The Pilgrim Trails of Brittany

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.

Procession Brittany
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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 Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Rome, the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket in Canterbury cathedral, the relics of the Magi of Bethlehem at Cologne cathedral and the shrine of the apostle Saint 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.

Pilgrim routes in Brittany
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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 the British county of 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.

Tro Breizh
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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.

Pilgrimage of the Seven Saints Brittany
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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.

Pilgrimage in Brittany
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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.

Published by Bon Repos Gites

Enjoying life in Kalon Breizh - the Heart of Brittany.

92 thoughts on “The Pilgrim Trails of Brittany

    1. Many thanks for your kind words! Yes, I totally agree with you and even if you are walking as a hiker rather than a devout pilgrim, it offers you something, something intangible; an opportunity to reflect and connect with people and nature outside the daily norm.

      Liked by 4 people

    1. You are very welcome! The routes are not so well known as others and I’m sure some hike part of them (those that now form part of a designated hiking trail) without realising it but a few score people do make the journey all the way to Compostela each year.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Howdy! I simply want to give you a huge thumbs up for your great info you’ve got
    here on this post. I will be coming back to your web
    site for more soon.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Your site is a treasure trove for me! I’ve been tracing my ancestry and it has lead me back to Brittany and even directly to some lesser known Saints and Martyrs. I hope to visit as a pilgrim once the borders open again – maybe even beginning my next Camino at Mont St Michel. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. 👌👌👌✒💖 I already wanted to go to bed when suddenly … another article from you. Great reading again. If the same rules applied today, we would probably all walk naked or barefoot…Happy New Year to You 💖🌞🥂🌹

    Liked by 6 people

  4. Pilgrimages definitely require commitment. Completing one benefits a pilgrim in many ways, physically, mentally and spiritually. Not something I would undertake at this point in life, but I still tend to push myself. Thanks for sharing and have a very Happy New Year. Allan

    Liked by 3 people

  5. This is wonderful. I am astounded by the traveling people did in Medieval times not only for pilgrimages but just in general. It was so difficult, expensive, chancy, but they seem to have gone everywhere.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you! I am happy that you enjoyed it! Yes, we often think that folk stayed in their little valley for life. Of course, many did but some intrepid souls really braved the elements and the unknown to strike out and see!
      Happy New Year!!! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  6. That sounds beautiful ❤️

    I’m not religious in that way, but the history, beauty and peace is intriguing and quite the draw ❤️ I would do for that purpose but not necessarily based in religion as much… maybe a little?… but not like someone who is devout

    It would be more about the historical aspect to me, than for the religion.

    I do appreciate how people feel or felt with the religion aspect though. It is quite the devotion ❤️

    My family members who came to American around 1900 had those religious ties.

    I remember a massive shrine at my great grandmothers house, for the Virgin Mary… I would go with her to the shrine and we would kneel and say rosaries 📿 everyday when I would visit

    But also I am Catholic so I was little confused – she would have that shrine – but they would teach me not to have idols – only to pray to god… so that always confused me lol… they had tons of little and big idols of many religious things lol – what counts and what doesn’t? Lol

    We don’t have much of those pilgrimage things here in America like you do… so would be fascinating to see (thank you for all the pics!)

    I do have religion and devotion, is just different way I take it.

    You know a lot about the history and religious factor. You speak of many fascinating things

    I am aware of the different pilgrimages

    I have seen the documentaries on things you speak of… I can only imagine the connection and spirit one would get. Maybe personalized and incredible feeling?

    Is very cool you have that near you, and know so much about all that rich history 😮❤️

    Have you made those pilgrimages yourself? All of them? 😮

    Are you religious? What did make you feel when/if you did?

    Is that too personal to ask? Sorry if yes – just curious. You always spark curiosity lol ✌️😘

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think that undertaking these types of journeys can bring as much joy to someone undertaking the journey as a hike as those making the walk for religious reasons. Well, I certainly have enjoyed the walking that I have done over many of these paths! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh I’m sure… I’m sure that when you are in the presence of such incredible things – that has to give a feeling of awe 😮

        All of your stuff over there would give that feeling I’m sure 😮😮

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for yet another fascinating and informative post, Colin! What an obligation that must’ve been to save one’s soul from the fires of Hell! Thankfully, one could hire someone else to undergo the pilgrimage on one’s behalf. A long solitary walk through a quiet rural landscape can, indeed, be an excellent way of connecting with one’s inner self and strength of endurance. A life-changing experience. May we all find our strength of endurance during the next 364 days ahead on our pilgrimage of life during a pandemic.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Such strict rules! I know I would mess up on the first day! A friend of mine did the Camino de Santiago a few years ago. I think it was partly a physical challenge to herself. She seemed very happy about it. But naked or bare-footed….I hope those poor people were forgiven whatever sins they had committed!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You are right, so many of the set pilgrimages eventually became surrounded in rituals and their own superstitions. 😉 The Camino seems to be increasingly popular these days and I am glad to hear that your friend completed it. That is quite an achievement!! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Yet another fascinating article! It sounds like fun to hike along these trails knowing of all the pilgrims who went before. Thanks for all the research you did to make this article come about. Best wishes and a happy new year to you and yours. Hope you are safe and well.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. What an amazing cultural learning and view through the words and images here. This detailed post is very informative and captivating! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I can resonate with the indulgences of the dead which is so common in Indian pilgrimage. We too have a say that being a Hindu it is important to take a dip in the river Ganges or make a visit to Mount Kailash in Himalayas. Although many are an obligatory attempts, but rest undergo with the fear of repercussions from the sacred vows. Thanks once again for this great information. Keep rocking.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I am very happy that you liked it and appreciate you saying so! Thank you! 🙂 As you have highlighted, the notion of undertaking a pilgrimage is clearly something that resonates deeply within the human psyche as it does seem to transcend religions and cultures!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Thanks for your short history of pilgrimages in Brittany. It seems to be very well researched. We like especially the illustrations of your post.
    All the best
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I’ve wanted to hike portions of Le Chemin de Compostelle for some time. I have 4 friends who have done it, all starting from southern France. Three hiked and one biked. Starting in Brittany would indeed be a large time and financial commitment. Never thought of the professional pilgrim angle. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the trail from the south or France across to Compostella is increasingly popular these days. As you say, it would be quite a commitment to do it all in one trip which is why I kind of like the idea of doing a “section” at a time. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, women definitely undertook these pilgrimages and are noted participants from the earliest days right up to today. Indeed, the busy “professional” pilgrim I mentioned in the text was a woman! 😉

      Like

  14. Hi Colin,

    Thanks for yet another fascinating look at history. I have read some interesting books about El Camino pilgrimages, but it sure is fun to read more about pilgrimages.

    Take care,
    Nancy

    Like

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