornish or perhaps another language is of little consequence in the long run. It doesn't make it any less Cornish than the say, "De Yow", Thursday with an obious Latin derivation or j'oue in the Mount Calvary (Passion Poem) 227- from Middle English, in turn from Middle French j'ai oui.
At the time when Cornish was still "flourishing" there were many words from Middle English, Latin, French and so on in use- sometimes with alternatives possible. This is not surprising given the interaction between different linguistic groups and the power dynamics of the time. Furthermore, given the close ties with Brittany until the Reformation, it would be surprising to find no elements from French, via Breton, at all.

To insist the word is a back-formation from the Latinate "ex-pell" is plausible but would seem to fly in the face of what we expect the word to be- it would most probably be "spella" if it were so derived, cf- spena from expend, spedya from expedite.

Secondly, the fact that the word itself may only have been noted in the 1860's may also be down to the fact that during the mid-19th century there was a renewed interest in folklore and dialect all over Europe, hitherto largely ignored. It is quite possible that words that had been around for hundreds of years were written down for the first time. Who would have dreamt of using a rural dialect of peasants and fishermen with which to write? Was this not the great innovation of 19th century writing that the vernacular was reflected for the first time? Hardy springs to mind as far as the West Country is concerned, Wordsworth too- although i may be wrong.

To make a case that the word "peller" is entirely absent from the old "traditional" Cornish manuscripts is not 100% true. Although the word "peller" itself does not seem to occurs in the "scraps" of Cornish handed down to us (hardly an extensive library of materials nor on a vast array of subjects) the words from which it may well derive do appear.

To begin with, "pell" (far, distant, a long way/time away) occur in Bewnans Meryasek 3275. The word "pellder", meaning distance, afar etc occurs in the Gwryans Bys/Creation of the World 1361/1384. The verb "pellhe"- to banish occurs in the Bewnans Meryasek at 2083. Added to these are modern formations from Breton and Welsh also including "pell-" as a prefix, eg. pellscryfa (telegram) and pellweler (telescope).

On a less academic note, if the word peller is indeed a word of English origin, how is that I personally have never heard it used outside of Cornwall? Not even in Devon- perhaps the area with the most similar culture and many common origins? I can feel Devonians and Cornishmen wincing at this last statement but it is true enough...! :)

Another interesting note is that the "pellers" were known as cunning-folk, or crafty people. In the Carmina Gadelica there is a reference to the cunning folk I believe and I am sure that the Island of Iona- so long associated with druidry and Christian mysticism was also known as the Island of the Cunning. I will need to check these last statements however.

Interestingly, one Cornish word for cunning is "fel" that gives a Welsh cognate "felder"- it is not inconceivable that in the death throws of the Cornish language and the often garbled way in which Cornish words became Cornish dialect words that there may be some conenction here- perhaps a cunning "play" on words itself?

We have to accept that alhough what we apear to have and know does seem a lot, in fact it is very little compared to that which was lost- making it all the harder to draw conclusions in the end. Perhaps the real secrets lie with the cunning folk themselves and I am sure they are "fel" enough not to let them out!


4:00 AM  
Anonymous JS said...

To reply to a few points:

[Quote] To make a case that the word "peller" is entirely absent from the old "traditional" Cornish manuscripts is not 100% true. [Quote}

Yeah, it is! Peller does not occur in any of the manuscript sources.

[Quote] the words from which it may well derive [Quote]

An entirely unproven assertion. You can keep quoting words beginning with Pell for as long as you like, it proves nothing.

[Quote] Who would have dreamt of using a rural dialect of peasants and fishermen with which to write? Was this not the great innovation of 19th century writing that the vernacular was reflected for the first time? [Quote]

In fact dialect words and phrases had been recorded in literature for centuries before the nineteenth, so no - it really wasn't the "great innovation" of that period, as people were collecting folklore and dialect in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as what were then known as 'Popular antiquities.'

Quite recently a reference has been found relating to a cunning-man in early twentieth century America, in an area where Cornish people often emigrated. Interestingly he was known as an 'Expeller'.

Readers may draw their own conclusions.

10:51 AM  
Anonymous JS said...

As a PS, I don't know where you're getting your etymologies from, but Cornish 'Spena' is from Middle English Spene, meaning spend, or use up, and 'Spedya' is from Old English Sped, meaning succeed or progress, not from expend or expedite respectively as you suggest.

11:38 AM  
Anonymous JS said...

Regarding 'fel' (Welsh cognate ffel, not felder) being the origin of Peller, although it does mean cunning, the contexts make it plain that it means cunning in a crafty or devious sense - a la Blackadder. While cunning-folk could be those things, it is really an abuse of language to try to make out that fell applies to cunning-folk in this way, and is therefore improbable on that score alone as cunning as in cunning-folk preserves the medieval English sense of 'to be learned' or 'knowing.'

You mention consonantal shift; that can occur, but I cannot think of any other native Cornish words that have found their way into English dialect by changing from initial consonant f into p. Can you? Moreover for this specific consonantal shift to have happened, most Cornish words migrating into English beginning f would need to have changed to p, and I can think of evidence that that has happened off the top of my head.

12:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"..........least likely is the term expeller given the requisite prefix to make sense of the term"

5:10 AM  
Anonymous Jason Semmens said...

A few observations:

I think I have argued sufficiently that Peller is a word in the Cornish dialect of English. This explains why it is heard in Cornwall and not Devon. Devon, and indeed every county in England, has its own dialect words peculiar to that county. In the days before television and radio there was considerable variation of dialect within each individual county, which does still persist in many places. Few counties in England though can claim to have had a native, non-English language in the relatively recent past to draw upon. If you are trying to suggest that Peller must come from the Cornish language because it wasn't found anywhere else in England, your argument falls flat because there are numerous dialect words found elsewhere in specific localities that are clearly English and derive from English. There is no reason why Peller should be any different to that pattern.

The Cornish words 'spena' and 'spedya' derive from Middle English 'Spene' (meaning, to spend) and 'sped' (meaning, success or progress) respectively, not from the Latin 'expend' and 'expedite'. Thus your suggestion that Peller should have gone into English as Speller makes little sense.

You suggest that we know little of popular culture before the folklorists of the mid nineteenth century started collecting, but here your history is at fault as popular culture was a constant source of interest to the educated classes from the sixteenth century onwards. A considerable amount of evidence relating to vernacular beliefs and practices was collected by various people, particularly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which tended to go by the name of Popular Antiquities. So I'm afraid that this was by no means a 'great innovation' of the nineteenth century as you intimate.

As I have noted in my comments above, quoting Pellder, Pellhe, or indeed anything else beginning with Pell, does not prove anything. I have documented elsewhere that Peller is first attested in 1849. There is no record of this word before that date. Period.

If you want to show that Peller is a native Cornish word you need to explain why Peller is nowhere attested in any of the surviving Cornish texts; why it has no cognate terms in either Breton or Welsh (the Welsh term ‘dyn hysbys,’ or ‘wise man,’ for a conjuror is not a cognate); why Peller went unlisted in any of the dictionaries of Cornish compiled during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, such as those of Edward Llwyd and William Price; why it should only have been attested from significantly later than Cornish was last spoken in the far west of the Duchy, principally in the parishes around Madron and Paul; and why all of the evidence from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries pertaining to Cornish cunning-folk, which is extensive, makes plain that they were known variously to their clients as the conjuror, cunning-man (or woman), wizard, or wise-man (or woman) of the district, but never as a Peller until the middle years of the nineteenth century.

The Cornish word 'fel' (Welsh cognate 'ffel', not Felder as you suggest) means cunning as in crafty or devious, not in the sense that Cunning-folk were so named, deriving from the medieval meaning of the word - of being learned or knowledgeable. It is really an abuse of the language to try and make out that pell(er) comes from fel, and means 'crafty-folk' as this never was the meaning of the term - and there is considerable historical and linguistic evidence to support this.

The word history in its original Greek form means 'enquiry' or the knowledge gained from enquiry, and in practice is fundamentally an interpretative endeavour based on evidence. We do not know everything about what happened in the past, but oftentimes enough material survives in various forms for broad conclusions to be reached. Importantly the evidence can both support and preclude certain interpretations, and helps prevent flights of outright fancy.

11:34 AM  

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