Returning to Brittany after 40 years!

From the late 1960s through the mid-seventies I popped over from Germany to La Bretagne any number of times, either for family vacations or trips with friends, other times on study exchanges at a marine biology field station. My move to the US in the late seventies put a long break on trips to a part of France I have always cherished including the orderly alignments of rather large stones and those absurdly short-legged Bretonnes pie noir cows [also called vaches morbihannaises for their truly Celtic origins], which used to graze between the menhirs.

This September my husband and I did a home exchange in the lovely village of Arradon in the Morbihan department. Mor-Bihan means little sea, in this case, the small Golfe de Morbihan, as opposed to Mor-Braz the big sea, the Atlantic ocean south of Morbihan. The Département de Morbihan is the only government district in all of mainland France which wasn’t given a French language name!

Brittany with its ancient towns of Nantes, Rennes, Vannes, and Carhaix has been an independent little paradise for millennia, independent from the French Crown that is. While the cities of Nantes, Rennes, and Vannes have verifiable histories going back a couple of thousand years or more, Carhaix may just be the ‘Carhaise’ of Arthurian legend, the royal seat of King Leodogran, keeper of the roundtable, father of Guinevere.

Over time, Brittany was partially conquered by Julius Caesar, attacked by Saxons, temporarily conquered by Franks and overrun by Vikings. Notwithstanding all these assaults,  the United Duchy of Brittany only lost its autonomy in 1789. The French Revolution finally swallowed whole this most westerly peninsula of France with its proudly independent and originally Celtic and Gallic, non-French population.

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When I first visited Breizh in the sixties, its Celtic heritage was denied, suppressed, and ignored. The central government in Paris was loath to allow cultural independence in those historically non-French, and often hostile, regions which were gradually annexed into the kingdom of France either by war or by marriage. French culture superseded all regional traditions and French became and still remains the dominant language:

“As minor languages in France, both Breton and Gallo exist in what is probably the most highly centralized linguistic culture in the world, focused on one single language: French (Schiffman 1996, 2002). The French language not only plays an important role in the conceptualization of French identity, but it is also symbolic of the power of the centralist French Republic. Since the advanced stages of the Revolution of 1789, the regional languages have labored to find an officially recognized role in post-Revolutionary French identity. Recent debates in the Assemblée nationale over the position that regional languages should play in the life of the French Republic show that even though more prominence is beginning to be given to such languages (albeit in an amended, minor article of the French Constitution), the status quo is not really going to change (Assemblée nationale, May 7, 2008). The dominance of the French language vis-à-vis regional languages in France remains secure.” Excerpt from: The Regional Languages of Brittany by Michael Hornsby & J. Shaun Nolan. In Fishman, Joshua A. and Ofelia García (eds.) 2011. Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity. The Success-Failure Continuum in Language and Ethnic Identity Efforts. Volume 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 310- 322.

Nevertheless, the understanding and appreciation of patrimony and cultural heritage have improved in 21st century France. During my earlier visits, one would only occasionally see the Gwenn-Ha-Du [Breton] or Blanc e Neirr [Gallo], the modern flag symbolizing a united Brittany. Since 1997 it has emerged as the official regional flag flown proudly in front of city halls and other government buildings.

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The black & white with ermines flag of Brittany, designed in 1923 by Morvan Marchal, a Breton separatist and founding member of the nationalist movement “Breizh Atao” [Brittany Forever].

In leaning on the American flag, in which the stripes represent the original colonies, this flag has 5 black stripes representing Bertaèyn, the 5 Gallo-speaking regions, while the 4 white stripes stand for Breizh, the 4 Breton-speaking districts. The plain ermine shield in the upper left corner echoes the ancient Ducal crest of Brittany.

Since 2004 bilingual schools, including kindergarten, help to revitalize a nearly lost culture. And all through Brittany road signs are now posted in both French and Breton/Gallo.

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Even though – according to my own diary – I had been in Vannes over 40 years ago, I had no recollection of this alleged visit to the magnificent, medieval, walled town. Thus our trip to Vannes now was a first for both of us!

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We encountered another “Hook ’em Horns” Texan couple, who took our picture 🙂 We both look kind of chipmunky, I think.

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These lovely half-timbered houses go back to the 15th and 16th centuries. Then and now you find business premises on the ground floor, shops, artisanal workshops, galleries. The upper floors have always been the shop owner’s family quarters and are still used as residences today.

The Museum of Fine Arts in Vannes, La Cohue, from Breton coc’hug meaning market hall, is housed in an ancient building, which belonged to the Dukes of Brittany. Its oldest parts go back to the 13th century, but it was enlarged in the 14th and again in the 17th century to provide room for all its multifaceted uses. From 1431 to 1703 this building hosted ten of the ‘State of the Union of the Duchy of Brittany’ sessions, whenever the ducal government resided in Vannes. Beginning in 1675, the upstairs was used by the parliament of the Duchy of Brittany as their meeting hall. Still, one further floor up, the Dukes had their ‘Palais de la Justice’, the ducal courtroom, till the revolution ripped all feudal powers from ducal hands in 1796. On August 7, 1532, the concord between the Kingdom of France and the Duchy of Brittany was signed in this very building [see marble plaque above]. All the while farmers and fishmongers used the ground floor level as a market hall. Now, the market hall is used for temporary museum exhibits and is free for all visitors.

The ancient lavoirs, the public wash salon of Medieval times curves inside a bend of the river Marle just outside of the town ramparts.

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We found the most beautiful gardens in front of the Château de l’Hermine, a ducal residence, which later became an administrative building before it reverted to private ownership. Finally, today, it’s a museum.

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Inside the ramparts …
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… looking out through one of the defense towers.

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There’s a Gwenn-Ha-Du flying in the Vannes harbor picture above, can you find it? And, more visibly, a flag with the Vannes city crest, an ermine [a stoat in its winter pelt] in a red field, with the Ducal banner around its neck.

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The ermine has long been a heraldic symbol of both feudal lords and the clergy. In Brittany, a certain Pierre de Dreux became the Prince Consort to Alix, Duchesse of Brittany in 1213. Monsieur Pierre was a younger son, originally destined to become a priest. However, the French king Phillip II, horribly worried about political allegiances surrounding French possessions near Brittany needed a loyal and malleable dupe to reign over the duchy with French interests foremost in his mind. Thus young Pierre was appointed to the job. As was customary for younger sons, who didn’t inherit their family insignia, Pierre altered his father’s checkered crest by adding a field of stylized ermine tails in the shape of crosses because they were traditionally the symbol for ranking clergy. Pierre’s nickname was ‘Mauclerc’, meaning bad priest because he abandoned his calling to gain a duchy. A few generations later, in 1316, Duke Jean III chucked the checkers and kept the ermines for Brittany.

There is, however, a much more romantic version as to how Brittany adopted the ermine as its signature symbol. This story revolves around the most revered Duchesse Anne of Brittany [1477 – 1514], who was also the queen of France, twice, but that’s a different story. It is told that she was traveling through the countryside in a kind of meet-and-greet to listen to her people’s grievances when she encountered a hunting party pursuing a stoat. Apparently, it was winter because the stoat was in its brilliantly white winter coat, thus an ‘ermine’. As Anne observed the hunt, the ermine was cornered against a foul-smelling, muddy pond and turned toward its pursuers to fight for its life rather than sully its coat in the pond slime. According to legend, the Duchesse obtained the little creature’s freedom from the hunters and made it her emblem. Thus it also became the basis for her motto:

Potius mori quam foedari 

Kentoc’h mervel evet bezañ saotret

Death before blemish

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Vannes has a multitude of small, almost secret gardens. Each one different from the next, all of them uniquely created. You’ve seen one or two in my pictures above. This particular one, located between the Marle river harbor and the ancient main gate into Vannes, the Porte Saint-Vincent-Ferrier, which was named after a Spanish monk who died in Vannes in 1419 and became its patron saint, is a three-dimensional collage of big rocks representing the menhirs, blue glass shards to mimic the sea interspersed with displays of traditional Breton lace.

The St. Vincent gate behind the lace garden is dominated by an oversized carving of the coat of arms of the town of Vannes.

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It consists of the ermine, of course, in the center, the crest being held up by two greyhounds. Above this tableau is a crown of three defense towers and beneath the ermine crest is a banner with the town motto “A Ma Vie”. The whole gate is quite impressive, as is the whole town of Vannes!

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