The history and folklore of Brittany contain many intriguing references to once flourishing cities that disappeared from the face of the earth, having left little or no trace of their ruins upon the land. Information on these lost cities is scarce and fragmentary; some seem to have been abandoned under strange circumstances while others simply have simply vanished into myth.
The most famous of the world’s lost cities is surely Atlantis, which is said to have been consumed by the sea in a single day and night. In 1934, the French author François Gidon proposed that the Atlantis legend was born from the flooding of the coastal plains off north-west Brittany. More recently, several researchers have suggested that the megalithic monuments of Brittany are somehow connected with Atlantis. In his book The Glass Towers of Atlantis (1986), Italian scientist Helmut Tributsch expounds a theory that Neolithic Europe was Atlantis and that its capital was around Carnac in southern Brittany.
Perhaps the most well known of Brittany’s lost cities is that of Ker-Is, submerged by the waters of the Bay of Douarnenez in the 5th century. The legend in its most common form tells that the city was damned and taken by the sea due to the sinful passion of Dahud, the resolutely pagan daughter of the Christian king Gradlon. I set out the legends surrounding the city’s destruction in a previous post, so will not repeat them here.
However, it is worth noting that there are as many legends regarding the salvation of Ker-Is as there are of its devastation. Some legends say that the city was not destroyed but rather simply covered by the sea, becoming a sort of enchanted realm under the waves. When the city was engulfed, everyone kept the attitude they had and continued to do what they were doing at the time of the disaster. The women who were spinning continue to spin, the cloth merchants continue to sell the same piece of cloth to the same buyers and the congregation remain seated in church celebrating mass; they are condemned to remain in this state until the city and its inhabitants are delivered.
Some old tales talk of ways of resurrecting the city; spending just one penny with the town’s merchants, donating a coin to the church collection, responding to the priest during mass or even agreeing to a plea for aid. Any of these missed actions by a living person would have redeemed the city, allowing it to return from the depths with all its former splendour.
According to tradition, the ancient city of Lexobia was sited between the north coast town of Lannion and the mouth of the Léguer River, somewhere near the present-day hamlet of Le Yaudet. This site seems to have been continuously occupied since the early Neolithic period and archaeological investigations have uncovered evidence of a fortified Iron Age settlement and a thriving port here during the Roman era. Archaeologists have also discovered evidence of a massive tidal mill constructed here in the 7th century. Albert Le Grand in his Lives of the Saints of Armorican Brittany (1637) noted that one of the seven founding saints of Brittany, Saint Tudwal, and his pupil Saint Pergat settled here in the mid-6th century and that Pergat later became Archdeacon of Lexobia.
Although written around 1480, Pierre Le Baud’s History of Brittany was not published until 1638, in it, he says that Lexobia was destroyed by Danish raiders in 836. It seems that the devastation was total, as the see transferred to Tréguier in 859 and Lannion, a few miles inland, expanded to become the chief port of the Léguer. However, Jean-Baptiste Ogée in his Historical and Geographical Dictionary of Brittany (1780) believes that the real destruction of the site dates to 786 when the town was taken by Charlemagne’s forces; its weakened defences helped explain how the Danes were able to capture the town just fifty years later. The folk memory of a once significant settlement on this site can feasibly be glimpsed in a ducal charter of 1267 which refers to La Yaudet by the name Vetus Civitatis (land of the old city).
Some authors have dismissed the claims that Lexobia was in Brittany and insist it is instead the Norman town of Lisieux. Perhaps there were once two towns with similar names or the settlement on the Léguer was named after a tribe of Lexobi, different but possibly related to those noted around Lisieux during the Roman era? We will probably never know for sure; perhaps we should call upon Lexobia’s Saint Pergat who was commonly invoked for lost items.
Local tradition attests that near Lanmeur, a flourishing town called Kerfeunteun (town of the fountains) once stood. The noted French author Charles Nodier, writing in Picturesque and Romantic Voyages in Ancient France (1846), reported that Lanmeur emerged from the literal ashes of Kerfeunteun. It seems that the town’s origins date back to Saint Samson, another of the seven founding saints of Brittany, who established a monastery here in the 6th century, around which a thriving settlement subsequently grew up.
The town is home to a church dedicated to Saint Melar who, according to legend, was the legitimate heir to the throne of Kernev, usurped by his uncle Rivod who also had the boy’s right hand and left foot cut off thus making him unfit to hold a sword and ride a horse. These handicaps were only temporary as a miracle gave him a silver hand and a foot of brass which functioned as well as his own limbs. Seven years later, the young man was murdered, beheaded near Lanmeur and another miracle occurred; his head reattached itself to his lifeless body. While his body was being taken to join those of his ancestors in Lexobia, the horses pulling the funeral chariot refused to be led and headed, resolutely, for Lanmeur. On reaching the town square, the cart’s axle broke; a sure sign from God that the saint would be buried here by Saint Samson.
The church is built over a stunning Romanesque crypt dating to the 7th century, said to have been especially built to house the saint’s remains, although some have suggested the stones used were repurposed from an old Roman temple. Others believe that the crypt itself was once a pagan temple; two of its monumental columns are decorated with high relief carvings of entwined snakes or, depending on your view, vines and a natural spring is captured in a small basin set into the foot of the crypt’s west wall.
It is believed that this was the fountain from which the town took its name. Unfortunately, Kerfeunteun seems to have been destroyed by the Normans in 878 and again in 882, and it was not until their final defeat in 939 that the monastery and town were restored. Having reinstated themselves, the monks subsequently established a hospital and, later, a leper colony. The name Lanmeur, which means great hermitage, was first noted in the 12th century; Kerfeunteun being consigned to legend.
According to legend, the fountain in the crypt of the church of Saint-Melar will one Trinity Sunday flow so hard that the church, then the whole country will be flooded entirely. The fountain was also the scene of two popular superstitious practices. Young girls once placed a hairpin on the water; if the pin floated, it was taken as an omen that they would marry within the year. In another rite, pilgrims would dip both hands in the basin of the fountain and then wave them above their heads in order to protect themselves against rheumatism and other diseases.
At the time of the Roman invasion in 56BC, Occismor (which means west sea) was said to be the principal city of the Osismii, the native Celtic tribe whose domain roughly encompassed the land west of the Blavet River. During the centuries of Roman occupation, Vorgium (present-day Carhaix) became the chief town of this part of Brittany. Unfortunately, the location of Occismor eludes us today although the historian Daniel Louis Olivier Miorcec, writing in 1829, proposed the area around Plouneventer in north west Brittany as the most likely site.
This town is named after the obscure 6th century Saint Neventer who is said to have been one of two British knights who, returning from pilgrimage to the Holy Land, promised the local ruler, Count Elorn, to deliver his lands from the dragon that had taken his son, Riok, on condition that he agreed to convert to Christianity and raise his son in the new faith. The two saints tracked the dragon to its lair and having rescued Riok, they took the dragon to Tolente where they commanded it to throw itself into the sea.
Archaeological discoveries attest that an Iron Age village grew into a sizeable settlement here during the Roman period and while some authors have speculated that this was the fabled Occismor, it is probably more likely that it is the lost Roman town of Vorganium. It is worth noting that Jacques Cambry in his Travels in Finistère (1799) was of the opinion that the north coast town of Saint-Pol-de-Léon was more likely the site of Occismor.
To identify another lost city of yore, we once again turn to the pages of Albert Le Grand’s monumental work for our information: “The country of Ac’h or Aginense had as its capital the ancient city of Tolente, famous for the size of its enclosure, the strength of its ramparts and the beauty of its port. It was located at the entrance to the Bay of Angels, not far from Île Cézon and it was beyond that it sent its vessels to all parts of the earth”.
The most popular location proposed for the city of Tolente is near the mouth of the Aber Vrac’h River on the far west of Brittany’s northern coast, somewhere in the neighbourhood of the present-day town of Plouguerneau. The area is a mass of promontories, fingers of land stabbing out towards the waters of the Channel, that abound with Neolithic cairns and dolmens, some as old as 6,600 years and amongst the oldest monuments in Europe. Archaeological discoveries hereabouts show evidence of stone enclosures and defensive embankments built during the Iron Age. During the Roman occupation, the area covered by the present-day village of Landeda was the terminus of a road connecting it with the region’s capital, Vorgium; indicating here was a port of some significance.
The Breton historian Rene Kerviler, in his consolidated edition of Armorica and Brittany (1893), tells that: “The Romans, undeniably, made Carhaix an important city but this shows us that, if the sea returned all that it had taken, would there not be more important Roman ruins in the bay of Aber Vrac’h, where a majestic road led to the direct embarkation port for Great Britain? This is where an ancient tradition placed, on the right bank, the flourishing city of Tolente (Toul-hent, that is to say the hole or the bay of the path), destroyed by a cataclysm”.
According to Albert Le Grand, boats from the port of Tolente traded regularly with Great Britain and the town was, for a time, the capital of Domnonia, the early kingdom carved out in Armorica in the 5th century by the first British migrants fleeing the Saxon invaders. The first book published in French on the history of Brittany, Alain Bouchard’s The Great Chronicles (1514) notes that: “The king Judicael lived in a beautiful city in Brittany called Talenche or Tolente, which has since been destroyed by wars”. Judicael was a 7th century saint, king of Domnonia and High King of the Bretons.
Jean-Baptiste Ogée, writing in 1780, provides a date for the city’s destruction by Norman raiders: “It is claimed that it was in this place (Plouguerneau) that the opulent city of Tolente was located, on the river Vrach; a city which was completely destroyed and reduced to ashes around the year 875″.
The 12th century epic known as The Conquest of Brittany by King Charlemagne, deals with the history of 10th century Brittany and the invasions of Charlemagne and the Norman Vikings. The poem contains several references to Gardayne; a “wonderful city” near Saint-Malo ruled by a pagan noble, Doret. Said to have been surrounded by a canal 20 feet wide and 60 feet deep that extended to the sea, the town was flanked by a castle, whose doors were gilded with silver and gold; its brilliance seen from a league away. In placing the town under siege: “the aspect is terrible. The ditches are full of long spikes on which are planted more than a thousand heads of Christians. The city is still defended by a crowd of ferocious beasts, lions, leopards; there is even a giant”.
Injured before the walls of Gardayne, Charlemagne beseeched God “to confuse this city; let none of these unbelievers escape and let no man live”. Soon, a terrible storm was aroused and “at midnight, the city crumbles with its walls and fortresses. The sea goes beyond its limits and invades the land, swallowing six leagues wide by two long. The French tremble with fear when they see this miracle. More than ten thousand of them drowned there. The tempest and darkness last four days and even the emperor himself is seized with fear. The flood reaches up to him. “You have prayed too well,” said Duke Naimes to him”. However, Charlemagne prayed for deliverance and his pleas were answered; the storm quickly abated, the sea returned to its domain.
Some historians have suggested that the Rance estuary was the site of this battle and that Gardayne might reasonably be located around the present-day town of Saint-Suliac. If we allow for the imaginative exaggeration of our medieval scribe, we might see in the substantial stone foundations revealed at each low tide, a stoutly-built defensive fortification; all that now remains of a important strategic site abandoned by the routed Vikings in 939.
Further west along the north coast, around the town of Erquy, François Habasque noted, in his Historical and Geographical Notions of the Côtes du Nord (1836), several legends about the lost city of Nasado which was taken by the sea because of the debauchery of its inhabitants. Apparently, the women of this city were famous for their beauty and the delicacy of their skin; it was said that when they drank wine it could be seen travelling through their bodies. Ironically, Erquy once housed a large leper colony for diseased soldiers returning from the Crusades.
According to legend, the soldiers of the town’s garrison, too eager for the attention of these women, no longer obeyed their leader, who, in his frustration at such indiscipline, cursed the city, which was soon consumed by the waves. Another legend tells that Gargantua and his troops rested overnight in the city but none of his men mustered for departure the following morning. Receiving no response to his calls, the angry giant cursed Nasado and its inhabitants: the sea rushed inland, consuming the city and even covering the giant’s heels.
The 1843 revised edition of Ogée’s Historical and Geographical Dictionary identified the hamlet of Pussoir a little north of Erquy as the site of Nasado. The area is rich in Iron Age and Roman remains; unsurprising given that it provided the inspiration for a certain infamous “small village of indomitable Gauls”.
Sometimes, less exotic characters were said to have invoked curses that brought destruction upon the land. In the area around the coastal town of Saint-Briac, an impatient priest, disturbed during mass, was said to have pronounced a curse strong enough to cause a cataclysm. Legend tells that, one morning, the birds made such a clamour that the local curate, frustrated by the distraction to his prayers, cursed the birds and the forest where they sheltered. Immediately, a furious tempest arose and waves rushed through the land. When the sea receded, there remained only the bay that we see today.
A variant of this legend, located on the other side the Rance estuary, tells of a town whose inhabitants were living in peace until the Devil obtained permission from God to test them. He sent them thousands of crows, which took possession of the trees surrounding the town’s chapel, deafening the people with their croaking which was redoubled on feast days, so that the word of God was no longer heard. The priest charged the townsfolk to keep the birds at bay but one day they fell asleep and the crows came to perch on the chapel roof. The priest, annoyed by their uproar, cursed the crows in his frustration and a great storm soon raged which engulfed the entire town.
Some local traditions tell of cities that have been engulfed not by the sea but by its sands, some of which reveal themselves on certain privileged nights. The Breton writer Emile Souvestre, in his book The Breton Hearth (1844), collected a tale from northern Brittany that tells that in the area now covered by the dunes of Saint-Efflam, a powerful city once stood; ruled by a king whose sceptre was a hazel wand with which he changed everything according to his whim. However, the debauched living of the king and his subjects caused their damnation, so that one day, God sent thunderous waves so powerful that the sands of the shore rose to engulf the city.
Each year, during the night of Pentecost, on the first stroke of midnight, a passage opens under the mountain of sand that allows one to reach the king’s palace. In the last room of which is suspended the hazel wand which gives all power but if this is not gained before the last sound of the midnight bell, the passage closes and does not reopen for another year.
It is probably to this same city that the legend relating to the city concealed within the nearby Grand Rocher massif refers. This rocky spur was said to entomb a magnificent city that could be seen in its illuminated brilliance through a narrow fissure that only opened-up on Christmas Eve once every seven years. The city would be reborn, if someone was brave enough to venture inside and managed to penetrate to the depths of the mountain at the first stroke of midnight and nimble enough to re-emerge before the sound of the twelfth bell had died.
About halfway between the city of Nantes and the Bay of Biscay lies the Grand-Lieu lake; France’s largest natural lake and one of the country’s most significant bird sanctuaries. The region’s folklore has long attested that this lake conceals the once prosperous city of Herbauges; a place renowned as a den of iniquity and vice.
In the late 6th century, Saint Martin of Vertou was charged by the Bishop of Nantes with evangelising the pagan population of the region. The saint’s preaching was not well received in Herbauges whose inhabitants insulted the Gospel and beat its messenger. After one savage beating, he was taken-in and cared for by Romain and his wife, a couple who had recently accepted the new faith. The strength of the city’s attachment to its sinful resistance so offended God that He elected to remove the city from the face of the earth. One night, an angel appeared to Saint Martin commanding him and his righteous hosts to leave the city with all haste, warning that he should not look back, no matter what he heard. Unfortunately, upon hearing the roar of the rising waters, Romain and his wife could not contain their curiosity; turning to witness the terrible spectacle, they were immediately petrified. Two menhirs in the neighbourhood were popularly said to be the only witnesses to the catastrophe.
The disappearances of some Breton towns feature a more prosaic explanation. On Brittany’s southern coast, between Guérande and Saint-Nazaire, lies the resort town of La Baule-Escoublac; home to the biggest free Easter egg hunt in France. The village of Escoublac has been noted since the 11th century but its situation on the northern shore of the Loire estuary has created many challenges for its inhabitants over the years. It seems that the original village grew-up by the seashore but was consumed by a tidal wave which covered the settlement under sand in 1450. Despite the danger posed by drifting dunes, the village was rebuilt a little further inland but in 1751 was again consumed by the shifting sand following a violent storm.
Once again, the village was rebuilt but encroaching sands required it to again relocate further inland; the old church was abandoned to the sand and a new one constructed in 1785-86. It was said in the mid-19th century that the people of this flourishing town had gotten rich from the salt trade but had become corrupted by their wealth. One night, a voice was heard warning them, with all haste, to change their wicked ways. Alas, the people did not listen; the sea rushed in to consume the town and in retiring, left it buried under a mountain of sand.
Many Breton towns were once believed threatened with a catastrophe similar to that which befell Ker-Is. It was to avert such an event that a candle lit to celebrate the city’s deliverance from the plague in the 15th century burned day and night at the Notre-Dame-de-Guéodet chapel in Quimper. It was said that if the candle were to ever go out, the city would disappear under the water; the sea inundating the waters of the well sited outside the chapel. The flames of the Revolution extinguished the candle in 1793 and while the chapel has long since disappeared, the city remains as vibrant as ever. However, Quimper and other Breton towns are still in danger because this land was believed to sit atop an underground ocean and might collapse into it at any moment.