Friday, August 31, 2018

Saints preserve us

Making cow"s eyes - St Herbot
Summer has been slow, sad and full of difficulties, but I have to say that working on the new book about Breton saints has revived my tenderness for this bunch of introverted loners and misogynistic misfits. The tension between what they mostly wanted - isolated contemplation and spiritual struggle in the throes of landscape - and what became expected of them in terms of community leadership, man management and political nous (or maybe nowse) was nothing if not challenging. Some - St Pol, for example - rose above it all and maintained a lofty saintliness that was proof against the worst excesses of wordliness: others, like St Ronan, fought every battle with asperity and, one is tempted to think, the relish of a waspish personality. His namesake, the philosopher Ernest Renan, says he was more a spirit of the earth than a saint: 'son caractère était violent  et un peu bizarre'. St Herbot just gave it all up and settled down in a quiet spot away from people to commune more comfortably with cattle.
But their legacy is immense, and the particular nature of Breton faith that cherished them so is equally endearing. I am currently reading Anatole Le Braz's Au pays des pardons in which he describes (or rather tells how it was described to him) the pardon of St Servais when the faithful of Cornouaille and the faithful of Vannes turned up ready for a brawl, comported themselves as teams and fought for the privilege of hoisting the sacred banner of the saint, whilst the little statue of Servais was smashed to smithereens under the blows of staves and had to be replaced each year. The wounded were taken home on carts, bleeding and groaning.
Pardon of St Eloi - a more orderly affair

Monday, July 23, 2018

Huelgoat: as real as legendary

The lake
The town tour I am offering this summer is something of an oddity. Huelgoat (= high forest in Breton) is famous for its glorious forest, massive granite boulders and the associated legends. The town itself is not distinguished by impressive architecture - far from it - and away from the lake, rocks and sylvan streams there is little a romantic could find to celebrate. But I've been taking people round the forest and telling the same old stories since 2004, so more than time for a change, and surely reality can be just as compelling if presented in a coherent way.
The reality of Huelgoat is a distinct economic and social history that has fashioned the town differently from its neighbours. The key to history is often geology, and here the exceptional granite flowerings (product of volcanic magma) and considerable silver-bearing lead deposits have both played their parts in development and prosperity. Mining was practised by the Celts and Romans here, and this underground wealth attracted the attention of the dukes of Brittany in the late 12th century when they bought large tracts of land from the spendthrift lords of Léon. The oldest building in Huelgoat is the central mill (now called Moulin du Chaos), built in 1339 on the orders of Jean III (and sadly recently turned into a shop). The forest also provided extensive hunting grounds for ducal sport, a medieval equivalent of 'leisure activity' for the wealthy, an issue that was to assume renewed significance much later in Huelgoat.
Moulin du Chaos
German engineers constructed the lake - much smaller in form than today - in the late 16th century to serve as a reserve for the mines which were situated several miles away in what is now the commune of Locmaria-Berrien. No lake road existed until the early 20th century: a simple track gave cattle, horses and washer-women access to the water's edge. In the 1770s, at the height of exploitation, the size was enlarged and a canal cut from it to travel all the way through the forest to the mine, taking water to drop onto a hydraulic wheel and drive the underground pumps that forced water out of the galleries and shafts. An earlier canal, taken directly from the river Argent (Silver River) near the Gouffre had not proved adequate for the mine's requirements.
Little but long, canal heading out to the mine
Unskilled labour at the mines was mostly local, although peasants also had to work their farms, with many foreign professionals (Germans, English) and French (after the Revolution). This great influx of outsiders led French to achieve a dominance over Breton here which was not the case in the surrounding areas. There was also much inter-marrying as some local family names indicate, deriving from other parts of France. There were some tensions, some early strikes, plenty of environmental damage and pollution and finally decline of supply as it became more and more dangerous to access deeper deposits even with more sopisticated machinery in the mid 19th century.
Once the mines declined, quarrying became the main local industry with Huelgoat granite in great demand as building material. Where the creperie in the forest now stands beside the world-famous Chaos was once the manager's house and centre of activities. It explains why there are expanses here without boulders and why lone stones like the Trembling Rock (which bears a line of chisel marks, ready to be spilt) and the Champignon (Mushroom) stand out in what was once a sea of shapes like the surviving Chaos. The wide tracks so handy for roaming tourists today were then necessary for bringing out the cut stone in carts.
Roche tremblante with line of chisel holes
But the latter part of the 19th century saw changes of attitude towards nature and the development of leisure interests for ordinary people. Writers and artists (like Sérusier, one of the Nabis) flocked to the picturesque forest, and hotels blossomed to satisfy new tourist demands. One advertised the town as the 'Fontainbleau breton' and even had a dark room for budding photographers. Flyers in English reflect the early attachment of the British for this lakeside town, already referred to as an 'English colony' in the 1880s. Walking and cycling became serious leisure pursuits throughout the social scale and the beauty of natural scenery began to be valued for its own sake.
As quarrying caused more and more destruction of the great rocks that were attracting visitors from far and wide, a campaign to save them was mounted by the Touring Club of France and supported by many famous figures from the world of culture. In 1903 the town finally bought up the forest area of Saoulec to preserve what is now the main lure for tourists, an astonishing valley crammed with boulders of every size and evocative shape.
I throw in a single legend (the sort I like with social and economic significance) to show willing. It is a pleasing irony that the origin of this Chaos is attributed to the giant Hok Bras or Gargantua who rained down these rocks on the town as retribution for being offered nothing but thin gruel by the inhabitants once he tasted the creamy porridge available further north in wealthy Léon. The rocks thus began as symbols of poverty and are now the basis of the town's wealth, such as it, almost entirely derived from tourism.
The Chaos
Finally, one unprepossessing building can be used to illustrate this shifting economic balance between tourism and industry. The Hotel de France, situated in the town centre, put up this annexe close to the Chaos in 1904, a block of small appartments to accommodate the hordes of visitors that descended on the town in the first quarter of the 20th century.
Not pretty, but telling: early tourist accommodation






Thursday, June 14, 2018

Dol-de-Bretagne: crowded glory


Dol-de-Bretagne is a small place with a dense, chewy history. Situated in a curve of the river Guyoult, as its name (dol = meander) indicates, the town occupies a rise above the marais de Dol, the so-called ‘black marshes’ stretching across to the Bay of Mont St-Michel.
Saint Samson, of Welsh origin and one of the seven founding saints of Brittany, arrived in the 6th century, following the course of the river inland, and made an initial settlement at Carfantin, still marked by his sacred fontaine. He was then said to be responsible for the earliest ‘cathedral’ on the current site in the high town.

This was replaced in the 9th century, at a time when the see of Dol became a cause-celébre of religious and political history in Brittany, but this version was destroyed by Viking raids in 1014. The Romanesque cathedral that followed was burnt down by King John’s troops in 1203. John was surprisingly remorseful and contributed to the reconstruction, but the second tower of the Gothic version was never completed.
The cathedral has a unique feature in its double well, with shafts inside and outside the walls, connected way below ground level by a passage which can be flooded or pumped empty. Another unusual point of interest is the Renaissance tomb of Bishop Thomas James, a surprisingly grandiose feature in the fairly sombre interior. This monument is exquisite in decorative quality, but worth visiting above all on the summer solstice when a shaft of sunlight spotlights the Holy Grail at midday.

A sense of the medieval fortified town once solidly defended and aligned east/west between two entrance points can be derived from a walk along the restored northern ramparts with views out across the marshes to the mysterious Mont Dol, but walls to the south and east were destroyed as industrial quarters developed. The arrival of the train in 1864 led to the creation of new roads, including a wide tree-lined avenue connecting the station to the centre.
The most ostensible glory of Dol lies in the bright parade of ancient houses along Grand rue des Stuarts and Rue Lejamptel, including the oldest house in Brittany, Les petits palets, a Romanesque stone beauty from the 11th century, and numerous half-timbered medieval façades, including porch houses.
The Stuart connection stems from a local nobleman Walter Fitzalan, made overall steward of Scotland by King David in the 12th century. His descendants eventually held the Scottish throne.

Dol’s size belies its significance in the history of Brittany, symbol of an embryonic Breton state in the 9th century, and focus of a resulting religious wrangle with Rome that lasted three centuries. Nominoë was the first leader to attempt a serious grouping of Bretons to counter the weighty threat of the Franks, repelling them in a skirmish near Ballon in 845. His political vision for a unified Breton identity was backed by religious moves to replace the Metropolitan episcopal authority of Tours, in Frankish control, with an archbishop at Dol-de-Bretagne, the latter to hold sway over the other Breton  bishops. A whole succession of popes sought to undo this unilateral decision, but the machinations rumbled on with claims and counter-claims on both sides until 1199 when a definitive decision was made against Dol, and the Breton church returned to the papal fold.

Dol is still determined to secure special status, with the assertion that Nominoë himself was crowned first king of Brittany in the cathedral. It is certain that his son Erispoe took this title but little evidence for his father’s regal rank. It is perhaps surprising that those perversely determined to draw clear and specific conclusions from the complex and shadowy history of the 9th century should be so keen for the political founder of Brittany, a description that could reasonably be assigned to Nominoë, to bear the tainted title ‘rex’in a land where submission to authority has rarely been considered a virtue.


Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Magical places - some reflections


What do we mean when we say a place is magical?
Magical is something different from beautiful or majestic. It may include awesome, in the proper sense, stimulating respectful wonder of greater powers and new dimensions of time and space. A place that speaks to us of elemental forces, of presence, manifested in the luminous fabric of air, in effects on tree, rock and water especially, because magic is a transformative power and a skill of nature.
A magical place reflects back to us a sense of this potential, of the latent energy in the earth and the atmosphere. It is dynamic. Here speaks the long past, an age when nature was not only enough, it was all. Old energies die hard and in our world so often swift and superficial, we crave connection with those fundamentals of existence, the essence of life, things frequently obscured from us by heavy material and emotional trappings of modern life. They are zoetic and thrumming in magical places.
In these places, layers of being can merge and intermingle: spirits from all strata of existence, above, below and on the surface of the earth. Time is a circular continuity, drawing us into its aeonic embrace. We deeply long for this replenishment.
Magical places can also be a reflection of human endeavour: the site of megaliths, medieval ruins or modern structures can stir the power, through their harmony with the landscape, the shape of their expression, the open welcome they extend to otherness. They are aspirational symbols of connection.
The acknowledgement of a magical place is beyond Romanticism. It reaches out for a limpid simplicity buried deep beneath cultural layers that can enrich but also obscure. In a magical place we feel purer, inspired and elevated by a thrill of attachment.
A magical place is so intrinsically, and regardless of the personal baggage we bring along. Sad or happy, cynical or curious, we do not effect the magic. It comes not from us. But at last we look not from outside, but standing within, drawn through an invisible portal into space shared. We are ourselves in a new way. Alive.





Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Parish closes - a few final thoughts...


Working on talks about and visits to the Parish Closes, as well as contributing to the new permanent exhibition project in Guimiliau has made me focus my thoughts on why these structures are so important. Often the answer is limited to the artistic and architectural heritage value. Of course, there's more: the closes have much to tell us about social and economic history, and everyday life in small rural communities in the 16th and 17th centuries, as I've said in earlier posts. But I think the true significance lies in their essential Bretonness.
They reflect a traditional Brittany open to widespread cultural influences (largely through its well-known maritime prowess), with even tiny country villages wanting the latest style and best craftsmanship to enhance their communities. This also shows the intensity of local pride that is still characteristic of Breton society, and a readiness to create public show and spectacle on a grand scale whilst maintaining distinctly unostentatious private lives. The money, time and effort dedicated to collective causes then is a tendency still apparent today. The closes are testament of intensity of Catholic faith in the years after the Council of Trent, but it is religion combined with vibrant devotion to traditional Breton saints not sanctioned by the Vatican, shot through with decorative detail from a decidedly profane perception of humans and animals (and their many foibles) and an almost tender preoccupation with Death
.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Parish closes - Part Three

Commana
The parish closes vary enormously in size, style and embellishment and each presents a unique personality to the visitor. They range from small and simple to big and brash. The amount of local revenues, the artistic taste of decision-makers and geographical factors all came into play. One feature like the calvary or the triumphal entrance may have been singled out for high expenditure and more complex decoration than the other elements. A stern and solid tower profile may have been deliberately chosen in the 'mountain' parishes like Commana and Plouneour-Menez, fitting the surrounding landscape (and weather). The richest village of all, St-Thégonnec, just went for out and out ostentation, with money no object in the cause of aggrandisement.
Miliau v St Joseph
One notable form of individualisation came through the honouring of local saints. The traditional founder of the village, such as Thegonnec at St-Thegonnec, Miliau at Guimiliau and Edern at Lannédern, would be represented by statues with distinctive attributes, such as Thegonnec's cart or Edern's stag. Miliau's altarpiece with painted panels tells the tragic story of his murder at the hands of his own brother. These Breton saints, with no official Vatican sanction, were often later displaced by traditional worthies of the Roman Catholic church, leading to greater uniformity and less locally specific detail. The cult of Joseph was fostered in the second half of the 17th century and his altarpiece now overshadows that of Miliau.
La Martyre
Decoration of the closes was by no means limited to traditional religious subjects like scenes from the Passion on the calvaries. Craftsmen had a lot of fun with amusing and often profane images, carved on string-beams high above eye level. Scenes from everyday life are common, often showing rural working practices. At Pleyben there is even a representation of Prometheus having his liver pecked out by the eagle, a classic of Greek mythology. The porch at Guimiliau contains a whole series of images of unclear significance, like the 'cock king' and men in hairy tights, probably reference to a traditional shepherd's dance, but strikingly un-Christian in its context. The exterior of this porch has many comic scenes, like a paralytically drunken Noah. The famous caryatid at La Martyre is of mysterious provenance.
Guimiliau
Just as contemporary dress and hair-styles are often clearly shown in the detail of the decoration, it is also thought that local characters may have been represented in the faces of some sculpted figures. An ostentatious example is at Plougonven, where the large, ugly statue of the Devil on the calvary is said to have been modelled on the rector who had fallen out with the workmen - how I hope that is a rare example of a true story.
Plougonven

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Parish Closes - Part Two

Pleyben
These extraordinary building projects often took decades (and more) to complete, with craftsmen and general workers billeted on the spot for the duration. The small close at Berven was a real exception, being constructed in one seven year fell swoop. The English organ-maker Thomas Dallam, whose father Robert had fled from Catholic persecution in Cromwell's Britain, was not only in constant employ in Brittany, but managed to produce several children whilst based in Pleyben (1688-1692) working on his masterpiece there. Another of his fine pieces can be seen at Guimilau, perhaps the most beautiful and well-set of all the parish closes.
Pleyben
Many of the craftsmen who had come from outside Brittany to work on the Chateau de Kerjean, north of Landivisiau, at the end of the 16th century, found themselves in demand to transfer their skills in new Renaissance styles to the religious context of the parish closes. It was a highly competitive field, with villages vying with their neighbours to have bigger and better examples to boost their local pride and proclaim their prosperity by a public show of wealth. This sort of communal devotional ostentation was highly acceptable to the Bretons, even though they tended to shun excessive display as individuals.
La Martyre
The closes were largely funded by the wealth that poured into western Brittany from the cloth trade, until Colbert's protectionist measures dealt a hammer blow in 1687, and business almost ceased overnight, as figures from goods passing through the port of Morlaix show. There were other important sources of local revenue such as large fairs - that of La Martyre, which has the most beguiling and unusual of all parish closes, is a good example, with merchants coming from as far afield as England and Flanders. Local legend says that Shakespeare's father came here as a glove-seller, possibly with the young Will in tow. At Lampaul-Guimilau, one of the 'big three' parish closes just west of Morlaix, the tanning industry generated considerable profits to be poured into the magnificent bell-tower (which sadly lost its top to lightning in 1809) and the sumptuous church interior, which remains its principal glory today.
Lampaul-Guimiliau
It is quite extraordinary to imagine these tiny rural villages full of life, purpose, excitement, religious emotion, movement, noise and colour for long periods of construction work on the parish closes from the 15th to 17th centuries, achievements which remain symbols not only of exquisite art and architecture from Gothic to Renaissance and Baroque, but also of an economic and social vibrancy now long since vanished.