Sunday, October 26, 2014

Ile Tristan

Today was one of the occasions when very low tides enable a crossing on foot to Ile Tristan, just off Douarnenez. The two and a half hour window allows plenty of time to explore the island, although only certain parts are accessible to the public - the Maison de Maitre and another large house used as a temporary cinema for the day, orchards and the exteriors of a 1930s chapel and a 19th century fort. As is often the case in Brittany, culture has priority over history: short films (fiction and documentary) were showing, there was an exhibition of photographs and various miserable-looking musicians were performing in selected spots. There was no information about the island's chequered past, and no sign on the island itself of occupation in the 16th century by one of the most intriguing characters of Breton history.
My own personal research interest is the bloodthirsty career of Guy Eder de la Fontenelle, a young nobleman who held the island from 1595, and used the Wars of Religion to spread mayhem throughout western Brittany, from his native Cotes d'Armor to this western edge of Finistere, where his most notorious achievements were the destruction of Penmarc'h - burning the population in the church and taking control of 300 ships in the port -  and the sacking of Pont Croix. He was pardoned for his crimes or acknowledged for his acts of war, depending on your point of view, and actually officially made governor of Ile Tristan at the end of the war. Accusations of intrigue with the Spaniards made this a short tenure, however, and he was executed in Paris at the ripe old age of 29.
His persona has lived on in the oral tradition, but aside from a short profile published in the 1920s, little serious and un-romantic work appears to have been done on the historical evidence of the life of this extraordinary, excessive personality. Sociopath or product of his times, able to get away with more than most in this far flung corner of France? I've made some effort to go further with research, with little result as yet. On the island today I wanted to get an idea of the strategic positions and the defensibility, as all efforts to dislodge La Fontenelle during his reign of terror proved fruitless. Not sure I made a lot of progress, but it's certainly true to say that the less I can find out about him, the more interesting he becomes.


Lucy said...

How extraordinarily young to have had such a lurid career already! Though perhaps only by modern standards.

It's true, isn't it, about culture having priority over history, you've put your finger on something I've not quite been able to quite identify before. Why is it, do you think? Though I'm sure that's not a question that can be answered simply.

I have had similar thoughts about churches, that the only literature you ever find in them is the standard issue RC stuff about catechism,giving money to your local priest and making the trip to Lourdes, barely ever so much as a leaflet about the history or architecture. I tended to see this as the Church fighting a rearguard action and refusing to concede that religious buildings should have any purpose or interest than as places of formal observance.

WM said...

A big question. As a starting point in response, I think that in contemporary Brittany culture is a unifying mechanism and the large lines of history are generally divisive. As you can see, I have no proper answer, but it's worth thinking about.

Nigel said...

I suspect the stones from his fortifications were taken away and used in new dwellings after his death.
There is some interesting information on Wikipedia about him, including the facts that his sword is in the museum at Quimper and he died by being broken on the wheel.

WM said...

Thanks, Nigel. There are still some odd bits of masonry on the island that could be foundations of structures from that period, but agreed that recycling was inevitable. I think the Wikipedia article only indicates how much new research is needed - just look at the dates of works cited in the notes. Unfortunately I don't have a couple of years spare for a non-commercial project, but in retirement - who knows?