Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Druid that never was ...

I've been working a lot lately on 'traditions' that were invented in the 19th century to promote certain images of Brittany or to try to attract people to particular areas. The Foret de Paimpont's artificial association with Arthurian Brocéliande is a case in point, fostered especially after the publication in Paris in 1812 of La Table Rond, a work of high Romance. Its influence encouraged men like Blanchard de la Musse to seek out suitable physical places for scenes from the Arthurian tales in their own neighbourhoods. He decided to locate the Valley of No Return in the Foret de Paimpont. Later it had to be moved because they built a factory in the original setting, but that's another story...
The glass window above is from the remarkable church at Rumengol, richly decorated by Marine artisans from Brest. The window is late 19th century and it shows a sad Druid lamenting his loss of status as two early Breton saints lord it over his former domain, setting up a statue of the Virgin Mary on top of a dolmen (neolithic burial place). Leaving aside this latter anachronism, the illustration purports to relate to the very well-known and strong tradition that the church was built on the site of a former Druid sanctuary, where human sacrifice was carried out. The adjacent forest of Cranou is certainly an atmospheric place with plenty of oak trees even today, and it may well once have been a focus of Druid ritual, but in as much as any wooded area - which doesn't narrow things down much in Brittany - might have been.
The Druid connection has given rise to songs and stories galore, incuding the legend of St Guenolé, outraged by the thought of pagan practice, running all the way from Menez Hom to remonstrate with the Druid and teach him the error of his ways before making poor old King Gradlon build a proper Christian church on the spot.
So where has all this come from? All too often it is impossible to find the end of the thread of local traditions, many of which do genuinely go back to a distant past. But in this case, I think it is possible to point the finger at one individual and hold him responsible for creating an image of Rumengol out of his own imagination. The Chevalier de Freminville (often called La Chevalière for his fondness for dressing up in women's clothes) was no Breton speaker but he had an unquenchable interest in the mysteries of Brittany, and in his treatise of 1829 on antiquities here, came up with a translation of the name Rumengol that gives us 'glowing red stone.' From here chuck in a dolmen and it is but a short bound to Druids and blood sacrifice - at that time it was still wrongly thought that neolithic remains were the work of the Celts. Later writers soon picked this theme up and ran with it - hence we now have an infallible 'ancient' tradition, and the curiosity of this stained glass window.

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