Thursday, June 06, 2019

'New' website

Combourg - chateau and park
My website www.wendymewes.com 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

Guimiliau

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
continuous

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.
 
Bodilis
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.
Sizun
Look forward to seeing friends and followers at some point during the course of the exhibition.



Sunday, March 24, 2019

St Yves de Verité - hexing by saint

St Yves in judge's garb
St Yves, the patron saint of Brittany and of lawyers worldwide, has enjoyed a tremendously strong and lasting cult centred on the cathedral of Tréguier (which holds the relic of his skull) and nearby chapel in Minihy-Tréguier, the hamlet where he was born. But just across the Jaudy estuary near the shore at Trédarzec, once stood a chapel dedicated to the saint with more sinister practices.
Unusually for a Breton saint, Yves was both a real person (in the late 13th century), and an actual official saint, canonised by the pope in 1347. Renown for his passion for helping the poor which led to giving away most of what he had and favouring them in decisions he made as an ecclesiastical judge, he was a synonym for justice and truth. At some point by the early 17th century this reputation had developed a very particular application in the form of St Yves de Verité (Erwan ar Gwirinez or Santik (little saint) ar Wirione in Breton), with a case attested in 1620 when a woman sought vengeance on the landlord who had accused her son of arson. This was indeed the purpose of the cult: a petitioner who felt himself wronged would make a bargain with the saint, calling down vengeance on the guilty party. If his accusation was false, he would suffer the same punishment - death within a year.
The ritual consisted of pilgrimage (in a state of fasting) to the chapel at Trédarzec on three consecutive Mondays as night fell. The petitioner then grasped the shoulder of the statue of St Yves and shook it sharply. This could be because the place was ill-frequented and Yves might have dozed off a bit, but in fact violent treatment of saints' statues by worshippers was widespread in Brittany. Whilst doing this, the petitioner would say the portentous words 'You are the little saint of truth. I make this vow to you. If he is right condemn me. But if I am right let him die within the appointed time.' A coin marked with a cross would then be placed at the foot of the statue, before the customary prayer of a vow would be said BACKWARDS, a clear echo of pagan magic ritual where curses often employed this method. Three ritual circuits of the chapel then followed. Another account says a cobblers' awl was left handy in the chapel for piercing the statue three times, to make a little dust, so anticipating the fate of the guilty party.
Skull of St Yves - Tréguier cathedral
It was once thought this strange cult began just after the Revolution, a time of excess and the suppression of conventional religious practice. In 1792 a document records that the chapel was one of several in the area closed and without petition to reopen it. The building itself began to decay but remains and two statues were still seen in 1881. The poet Brizeux called it 'cette chapelle horrible' in 1845 and this 'cult of hatred' was well-known (and presumably well-used). The chapel was destroyed by order in the 1880s to put an end to what the church saw as barbarous practices, but when the statue was removed to the priest's courtyard it remained a focus for petitioners. He finally hid it in the attic of the presbytery.
The matter was somewhat blurred by the great folklorist Anatole le Braz, who wrote in 1893 that the cult had originally been of St Sul and the chapel destroyed after a notorious murder case in which an old woman claimed to have been asked to carry out a vow of vengeance. In fact the chapel had already been destroyed by then, but a nearby oratory, which still exists, may have caused some confusion. There is also reference to Notre-Dame de la Haine by Emile Souvestre in 1836, but perhaps this was a casual deduction from the standard 'Ave Maria' to be said three times in the course of the ritual.
The attempted destruction of superstition was always an act of folly by the Church - it is the very strength of Breton faith whose tenets are set by the people and their will. God himself would be hard pressed to make impositions on a Breton. Let's not forget we live in a world where recently made statues of unknown saints are said to be working miracles. Today there is apparently a freemasons' lodge at Tréguier with the title Erwan ar Gwirionez. Good luck with that.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Christophe Deceneux

Christophe and I at Combourg with 'our' book
So very sad to hear of the sudden death of my dear friend Christophe. He was a lovely man and an exemplary writer, devoting much of his time to research and managing to turn that into a prolific output. I was delighted to translate one of his booklets 'The Holy Grail and Brocèliande in Dol-Combourg' to bring his work to the attention of anglophones, and this investigation did indeed make its mark in the world of Arthurian studies, through the interest of Geoffrey Ashe.
I first got to know the work of Christophe's late brother Marc Deceneux, an historian of repute, who wrote extensively on the area around Dol and Combourg. During a month's stay for research of my own in Combourg years ago I was introduced to Christophe and his charming wife Jacqueline, and through them became friends with the La Tour du Pin family, owners of the famous chateau. These connections have been of immense importance to me, and my attachment to Combourg remains profound.
Christophe's interests were wide, but recently focused on the curious, alchemic and esoteric. He published Finis Gloriae Mundi de Fulcanelli, La Révélation in 2016. More recently he was working on a novel in conjunction with another writer. The research that brought us together, on the 'location' of the literary forest of Brocéliande in the tales of Arthurian knights, made a big impression on me, going against received notions here in Brittany that the forest of Paimpont was the original inspiration - not at all likely, as Christophe demonstrated convincingly. Exploring the Dol/Combourg area to follow up his leads was an adventure and a revelation.
I will never forget his kindness and enthusiasm for history and imagination. I shall sorely miss sitting in his garden talking over the latest research and going on a little trip of exploration with both Christophe and Jacqueline, as we did one happy day not so long ago. It seems long ago now, the separation of death harsh and decisive. But I was very lucky to know him.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Mr Patch

My primary school reports
I've often been asked about why I write but never about the origins of the impulse, about what made me a writer from a very early age. The most obvious influence was my father, a teacher of English and Latin with an equal interest in history, a phenomenal reader and throughout his adult life a maker of notes and diaries. After retirement he devoted a lot of time to writing, including an account of his experiences during WWII which he called with habitual irony 'A good war'. I read very widely from his suggestions from the age of 4, having an excellent library of books to draw on.

The first book I wrote was at the age of 8/9. It was about, of all things, the Greek islands. I still have it. Of course I'd never been there or anywhere outside of Gloucestershire and Wales. The Homeric tales and Greek mythology had generated the interest, and islands were an excitingly stimulating whilst unknown phenomenon. My method was organised and surprisingly good: books collected from home and the local library, extensive notes made, a process of selection and then a text in my own words. Not that far from what I do now, except today I have the luxury of airing original thought as well as words. But I did pretty well then without the element of personal experience or widely acquired knowledge.

But here I want to honour someone who had an enormous influence on my writing career. When I was 10 years old, he arrived as a student teacher at the primary school I attended in Stonehouse. His name was Mr Patch. Not only did he teach my class daily English lessons, but we also had extra individual lessons together as my mother had quarreled violently (her speciality) with the RE teacher and withdrawn me from all religious teaching. As I had consistently avowed my desire to be a writer, it was deemed fitting that I concentrated on this in these spare lessons. What lovely and sensible people there were in that school!

Mr Patch set me a series of imaginative and demanding exercises, to write in different styles, to develop character studies, to describe places, to produce dialogue and most of all to stimulate my already maturing imagination. I remember now a newspaper article about an imaginary accident and the physical description of a Red Indian chief and desert setting. I realise now that he must have been an avid writer himself. He praised, corrected, encouraged and challenged me throughout. He gave me scope with discipline. He made me feel like a writer, with a serious purpose and a process of development to follow. He wanted me to be my best self in a context that has mattered to me more than other as my life has progressed.

What gifts for a solitary, serious, hyper-sensitive and hyper-imaginative 10 year old child! Recently finding my primary school reports stimulated this memory of a man who had an enormous influence on my writing, although I have never forgotten him. I'd thank Mr Patch from the bottom of my heart, if he wouldn't gently respond with a word or two about cliché.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

St Efflam

He's a strange one, this Irish saint of royal blood, who ran away on his wedding night to avoid intimacy with his new wife Enora and pursue his devotion to God across the sea. He landed at Lieu de Grève in the bay of Plestin-les-Grèves where his chapel and sacred spring stand near to the shore. Stories later associated with him illustrate the exceptional powers and single-minded courage that form almost a badge of office for many Breton saints.
The substantial fontaine, dating from the late 16th century, is a prophetic one. The rituals vary but pieces of bread are of the essence, If you have been robbed and have your suspicions about the culprit, take three pieces of bread, name each one and throw them into the water. The one that sinks will be the guilty person. This tradition has muddled itself with another concerning engaged couples, who are also to throw in three pieces of bread. If two come together without the 'saint' (or third bit) intervening, they will be happy. Obvious you might think, but rumour has it that the bread used should be stolen... In fact, the same ritual with the magic number three is used to answer any question there - will I marry, will my husband survive a sea voyage, will my child live - but in this case the answer is yes if two of the pieces float towards the third saintly morsel. Ah, the finesse of ritual.
St Efflam has another curious legend to his name. He came across King Arthur engaged in combat with a dragon on the towering rocky pinnacle of Grand Rocher overlooking the bay. When the hero failed to make headway and both combatants retired for a half-time break, St Efflam stepped in and called the beast out of his lair. The sight of the raised cross was enough to daze the poor dragon, who meekly submitted to a command to throw himself off the precipice. The moral is clear: faith is stronger than brawn (and dragons should always look away quickly when faced by saints).
Enora, the deserted wife, showed admirable spirit in following the virginal Efflam and landed a little way off near Le Yaudet where she was picked up in a fisherman's net. She was soon running from the local tyrant, who chased her lustfully back towards Efflam's haunt of Lieu de Grève. There a miraculous paralysis overcame the pursuer: he swiftly repented and was released from his plight by Efflam himelf. Enora established her own oratory near that of her husband and remained close but chastely separated from him until her death.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Hello 2019

Temple complex Fanum Martis
Good start to the New Year, with lots of calm weather for tentative walking and lots of new writing getting itself down on the page. I've been working on the Roman chapter of Wayfaring in Little Britain with a trip to Corseul this week, considering the notion of procession in the short journey from the town to the hill-top site of the Temple of Mars. I'm also thinking of reviving my idea for a short Walking Meditation book if I can find the right artist for a collaboration.
Some solid work on the parish close exhibition has been achieved in the first days of January and I can now see the whole thing 'in the round' and connnections between the different pieces are clearer. There have also been new poems, so something in my head is still working - an encouraging and surprising discovery.
Temple remains