Leaving behind home, loved ones and all that was familiar; undertaking a pilgrimage in the Middle Ages was a serious and often costly affair. It could take several years out of one’s life and involved facing considerable risk while travelling across distant lands; bad weather, wild beasts and brigands accounting for countless ill-prepared or overwhelmed pilgrims over the centuries.
Typically, before embarking on a distant pilgrimage, a pilgrim was required to settle their affairs which involved the payment of all outstanding debts, seeking and granting forgiveness for past wrongdoings and making a solemn vow to complete their journey. Most pilgrimages were undertaken out of religious devotion or to petition for special favours and gather indulgences; pilgrimage as expiation of sins or as an act of anticipatory penance being a key motivator. Sometimes, a pilgrimage was ordered as a public act of penance; the sinner often bound to walk barefoot or even naked, rarely spending more than one night in a particular place and having to beg for food along the way.
Pilgrimages can be defined as journeys to holy places such as shrines, undertaken as labours of love for the Divine and spiritual quests for grace. For Christians, this sometimes involved the long, difficult voyage to the Holy Land but other sites of significance such as churches containing the relics of saints were also places of pilgrimage for the pious. Amongst the most notable were the churches of the apostles St Peter and St Paul in Rome, the shrine of St Thomas à Becket in Canterbury cathedral, the relics of the Magi of Bethlehem at Cologne cathedral and the shrine of the apostle St James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
The Church granted indulgences to those who successfully completed pilgrimages to certain sites, with the amount of merit depending on the distance travelled and hardships endured along with the devotion shown at the sacred shrines met on the pilgrims’ trail and the performance of established rituals at the destination itself. Sometimes, the pilgrimage was undertaken to earn indulgences for the dead and not necessarily by a loved one; pilgrimage by proxy was not uncommon and one professional pilgrim in late 19th century Brittany was noted to have carried out at least 64 pilgrimages on behalf of other people.
Through these indulgences, pilgrims might hope to save their souls from eternal damnation or even escape Purgatory; for instance, it was traditionally held that a pilgrimage to the relics of St James in Compostela reduced one’s time in Purgatory by half. The medieval pilgrim trail to Compostela across France and northern Spain, known as El Camino de Santiago, was therefore very popular and remains so for the pilgrims of today as well as with religious travellers and hikers.
Brittany was an important stage on the journey to Compostela for medieval pilgrims travelling from Ireland and western parts of Great Britain. As you can see in the map above, the main starting points for the Camino de Santiago are near to some of the key ports on the Atlantic and Channel coasts. After disembarking, pilgrims are faced with a further journey of 2,000km (1,250 miles) to Compostela. For an idea of scale, the distance covered by the pilgrim trail illustrated from La Pointe Saint-Mathieu to Clisson is over 500km (325 miles).
One of the starting points for the camino on Brittany’s west Atlantic coast is the former abbey at Pointe Saint-Mathieu. This was built over the remains of a 6th century monastery which was once said to hold the relics of Saint Matthew but accounts differ markedly as to how and when parts were moved to southern Italy. Stripped-out after the French Revolution, it is quite difficult to imagine now how significant the abbey and supporting town of some 40 streets once was; even as late as the end of the 16th century.
The former abbey of Beauport, on Brittany’s the north coast, is the departure point for another important camino route through Brittany. Founded in the mid-12th century, the abbey once held significant holdings in Lincolnshire. It was spared the ravages of war that often befell other sites, such as the abbey at Pointe Saint-Mathieu, but met the same fate during the French Revolution. Happily, the abbey buildings were not stripped of their stones and the ruins today remain quite substantial.
Most of the routes take you through open land on country lanes, canal tow-paths and graded bicycle trails. The terrain covered is fairly flat and affords the traveller a variety of landscapes predominantly rural in aspect, passing through villages and small towns and crossing just a few historic cities. The Association Bretonne des Amis de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle can provide practical guidebooks for the various routes that traverse Brittany.
Several routes merge at Redon, a small town on the confluence of the Vilaine and Oust rivers, where pilgrims traditionally converged before moving onto Nantes and beginning the long journey south to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port and into Spain.
Another long-distance pilgrimage trail in Brittany is that of the Tro Breizh (Breton for through or tour of Brittany) or the Pilgrimage of the Seven Saints; a journey of over 600km (375 miles) connecting the cathedrals and relics of the founders of the first seven bishoprics of Brittany. These early bishoprics are closely linked to the first Christian evangelists who arrived from Celtic Britain in the sixth century and are considered together as the Seven Founding Saints, namely:
Saint Pol whose shrine is at Saint-Pol-de-Léon; Saint Tudwal’s shrine is at Tréguier; Saint Brioc whose principal shrine is at Saint-Brieuc; Saint Malo at the town bearing his name; Saint Samson whose shrine is at Dol-de-Bretagne; Saint Padarn at Vannes and Saint Corentin whose shrine is at Quimper.
In medieval times this journey was expected to be carried out once in a lifetime to ensure entry into Heaven and a Breton legend tells us that whoever does not make the Tro Breizh at least once in their lifetime will be condemned to complete it after death but by advancing only the length of a coffin every seven years.
There is some debate about the age and importance of this pilgrimage in medieval times; some scholars trace the Pilgrimage of the Seven Saints back to the time of King Nomenoë who, through a series of political, religious and military actions, split the Breton Church away from the ecclesiastical province of Tours in the 9th century. Other historians argue that the collective cult of the Seven Saints probably dates from the end of the 10th century. The first documented reference to this pilgrimage is found in the canonization inquiry for Saint Yves in 1330.
The Pilgrimage of the Seven Saints was traditionally completed in one journey which typically took a month to complete. Pilgrims walked from one saint’s shrine to another, essentially making a circuitous pilgrimage through the heart of Breton Brittany, passing neither of the big cities of Rennes or Nantes. There is no final destination or order to respect – you can start and stop anywhere – although it was once the custom to follow the course of the sun.
In the modern era, not many people can devote an entire month to a pilgrimage and so, in 1994, when the pilgrimage was officially re-launched with the full support of the Vatican, it was suggested by the association Les Chemins du Tro Breiz, that it be limited to one week annually and thus completed over the course of seven years. Each summer, the association organises a walk of one stage of the Tro Breizh covering about 150km (90 miles) over the course of a week. Additionally, the association handles the Tremen-Hent, a pilgrims’ passport or credential, whose completion is necessary in order to apply for the Certificate of Pilgrimage. These organised pilgrimages attract over two thousand participants each year; a combination of devout pilgrims and casual hikers.
According to Breton tradition, there were three pilgrimages that the devout had to complete at least once during their lifetime. 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 and deviated, even slightly, from the route supposedly taken by Saint Ronan. The second pilgrimage was to the Pardon of Saint-Servais; 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.
Participation in the extended processions of two other Pardons were also widely regarded as obligatory pilgrimages: that of Notre-Dame du Yaudet near Lannion and the troménie known as ‘the tour of the relics’ in Landeleau. It was said that whoever failed to accomplish the pilgrimage to Yaudet was condemned to go there three times after death, while those who missed ‘the tour of the relics’ were condemned to undertake this troménie after death, carrying their coffin but advancing only its length each day.
It was believed that announcing one’s intention to undertake a pilgrimage constituted a sacred vow; if you had died before fulfilling your vow, you would honour your obligation in death. However, the dead were said to have been unable to go on a pilgrimage alone; they needed to be accompanied by at least one living person. This was why, sometimes, those performing their pilgrimages often heard, without seeing anything, a rustling in the hedgerows or the sounds of footsteps upon the path; the souls of the dead fulfilling their vows of pilgrimage.
In Brittany, most pilgrimages commenced, with prayers, from the steps of a calvary. This was not necessarily one associated with the local church or even one dedicated to the particular saint being invoked by the pilgrimage; the nearest roadside calvary was thought sufficient. However, if the pilgrimage was being undertaken in order to intercede for the soul of a dead loved one, the journey began with prayers at the grave of the deceased.
It is possible to follow the established pilgrimage routes, in whole or in part, at any time of the year. The routes are mostly marked and will lead you, via the most beautiful cathedrals in Brittany, to historic chapels, sacred fountains, remarkable calvaries and across wonderful and varied landscapes. Whether hiked or biked, travelling even a part of the old pilgrimage routes, affords a special opportunity to connect with the past and to discover today’s Brittany in peace.