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.