The Pardons of Brittany

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 a public act of penance.

engraving of a Breton pardon procession
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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.

A Pardon in Brittany
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As might be expected in a region so reliant on agriculture, many Pardons specifically involved animals, such as those of the dogs and cats at Laniscat, pigs at Trégomar and Plouisy, cattle at Plonevez-du-Faou or horses at, amongst others, Goudelin and Plérin where the animals were blessed in the water of the sacred fountain. There were even Pardons for birds: on the north coast at Plourhan and on the south coast at Toulfoën. In the early part of the last century, cattle were brought for blessing to the church in Moncontour whose church is dedicated to Saint Mathurin, patron saint of such beasts, while horses were taken to the church at Landerneau.

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, too eager to touch the holy relic or statue.

the banners at a pardon
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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.”

Pardon Procession in Brittany
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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 drunkenness, 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.

Pilgrimage Brittany
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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, known as tantad in Breton, 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. Attending the Pardon of Notre-Dame de l’isle in Goudelin affords one an opportunity to witness a pyrophoric angel, a traditional celebratory bonfire as well the immersion of horses as part of the blessing ceremony.

Often known as the ‘grand pardon of Brittany’ is the Pardon of Saint Ronan at Locronan, where every six years (the last was in 2019) the Grande Troménie is performed. This festival consists of a 12km pilgrimage over hilly moorland route-ways once sacred to the ancient Celts and marked by twelve stations of the cross; a pilgrimage of 6km is followed in the intervening years.

the Pardon procession
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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 Bulat-Pestivien in order to participate in the Pardon of Notre-Dame de Bulat.

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.

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Published by Bon Repos Gites

Enjoying life in Kalon Breizh - the Heart of Brittany.

128 thoughts on “The Pardons of Brittany

  1. How wonderful! I believe that it’s a well attended Pardon and living there would have meant you were able to better understand the procession itself. I’ve seen the chapel (if it’s the one out of town, on the hill?) but unfortunately not inside as it was closed!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. An interesting read on Pardons. I don’t understand fighting because of and between religions, I find this even more odd that there would be fights because they follow a different Saint, in the same religion! Maggie

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Ha, yes, you are right. Wars of religion are always a very troublesome thing to reconcile with faith! The same difficulties are even more manifest when it is co-religionists who are supposed to turn the other cheek.
      The power cast by saints was quite powerful here. Indeed, just a few kilometres up the road, the bones of the saint interred there were fought over many times and even into the 20th century people from another town who claimed the saint as their patron turned-up as a mob to try and steal/liberate the saint’s relics! There were even fatalities!

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      1. All in the name of religion, seems counter intuitive, but I’ll probably make people uncomfortable or upset by saying that. You must be busy because I haven’t seen your posts much. M

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hmm, well, you will not upset me as I happen to agree with you 😉 Sadly, wars (even ostensibly religiously inspired ones) are more about the greed and vanity of man than the desires of his deity! 😦

        Liked by 1 person

  3. It sounds like it would be a wonderful experience to attend one of the Pardons. You have provided such a fantastic view of a practice that I didn’t know anything about. Thanks for all the information! Can’t wait for your next post.🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I am very glad that it piqued your interest! I would love to have witnessed the spectacle of the 19th century or even pre-WW2 pardons as they sound quite remarkable. The ones of today are, in the main, great events and offer a tantalising glimpse into the spectacle that existed in earlier times!

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  4. So glad to hear from you, Colin 🙂 Thanks for yet another fascinating and informative article about your part of the world. May Brittany’s tradition of the Pardons be a force of goodwill for its people and all participants.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Such a fascinating relic from the ancient living and missed it during my stay at the Britain. Hope to visit someday in the near future. So many plans on my to-do list. Amazing insights as ever, hope you are doing fine. Take care and be safe

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I am very happy that you enjoyed this one and hope that, one day, you do get the opportunity to see one in person! Thank you for your kind wishes. I am healthy and that is the main thing and hope that you and yours are too! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve been waiting for a new post from you! I really enjoyed this! I knew next to nothing about Brittany before I started reading your blog. This has been a real education and a terrific read!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you and apologies for such a haphazard posting schedule so far this year. Things are a little upside-down with me at present but hopefully will re-settle by the summer!! In the meantime, thank you again for your support!! Stay well!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. The rituals of past Britany are fascinating and your enchanting storytelling is captivating. It seems WP has recently disrupted my access to your posts as they are wont to do but happily I discovered you once again and have some catching up to do. Happy first of Spring, have a lovely day!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am most pleased that you enjoyed the read Holly and thank you for your good wishes! Wishing you and yours a healthy and happy year ahead! Things always seem more optimistic and hopeful with the arrival of Spring!! 🙂

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  8. Your articles are so full of vibrant culture of Brittany. It was wonderful to read about the Pardons. Such congregations are, I guess, prevalent in every religion and I would say necessary not just out of faith but to bring together the community and build comradeship in the modern times divided by power and politics.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you very much for saying so and I am happy you liked it!!! 🙂 Yes, as ever, you have hit the nail squarely on the head – such gatherings were as much about comradeship and an opportunity for a rural, dispersed community to meet-up as much as they were about organised religion. These occasions were looked forward to by families eager for a rest day and good fellowship and gossip. They were also one of the very few opportunities that youngsters had the opportunity and freedom to mingle with the opposite sex without too much parental oversight! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Those fêtes sound fun! I would have loved the “loose structure” rugby games when I was a teen, lol.
    I marvel at how you can crank out posts without sacrificing any of your writing skill. May I ask if you write professionally in some capacity?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Haha, yes! Reading the old accounts of some of those games, it is little wonder that the priests tried (and eventually succeeded) in getting them banned! Sometimes the teams involved whole parishes or those who lived one side of a marker against those who lived across the way. Serious injuries were not uncommon and more than one occasion was claimed to have been witness to a pre-meditated murder in the guise of a sporting accident.
      Thank you! That is such a kind thing to say and I am glad that you enjoy the reads. No, I’m not a proper writer but sometimes I think of giving it a try but realise that it is best for me to just write here. Stay well and Happy Spring!! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Wow! That sounds and looks beautiful

    What a beautiful and rich tradition!

    Pardon for me is something different ?? – I like yours better

    A pardon that I know – is to forgive someone’s sins or excuse them

    Your area has some beautiful traditions – religious or not

    Nice to see you back!!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I am very happy that you enjoyed this one! Like you, I think it a lovely tradition and it has been good to see them revived! You are right about the name and I guess it has the same meaning as participants are effectively praying for forgiveness and the good graces of a saint – as well as a whole host of other things no doubt! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Did you take a break? It seems like there was a lull in posts……? I’ve often thought it amazing that you post every week and that maybe you decided to pare it down to a few times a month.
    Anyway, the painting of the white-bonneted women with the candles is absolutely magical. And, as usual, learning about the pilgrimages, prayers, and even animals getting Pardoned was fascinating.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you!! I am very pleased that you enjoyed the read! 🙂
      It has been a strange year so far and having to lead – temporarily – a rather nomadic existence I have yet to gain constant access to a computer. On the plus side, I have had time to catch-up on my reading, so, am gathering ideas for new things to write about when I find myself settled once more! Thank you for bearing with me!!! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Many thanks for your interest!! So appreciated! I am sorry to have taken so long to respond. I had some major upheavals to endure but, happy to say, all is ok now!! Hope that you are safe and well also?

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Hi Colin,

    Thanks for educating us about these “pardons.” I feel my world has expanded since before this the only pardons I knew were presidential ones. And these presidential pardons are always quite controversial.

    I hope all is well with you.

    Nancy

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You are very welcome!! Thank you for reading and enjoying the distinctiveness of your birthright! 😉 Apologies for my late reply. I am pleased to say that all is now ok!! Hope the same for you and yours? Keep well!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, I had some rather major changes to deal with but, thankfully, all is good now and I look forward to catching-up and contributing to the WP community again! Hope that all is well with you? 🙂

      Like

    1. Hi!! So sorry for the late response! I have had some big changes to get through but now am out of the woods!! I have a lot to catch-up on, so please bear with me as I dip my toes back into the WP waters! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Hello my dear friend, it’s been a long time I heard from or read your work.
    Hope all is well with you and yours.
    Glad to see you back. Many blessings 🙌🏾 🫂🌹

    Liked by 1 person

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