A distinctly Breton tradition that has survived into the 21st century is the Pardon. In this context, a religious Pardon is perhaps best described as a communal expression of devotion to a particular saint, from whom grace or a pardon is requested. Since the 15th century, these annual festivals, celebrating and honouring local saints, witness the gathering together of worshippers; some local and others who have made a special pilgrimage from further afield.
It may be difficult to imagine today, as you travel on well-maintained tarmac roads across Brittany in a matter of hours, that the roads of rural Brittany only received serious attention from the government in the second half of the 20th century. Even as late as the turn of the last century, taking part in a Pardon not in your commune required dedication, time and effort. Indeed, participation at a particular Pardon was often undertaken as an act of penance.
Nowadays, usually observed more in the west of Brittany than elsewhere, the Pardons predominantly begin in March and end in October. Held on a Saint’s feast day, each occasion has a character of its own but generally features two or more masses (some churches repeat their masses in Breton) followed or preceded by a formal procession that sees banners, relics, statues and crosses carried by a cortège of worshippers, sometimes dressed in traditional costume, around the church or chapel and often culminating at a calvary or sacred fountain associated with the saint.
The Pardon is not always tied to an ecclesiastical building as it is the saint who is being venerated and whose presence is invoked during these ceremonies, thus you may find Pardons taking place at sacred fountains which would have been cleaned beforehand by the parishioners and decorated with flowers for the occasion. Some fountains had particular rites attached to them and these traditional practices often bemused 19th century visitors such as this instance, related by Thomas Adolphus Trollope in his A Summer in Brittany (1840) :
“Many [fountains to which marvellous qualities are attributed] are situated in villages where Pardons are held; on those days, in the midst of the crowd, women may be seen rushing to the fountain and exposing their persons in the most extraordinary manner, in order to pour the water over every part of them. Nor have the performers of this ridiculous ceremony, or the numerous spectators of it, male and female, the least idea of anything indecent having been done. The scene is watched by the crowd with the utmost gravity and decorum and most perfect faith in the efficacy of it for bringing about the desired result.”
Sacred fountains were a key part of many Pardon traditions; pilgrims would invoke the saint and enjoy the beneficial virtues of the water which, as noted above, sometimes involved far more than simply drinking the water; rituals, some of great antiquity, were important. Perhaps there are still individual and anonymous practices but the rites of collective immersion in the waters of fountains have long disappeared from contemporary Pardons.
As might be expected in a region so reliant on agriculture, several Pardons specifically involved animals, such as those of the dogs and cats at Laniscat or horses at Goudelin and Plérin where the animals are blessed in the water of the fountain. In the early part of the last century, cattle were even brought for blessing to the church in Moncontour whose church is dedicated to Saint Mathurin, patron saint of such beasts.
The practice of holding a candlelit vigil after or before mass on the night before the Pardon was once commonplace but is less so these days. This might be due to a change in tastes but might reasonably be attributed to the fact that most pilgrims now have ready access to reliable transportation and can schedule their arrival at the Pardon. A noticeable contrast to the weary pilgrims of yesteryear who arrived at the Pardon’s location throughout the course of the preceding day. Upon first sighting the church tower, it was once customary for the pilgrim to pause for prayer before resuming the last leg of the journey in song.
For many, the formal procession is the highlight of the Pardon; in times past it was customary to not take breakfast on the morning of the procession and to complete it barefoot and in silence. These processions are usually quite colourful affairs, featuring a long parade of the young girls of the parish resplendent in white gowns, the local clergy, town notables, the devout and the curious; all giving reverence to the scared relics carried aloft and united behind the timeworn, embroidered community banners and pennants held just as high. It was not uncommon for the carriers of relics to be flanked by two wardens carrying stout sticks to vigorously discourage the hands of pilgrims eager to touch the holy relic or statue.
The procession banners were often, in days gone passed, not immune from similarly robust handling. Typically, when the banners of two processions from different parishes met, the banners were lowered and inclined so as to touch one another in a ceremony known as the Salutation of the Banners. Trollope provides a useful history of the practice:
“The pride of the villagers in their banners and in the splendour of their processions is connected with a spirit of emulation and animosity against those of their neighbours. Thus, when the processions of two rival parishes met, especially if, as is likely frequently to be the case, the meeting chanced to take place in a narrow hollow way, where it was impossible to pass each other, each was unwilling to give way. It became, however, necessary that one should give place to its rival, and retrace its step. This was a degradation to which neither party were willing to submit. Each maintained the superior dignity of its own saint; and where is the Breton who would not die for the united cause of his own saint and his own obstinacy!
The holy persons, whose figures were displayed on the banners, were supposed to be animated with the same passions, the same zeal for their own dignity and the same hatred for the opposition saint of the next parish, which actuated their followers. The most bitter and lasting religious feuds were thus generated. Desperate battles were fought under the banners and for the honour of the saints. Nothing could better deserve indulgences, and protection and favouritism from a saint, than courageous exertions on these occasions, and victory achieved for him over his enemy and rival of the next parish. Bones were broken, and lives sometimes lost, in these obstinate encounters, which never ceased till the figure of one saint was borne in triumph, amid the shouts of his followers, over the prostrate body of the other.
In order to put a stop to these battles, the priests, from time to time, pretended that such and such rival saints had declared their mutual reconciliation; and. it was publicly announced that henceforward they intended to be the best friends in the world. A solemn peace-making took place and, whenever the friends met afterwards, they were held out to each other by their respective bearers to kiss. Hence, the salutation of the banners.”
After the parade, there are prayers and usually a final opportunity for the faithful to see the holy relics before they are returned to their sanctuary. In coastal parishes, the procession often ends at the port where the priest and relics embark on boats in order to bless all the vessels at harbour.
With the serious business of the day done, there usually follows a secular fête, involving a goodly amount of food, dancing and [usually] Breton music. This is not a modern addition to the day, laid-on for the benefit of tourists but a traditional, albeit very secular, climax to the Pardon. In the past, these fêtes featured a great deal of carousing, merry-making and robust competitions of all kinds, with contact sports such as gouren (Breton wrestling) and soule (a loosely structured full-contact game similar to rugby football) being particularly popular; much to the consternation of the local priests. The occasion was and remains, a celebration of fellowship and unity in the profession of faith and an opportunity for an often scattered community to come together.
Over a thousand Pardons continue to be celebrated each year in Brittany. Some are quite modest affairs with just a handful of observers, whilst that of Sainte Anne d’Auray attracts thousands of pilgrims from across Europe. The Pardon of Saint-Jean-du-Doigt (near the north coast town of Morlaix) is another well-attended event with numbers perhaps swelled due to its famous relic and massive bonfire. Bonfires are still lit after the main procession at a number of Pardons these days but the practice is nowhere near as widespread as it once was.
Other notable Pardons include those at Notre-Dame du Roncier in Josselin, Notre-Dame de Rumengol in Faou and Notre-Dame de Quelven in Guern. The latter is one of a number of Pardons that still feature a pyrophoric angel – the statue of an angel (some churches use a carved dove) carrying a flame descends on a zip line from the bell tower of the church to ignite the festival bonfire.
Often known as the grand pardon is the Pardon of Saint Ronan at Locronan where every six years (the last was in 2019) the Grande Troménie is performed, consisting of a 12km pilgrimage over hilly moorland route-ways once sacred to the ancient Celts and marked by twelve stations of the cross.
According to Breton tradition, there were three pilgrimages that the devout had to make at least once. The first was to the Troménie at Locronan but it was not considered completed if you looked, even briefly, in any direction other than straight ahead! The second pilgrimage was to the Pardon of Saint-Servais. Some believed that if one failed to make this pilgrimage during one’s lifetime, they were doomed to do it in the afterlife, carrying their coffin on their shoulders and advancing only the length of the coffin each day! The final obligatory pilgrimage was to participate in the Pardon of Notre-Dame de Bulat in Bulat-Pestivien.
Banned under the revolution, romanticised by 18th century travel writers, sentimentalised by 19th century artists and picked-over by 20th century anthropologists, the Pardons of Brittany remain strong; a harmonious juxtaposition of pious observance and secular celebration that continue to attract pilgrims and curious visitors in large numbers. If you visit Brittany and have the opportunity to attend a Pardon, I recommend that you do so.