Saturday, February 08, 2020

Bretons: Theophile-Malo Corret de la Tour d'Auvergne

Starting this series of articles on interesting and not so well-known figures in Breton history with a soldier and scholar, who has left at least one important legacy in assigning the names dolmen and menhir to megalithic structures. Along with his friend Jacques Le Brigant, he was one of the first to be called a  'celtomane', reflecting passionate zeal for all things Celtic, a phenomenon which grew from the late 18th century until a peak a hundred years later. Amateur archaeologists and researchers of this persuasion were especially concerned with the excavation of neolithic monuments, which were thought - by almost all - to be the products of the Celts and Druidic religion.
His life (1743-1800) is celebrated in Carhaix, his birth-place (unless it was nearby St Hernin), with a statue in his eponymous square. The tribute portrays scenes from his astonishing military career, where he was highly respected by his men and regarded as having a charmed life. But he was also an accomplished scholar, and rarely seen even on campaign without a book.
Théophile-Malo Corret grew up in the Chateau de Kergoat and was educated at the college of Quimper before joining the Mousquetaires du Roi. Later serving the Régiment d'Angoumois, he went on to fight in Spain against the English. In 1777 he added De la Tour d'Auvergne to his name after discovering a link with this famous noble family. He was unusual in refusing promotions and honours, such as the rank of colonel, and only accepting to be a captain in the grenadiers in 1792, when he fought in the Republican army after the French revolution.
His only surviving major work is the Origines Gauloises, published in 1792, which sets the Celts and the Breton language at the beginning of European civilisation. He formalised the use of menhir (or long stone in Breton) for a standing-stone (although peulven or upright stone is equally known in Brittany) and dolmen or stone table for a tomb. This refers to the basic structure of two uprights and a capstone of the simplest form, resembling a table in outline.
Musée de la Révolution française

After seeing service in the Savoy region and the Pyrenées, he intended spending his retirement in Carhaix but was captured by the English navy off Brest in 1794 and forced to spend several years in a pontoon prison ship on the south coast of England. During this period of captivity and subsequent residence in Paris, he worked on the ambitious project of producing a dictionary comparing 42 languages. This was never completed.
In 1797, after failing to use his influence to save Le Brigant's only son from military call-up, La Tour d'Auvergne  decided to volunteer in his place, and at the age of 54 was back in arms. In April 1800 Napoleon gave him the title Premier Grenadier de la République for acts of great bravery, but he was to die only two months later on the battlefield at Oberhausen in Bavaria. He is buried in the Pantheon.



Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Ile de Houat

Port St Gildas and the ferry
Finally made it to this little island today on my fourth attempt, after three boats cancelled because of bad weather. I was beginning to think it would never happen - at least in time to finish my book for deadline. This was the first landing place of St Gildas in the 6th century and later his retirement home after an illustrious foundation of the abbey which exists in more recent form at what is now St-Gildas-du-Rhuys on the mainland opposite. I needed this trip to complete my writing on the saint's wayfaring in my new book, a chapter also covering another island off the north coast of Brittany.
Today was beautifully clear and sunny, but the wind was cruel and made what should have been a great day's walking into a bit of an ordeal.
St Gildas on his death-bed
Direct reference to St Gildas is in the name of the port itself, a sacred spring on one of the many wonderful beaches and the church. This contains a large 19th century painting of the death of the saint, showing the devotions of his monks. There are also two statues of the saint, a ceremonial banner and the words of his canticles. I am a week too early for his special day. The fontaine has no statue and looks sadly neglected, with a dribble of water from the cliff finding its way out through supporting platform. It is also completely unsigned and not particularly easy to find without effort.
Sacred spring of St Gildas
That said, the tiny bourg is attractive, despite everything being firmly shut on this January day and no-one about. I was the only outsider on the boat over from Quiberon, the other fifteen or so being welcomed by family on arrival or carrying large cool boxes for some kind of shell-fish activity. On the return journey huge whole fish were stacked in iced crates on the passenger deck.
The scenery of the island is magnificent, with a coastal path of 17 km in entirety and no constructions outside the one village - with the exception of three forts from the 19th century, one at each end and one on the highest point of the island.
Mairie
Fort, now offering accommodation
I shall explore some of the interesting history of the island in my book and definitely return for more of the wild beauty of the landscape on another trip outside the winter months. It is only a 40 minute run on the ferry from Quiberon - weather permitting.