Thursday, July 11, 2019

Sacred walking - the Grande Tromenie

Tomb of Saint Ronan
I am very interested in sacred walking at the moment as recent posts indicate, although my new book is about different types of routes and not limited to religious themes.The Grande Tromenie takes place every six years at Locronan, with an annual shorter version. The name means journey (tro) around a monastic territory (minihi), and, according to tradition, the route follows the path of a sacred circuit undertaken regularly by Saint Ronan around what was already established by the Dark Ages as a Celtic nemeton, or outdoor temple. A trail linking rocks and megalithic remains, commonly called Druidic stones in the 19th century, may have been linked to fertility rites. This aspect has persisted in popular perception, and maybe conception, right up to the present day.
Countryside around Locronan, context of the trail
When Ronan established his settlement here (later Locronan, the sacred place of Ronan), it was after an initial bruising encounter with feisty Breton women on the coast of the Bay of Douarnenez, who resented him interfering in their nefarious wrecking activities by shining a great light on the shoreline. Arriving in the interior where the welcoming anonymity of the Bois de Nevet (once Nemet = nemeton) sheltered him, Ronan was soon drawn into the public spotlight again, incurring the unbounded hostility of a woman named Keben. She wanted to destroy the reputation and influence of the monk and accused him of murdering her daughter, but Ronan was able to prove Keben herself was the culprit. Later, after the saint's death, she insulted the funeral procession and struck off a horn of one of the oxen leading the funeral cart. This story is to explain the name of Plas ar Horn, beside the memorial chapel of 1912, one of the 12 stations of the Tromenie route, and an earlier ritual site.
Keben uses a washing paddle to de-horn the ox
The festival attracts many thousands of followers for the procession, which wends through the countryside over 12 kilometres, including paths on private land only open for this event - a good chance for new perspectives in all senses. This relationship with the landscape is my interest in this case. The way is cleared of foliage and long grass, and marked out with 12 stations, each representing an individual saint with a granite cross and a little hut containing a statue, brought in from chapels in the area to honour Ronan and be honoured by the faithful in their turn.
One notable feature is Gazeg vaen, a rock also known as the Chair of Ronan, where the saint is said to have sat and looked out over the waters of the bay (no longer visible from the spot). The stone is the survivor of  a megalithic group, and has been (for how long?) the focus of a fertility ritual for women, who lay full length or rubbed their belly against the surface to increase their chances of conceiving a child.
Postcard of woman sitting on the "chaise de Ronan"
The rock today
The grand procession is on Sunday 14th July, but the route remains open to walkers for one week after that date, and I'll be on it at a quieter time. (Walked on Tuesday 16th and some photos added above).

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Morlaix's unique style

9 Grand'Rue
I am currently writing about Morlaix in the context of roads and pathways for my new book, which has reminded me of all kinds of negatives about this beautiful historical town, so here let's focus on something more alluring. The town has a unique architectural form, the maison pondalez, narrow, half-timbered, high-storeyed houses, offering an unparalleled glimpse into the 16th century life of the city. Often likened to lantern houses, they did not in fact originally have roof level light-sources, with windows serving both front and back rooms alone. The great central well, rising the full height of the house, had a monumental fireplace and would have been lit with sconces. The name pondalez is of uncertain derivation, the traditional 'pont' + 'aller' in reference to a single turning staircase with wooden 'bridges' to both sides on each level, is now largely rejected in favour of the nothing in particular. Wood carving is a feature of the exterior with saints and angels dignifying the façade, and the interior where ornate single piece stair-posts rise to an enormous height. The jettied storeys have rooms on each level with small-paned casement windows seemingly only feet away from their opposite neighbours across the tiny cobbled streets of the old walled city, sacked by English raiders in 1522.
Most interesting of all is the raison d'etre of these exceptional buildings. They were the fine residences of nobles turned merchants, officially surrendering the swords that symbolised their status in order to cash in on the highly lucrative cloth trade with England. The quality fabric créées was purchased in the shop-fronts of these Morlaix houses (with a fold-down counter on ground level) and shipped from the river port 200m away. Often younger sons of the Breton petite noblesse had few prospects in terms of family inheritance and stood to make fortunes in commerce, but they still wanted the trappings of the manor houses in the narrow confines of a medieval town - hence the narrow frontage and great height of these splendid residences, and the quality of craftsmanship in their construction and decoration.
Two of these houses can be visited today. The so-called House of the Duchess Anne in the market square Place Allende and 9 Grand'Rue. The latter would be my choice as more atmospheric and clearly presented. Just the thing for getting in the spirit of the town and imagining that attack in 1522. A maid in this very street had the measure of the English: she opened a trap-door in the hall and the first few pillagers fell into the cellar and drowned. Their less stupid comrades chased the maid up and up the stairs until she was forced to throw herself from the top window. That piece of anecdotal history takes on quite another dimension when mounting the levels of this maison pondalez.
So-called Maison de la Duchesse Anne

Thursday, June 06, 2019

'New' website

Combourg - chateau and park
My website has had a complete overhaul and now features recent and other work. It will be updated regularly with new writing. Please have a look - non-spam flavoured feedback is welcome.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Ile St Gildas

Ile St Gildas
I spent the weekend on the north coast in Cotes d'Armor for the pardon on the little private island of Saint Gildas, who is one of several Breton saint patrons of horses. The unusual aspect of this event is that the island is only accessible on foot at the lowest tide and that it is only open for public access on this one day a year. A procession of people and horses make their way out from Coz Castel in Bugélès, following the curving line of an old causeway constructed in the days when the islands in this chain were all exploited and regularly inhabited. In places there is no more than a vague track and care is needed all along the slippy sliding path over sand, mud, rocks and seaweed.
I set off before the official start time, leaving crowds gathered on the shore to await tractor transport or to walk along with the horses on their way to a bishop's blessing on the island. Even so there was already a long line of men, women and children picking a precarious route across the strand. Footwear varied from wellingtons and walking boots to open sandals and bare feet. Many old hands carried a shoe-bag with a change for arrival. It was certainly a dirty business and required a degree of concentration that left little time for observing the off-shore scenery. Fortunately the intense heat of Saturday had evaporated and the breeze was fresh once away from the shore and walking where there would normally be sea. One wide channel remained and I waded across up to my knees through the gentle current.
Behind in the distance I could make out the main body of participants on the move. The first horses, a fine pair of chestnut mares, passed me shortly before I reached the causeway up onto the island. Paddocks and paths had been newly mown for the occasion, scenting the air with the summery smell of cut grass. There were already many there but I had the chance to visit the tiny chapel of St Gildas and even smaller oratory of St Roch in their stone enclosure before the crowds arrived. A makeshift altar was set in the open air under a white canopy and lines of chairs awaited the pilgrims for mass.

While they filled up, I wandered about watching the horses, now lining a large fenced area beside the food and drink stalls, and locating the eccentric toilets in a former bread-oven.
After mass the bishop of St Brieuc and Tréguier and his acolytes processed the short distance to the paddock, mounted a special platform and blessed baskets of bread which he then fed to each horse to ensure its good health and good behaviour during the coming year.
There were 75 animals,so I decided to set off back whilst the route was fairly clear and enjoy the journey which was my (work) purpose in coming, able to take it slower on return. There was about an hour left before the tide began to fill the channel, but I met an elderly Breton woman with bright blue eyes and bright yellow wellingtons, making her slow way to the island. She said she was afraid of slipping, but clearly determined to reach the site even though the ceremonies were almost over and tractors lining up to bring the faithful home. Gradually fading snatches of canticles accompanied me on my return.

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Pardon of St Yves

I spent the weekend in Tréguier, a favourite haunt, but for the first time to attend the great Pardon of St Yves. Yves Hélory (1253-1303) was an ecclesiastical advocate and extraordinary defender of the poor, well-known all over the Trégor in his day and considerably further afield following his canonisation in 1347. He is the patron saint of Brittany and his special day attracts thousands for a procession between the cathedral in Tréguier and the chapel in Minihy-Tréguier, his birthplace and home. The relic of his skull is carried by lawyer and priests along the 1.5km route and back.
The town is all dressed up for the event with his family's yellow and black flag (thanks to a crusader grandfather) displayed everywhere together with sheaves of yellow broom and hundreds of lily flowers studded into hedges along the way.
I attend the mass in Breton at Minihy, for a while in the back of the chapel and then outside in the cemetery, still singing along from the hymn sheet (Breton is easy to follow and generally pronounced as it looks), and watching pilgrims turn up now and then to crawl under the 'tomb' of the saint, an ornate stone table. The best sensations of the occasion - in the simple and emotional faith of St Yves - are most felt here without the great numbers thronging around the cathedral in Tréguier, where the service in French is also taking place.
Walking into the town along the processional way in reverse - Chemin de St Yves, rue de St Yves - I have time for a leisurely coffee while crowds gather to witness the spectacle. Suddenly I realise that just seeing a bunch of lawyers coming out of the south door with their proud burden is not what I want to see most, and it will be hard to do so or to take photos in the scrum of curious onlookers and the faithful following the parade.
I retrace my steps all the way back to Minihy, where a few are waiting at the point by a wayside stone cross where the main ritual of the procession occurs, on a ninety-degree turn down to the chapel.
After a short wait I hear singing floating up from the village - canticles of St Yves are repeated over and over during all the ceremonies - and the procession from Minihy with its three ancient banners arrives to await the cortege coming from Tréguier. The priests take up a position facing along the road towards the cathedral.
The crowd grows and seeking a place with a good view and the sun behind me, I'm forced to get up on a very narrow bank where three older people are sitting with their legs dangling. It requires considerable muscle and foot strain to keep perched up there for more than half an hour of anticipation. Finally the first figures appear and a Breton pipe band leads the way, passing in front of the cross and down into Minihy. Behind it an astonishing spectacle, wave on wave of banners and ceremonial crosses stretching as far as I can see.
The ritual of encounter begins as Minihy's tall metal cross is lowered and raised in a nod to various passing crosses from other parishes, which also dip so that the two metal faces almost kiss as they skim by one another. It is nearly forty minutes before the skull appears in the distance, a priest in front flanked by lawyers bearing the weight of the reliquary on their shoulders. They stop a little way away. The rest of procession has passed. We all wait. Finally the Minihy banner-carriers move forward and the skull is brought to face them. Up and down the banners go - what body strength it must take - high in the air then dropping towards the ground, saluting their saint as he arrives home in his own parish. This is the climax of the Pardon, the relic visiting its most profound site of connection. After passing through the village, the procession will return to Tréguier.
This is an old ritual, and of more significance that touches me than is usually the case in official ceremonies. The depth of relationship with place is something I understand. Indeed I am currently writing about St Yves and his paths in the Trégor. Almost every day, despite travelling far and wide in his duties as a priest elsewhere and preacher everywhere, Yves Hélory walked back home to the little family manor house where he tended the old and sick and saw that all their needs were provided for. Thirty or forty kilometres was nothing to him in search of home and belonging. The Pardon, despite all the trappings and pompous lawyers, both of which the saint himself would have deplored, still manages to symbolise this simple truth.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Text 7: Musings of a Patron Saint

I am the saint. This is my church.

I stand over the porch, I stand next to the altar,
Sometimes a place on the calvary.
You can see me on my stag, with my wolf,
Beside my dog, along with a horse or cow.
I prefer animals. They obey me.

I am honoured with altarpieces, telling my story,
Through offerings and prayers, a relic, a tomb.
Honoured by banners and processions:
On my holy day, the Pardon winds its way.

Not always so easy being a saint.
All those demands and quarrels and envy:
I would prefer the quiet peace of a lonely spot,
But destiny says otherwise.

I have a mission: it is quite an exalted position.
Special powers make me a magician,
Using my staff for a wand.

I could strike a spring from the earth
Drive dragons to suicide,
I could cure shingles, blindness and burns.
Make children walk or form in the womb,
Bring rain to crops,
Call up the wind or pat it down
To save ships in a storm.
At my best, I was most effective.

People spoke fervently to me once,
A saint who was here and did stuff of note,
Rather than God, too busy or remote.

Now not so much.
No longer the draw, the object of hope,
I live in the past, and to be honest I’m bored,
It’s an unsettling slope,
From adored to ignored.

2019 ©Wendy Mewes

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Exhibition of texts on Parish Closes


EXHIBITION April 29- May 17 at SUR LA ROUTE, Huelgoat
Opening event: May 4, 3pm

I am exhibiting creative texts - together with photos by Candy Blackham - on the theme of the Parish Closes in northern Finistere. These extraordinary religious ensembles renowned for their architecture and art deserve to be better known. They are also revealing of the particular social and economic history of the region.
There are 12 texts, with French translations, including a visual display of a close in words. The following are short extracts from what are much longer texts that obviously need to be read in entirety for best effect and all the intricacies of sound and structure.

Extract from Text 4: Ossuary - Bone House

end flakes
darling dust
not so

stone speaks
the dead words
memento mori

talking of bones

Extract from Text 5: Calvary – a tiered response

And those women: Mary sweetly holds her baby’s foot as they flee. Magdalena grieves at the base of the cross. Mary Stuart’s hat is there. Veronica and the hologram handkerchief. Those are the good roles, mothers and mourners. Not like Katell Gollet, dragged down to hell for liking a drink and a dance. Watch out, girls.
Extract from Text 10: Bits about Bits

Enclosure: determining wall, shaping the truth. Keeps faith in and the ungodly out, likewise dogs, chickens and pigs.  Pagans manage to squeeze through. Defining space and temptation, ritual containment. Descendant of cairns and alignments.

Extract from Text 12: Faith is

FAITH is glue, sticking together.
FAITH is an almost forever.

FAITH is illusion, but one bright and gilded.
FAITH is for the weak and deluded.

FAITH is trust in bones and blood.
FAITH is no protection from flood.
Look forward to seeing friends and followers at some point during the course of the exhibition.