Minstrels, Morris Dancers, and Players: Tracing the Routes of Travelling Performers in Early Modern Cornwall


  • Gloria J. Betcher Iowa State Univeristy




Minstrels, morris dancers, and players participated in the lively social intercourse of Cornwall in the early modern period, providing entertainment for local festivals and celebrations in exchange for monetary reward. Because many of these groups were locally sponsored by their home parish, town, or village rather than by named patrons, we can determine the troupes' points of origin and begin to assess the routes they may have taken to their destinations. Fifteen record entries in extant documents spanning the years from 1506 to 1596 record twenty-three instances of travel by locally sponsored performers from specifically named locations in Cornwall and Devon. These references provide ample evidence for us to begin tracing the routes taken by local performers from site to site. In order to trace the performers' routes, this essay situates the documentary evidence within the general context of travel in early modern Cornwall, reconstructed from early modern maps, personal diaries, travel itineraries, and studies of Cornish geography, roads, and bridges.

Several conclusions emerge from such a study. First, performance venues in sixteenth-century Cornwall fell, roughly, into three playing regions, and performers typically entertained in their own regions of the county. Second, while economic incentives may have influenced a group’s decision to perform, they did not necessarily drive a group to perform farther from home in search of greater reward. Third, and finally, some groups utilized Cornwall's highways to range far from their homes, while others followed the county's many minor roads and tracks to travel shorter distances to nearby parishes. Though little evidence indicates that regularly scheduled performances occurred along 'touring circuits' in Cornwall, this study substantiates other findings of research on touring in medieval and early modern Britain, adding new detail to the picture of who travelled where in Cornwall, what routes they took, and why they performed.