Let's take a stroll through insanity…
On a recent trip to Penzance I glanced across the bay and saw the almost unmistakable shape of the legendary St Michael’s Mount. I usethe word “almost” because there is a very similar granite island mount with a medieval Abbey perched on top and a small town huddled around its waterfront, set just off the coast of Brittany in Normandy, France and strangely enough it is also called “Mont Saint Michel”. (but that’s a story for another day).
The closest town to the St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall is called Marazion, and because of the presence of the four letters Z I O N in the town’s name, there is debate amongst historians regarding the possibilty of a Jewish community living in the area sometime during the last 2,000 years.
The origin of the town’s name is not exactly clear. I have read several explanations such as the name has nothing to do with Jews and has simply evolved over tIme from historically distorted or mispronounced Cornish words used to describe the old market town such as Margahs Bhygan (little market) and Margahs Yow (Thursday Market)…
English – Cornish – Pronunciations
Monday Dy’ Lun Dee Lune
Tuesday Dy’ Meurth Dee Martha
Wednesday Dy’ Mergher Dee Mair-hur
Thursday Dy’ Yow Dee You
Friday Dy’ Gwener Dee Gwen-ur
Saturday Dy’ Sadorn Dee Sad-orn
Sunday De Sul
Margahs Yow (Thursday Market) is also thought by some historians to have been originally pronounced as Marghas Dy’Yow which became Marghas J’ow, whilst other historians think the transition was due solely to the different pronunciations of the letters Y and J that existed across Europe, (jehova/yahova, john/juan). Whichever explanation is correct, the Yow became Jow and the Jow eventually became Jew, which if correct would basically eliminate the requirement of proving if a Jewish population had previously lived in the area…
…but these are only possible explanations for the transition from the Cornish Marghas Yow to the English Market Jew, they do not explain how or why the town’s modern name is MaraZion?
To best explain where the name Marazion comes from, I will hand you over to Mr Friedrich Max Fuller, who in 1871AD published a fantastic book named “Chips from a German Workshop (vol iii) – Essays on Literature, Biography, and Antiquities. Within its pages I found this absolutely thorough attempt to explain the linguistic journey from Marghas Yow to Marazion.
ARE THERE JEWS IN CORNWALL?
“Returning to the Jews in their Cornish exile, we find, no doubt, as mentioned before, that even in the Ordnance maps the little town opposite St. Michael’s Mount is called Marazion and Market Jew. Marazion sounds decidedly like Hebrew, and might signify Mârâh, “bitterness, grief,” Zion, “of Zion.”
It cannot be too often repeated that inquiries into the origin of local names are, in the first place, historical, and only in the second place, philological. To attempt an explanation of any name, without having first traced it back to the earliest form in which we can find it, is to set at defiance the plainest rules of the science of language as well as of the science of history. Even if the interpretation of a local name should be right, it would be of no scientific value without the preliminary inquiry into its history, which frequently consists in a succession of the most startling changes and corruptions.
Those who are at all familiar with the history of Cornish names of places will not be surprised to find the same name written in four or five, nay, in ten different ways. The fact is that those who pronounced the names were frequently ignorant of their real import, and those who had to write them down could hardly catch their correct pronunciation.
Thus we find that
– Camden calls Marazion Merkiu;
– Carew, Marcaiew.
– Leland in his “Itinerary” (about 1538AD) uses the names Markesin, Markine (vol. iii. fol. 4); and in another place (vol. vii. fol. 119) he applies, it would seem, to the same town the name of Marasdeythyon.
– William of Worcester (about 1478AD) writes promiscuously Markysyoo (p. 103), Marchew and Margew (p. 133), Marchasyowe and Markysyow (p. 98).
– In a charter of Queen Elizabeth, dated 1595AD, the name is written Marghasiewe;
in another of the year 1313AD, Markesion;
in another of 1309, Markasyon;
and in another even earlier charter of Richard, Earl of Cornwall (Rex Romanorum, 1257AD), Marchadyon, which seems the oldest, and at the same time the most primitive form.
Besides these, Dr. Oliver has found in different title-deeds the following varieties of the same name:—Marghasion, Markesiow, Marghasiew, Maryazion, and Marazion.
The only explanation of the name which we meet with in early writers, such as Leland, Camden, and Carew, is that it meant “Thursday Market.” Leland explains Marasdeythyon by forum Jovis. Camden explains Merkiu in the same manner, and Carew takes Marcaiew as originally Marhas diew, i.e. “Thursdaies market, for then it useth this traffike.”
This interpretation of Marhasdiew as Thursday Market, appears at first very plausible, and it has at all events far better claims on our acceptance than the modern Hebrew etymology of “Bitterness of Zion.” But, strange to say, although from a charter of Robert, Earl of Cornwall, it appears that the monks of the Mount had the privilege of holding a market on Thursday (die quintæ feriæ), there is no evidence, and no probability, that a town so close to the Mount as Marazion ever held a market on the same day. Thursday in Cornish was called deyow, not diew. The only additional evidence we get is this, that in the taxation of Bishop Walter Bronescombe, made August 12, 1261, and quoted in Bishop Stapledon’s register of 1313, the place is called Markesion de parvo mercato, and that in a charter of Richard, King of the Romans and Earl of Cornwall, permission was granted to the prior of St. Michael’s Mount that three markets, which formerly had been held in Marghasbigan, on ground not belonging to him, should in future be held on his own ground in Marchadyon.
Parvus mercatus is evidently the same place as Marghasbigan, for Marghas-bigan means in Cornish the same as Mercatus parvus, namely, “Little Market.” The charter of Richard, Earl of Cornwall, is more perplexing, and it would seem to yield no sense, unless we again take Marchadyon as a mere variety of Marghasbigan, and suppose that the privilege granted to the prior of St. Michael’s Mount consisted really in transferring the fair from land in Marazion not belonging to him, to land in Marazion belonging to him. Anyhow, it is clear that in Marazion we have some kind of name for market.
The old Cornish word for market is marchas, a corruption of the Latin mercatus. Originally the Cornish word must have been marchad, and this form is preserved in Armorican, while in Cornish the ch gradually sunk to h, and the final d to s. This change of d into s is of frequent occurrence in modern as compared with ancient Cornish, and the history of our word will enable us, to a certain extent, to fix the time when that change took place. In the charter of Richard, Earl of Cornwall (about 1257AD), we find Marchadyon; in a charter of 1309AD Markasyon. The change of d into s had taken place during these fifty years…”
Odd Bit of Trivia:
just 5km along the coast from Marazion in Penzance, there is a high street named Market Jew Street. So should that high street be renamed “Thursday Market Street“? or is there a spark of truth in the old tales of local markets frequented by Jewish traders in both Penzance and Marazion? It may be worth mentioning that there are also tales of large numbers of Jewish slaves being sent to Cornwall by the Romans to work in the mines, which were exporting tin & copper to the mediterraean area from at least 300BC. …read more
Would it shock you to learn that Joseph of Arimathea, the rich uncle of Jesus, is rumoured to have been one of the many Jewish traders who exported tin & copper from Cornwall back to the Eastern Mediterraean? …read more
If we steer away from the idea that the word Marazion stems from old Cornish words that have morphed over many hundreds of years into English words, might there not be other possible foreign influences along the way that may have helped shape the evolving name of the town from Marghas Yow to Marazion.
Well the obvious language to explore due to the topic of this search would be Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people, where the word Mara means Bitter, giving us “Bitter Zion”. Maybe 11th/12th century Jewish traders gave it this name because of their people’s memories of once being used as slaves in the local mines? Or maybe that’s clutching at straws?
Have any Spanish Sephardic Jews ever traded here? Or any stranded Spanish Armada crewmen? Because I can see an obvious Spanish translation of the word Marazion, which could be read to mean “Zion by the Sea”…
…or more interestingly there is a possible Italian / Roman translation of Mar-a-Zion which literally means “March to Zion”, which could relate to the Pathway walked by so many pilgrims across England, as they followed the cobbled causeway to the finishing point of their pilgrimage, St Michael’s Mount…?
We may never know the precise pedigree of the name Marazion, or whether there ever was any direct Jewish influence on this town and the surrounding area. But it is interesting to note; there is a pub in Marazion called the Godolphin Arms, and next to it there is an alley with an old stone stairway which leads down to the beach and to the cobbled causeway that connects the mainland to St Michael’s Mount when the tide is out.
On either side of the stone stairs are old sea walls built from large, but not massive, stone blocks (Approx 3ft x 1.5ft. Attached to the right hand side wall (as you look out to sea) is a rusty metal handrail, and close to where the handrail finishes, at approx. waist height, there is a little hole in one of the blocks which grabbed my attention.
At first glance it appears to be just a naturally formed hole, until you realise that it has been deliberately carved 3-4 inches deep into the stone block, in the shape of a Star of David.
I wonder how old that little hole is? Well it cannot be any older than the wall?
Putting aside the age of the hole & the wall, if the town’s name is just the bastardized result of many linguistic transitions, and the word’s origins supposedly have nothing to do with a Jewish community ever living in Marazion, we must ask the question – Why is there a typically Jewish symbol deliberately carved into the sea wall on the beach at Marazion in Cornwall?