With working hours that traditionally aligned to the hours of daylight, the time available for pastimes and sports was, at best, limited to the Breton peasants of days gone by. This narrow opportunity was further limited by the often isolated nature of rural dwellings and the poor transport infrastructure that connected communities. It is therefore unsurprising that people took full advantage of the chances offered by major communal events and celebrations, such as weddings, saint’s pardons and quarterly markets, to amuse themselves in competitive field sports and games of strength and skill.
I do not propose to detail all the outdoor sports that were once so popular across the breadth of rural Brittany; many of the old favourites, such as horse racing and hunting, remain prevalent and little changed to this day. Others, such as the regional versions of shuffleboard, boules, bowls and skittles or tug-o-war were similar enough to games well known in other parts of Europe to not bear detailing here. Instead, I intend to take a quick look at some of the distinctly Breton games once noted here.
As with other parts of the world, the games played by children here can sometimes be seen as the first steps towards the games subsequently enjoyed by adults. Many games with evocative names such as The Wolf and the Sheep or The White Dove involved some form of attack, usually with a knotted rag, a vigorous pursuit and the prize of capture. Likewise, the game of Ar Baloten involved a hunter trying to strike the other players with a ball made of rags. The hunter could be dethroned and quickly become the hunted if another player managed to hit them with a quickly gathered ball. Variations of this game are found in accounts from a number of regions across Brittany; most voicing the same concerns that the ball was often filled with harder substances than rags.
In his memoir of life in a Breton village between the two world wars, the Breton author Pierre-Jakez Hélias tells of pitched battles between the children that lived on the high end of town against those that lived in the lower end. Such tribal rivalry was a key component of soule, a very loosely structured full-contact game similar to a hybrid of handball and rugby football that often pitted the men of one village against another, the congregation of one church against another or even simply married men against the unwed.
The soule was a large leather ball filled with bran but sometimes made of solid wood that the opposing players fought over; the ball being thrown with the hand or kicked by the foot until it was carried into the opponents’ territory or to a designated landmark, such as a ruin or pond. The game was played out over a very large area of land, often covering several leagues, and teams of a hundred men or so played all day long. While the ball and game was known as soule in the Gallo speaking east of the region, in western Brittany it was known as mellat after the Breton word for ball, mell.
The game has been attested to in Brittany since the Middle Ages but some early 18th century lexicographers claimed that the game dated as far back as antiquity with the game having been invented by the ancient Celts to honour the Sun, towards which one throws the soule. There seems no real basis for this suggestion other than the superficial resemblance between soule and the Latin word for sun, sul. Others have since argued that the word derives from the Latin word solea, meaning sandal. We are unlikely to now ever know for sure but we do know that similar games were also noted in neighbouring Normandy.
According to a number of 17th and 18th century references, it seems that in Brittany, the role of starting the game was reserved for the lord of the manor. In some instances, the ball was ceremoniously presented to the local lord by one of his vassals at either the beginning or end of the year or some other date fixed by local custom. Although some games were hastily organised affairs to coincide with a wedding celebration, most were scheduled competitions aligned to the merrymaking that followed religious saint’s pardons or auspicious Church festivals such as Mardi-Gras; much to the dismay of the local priests.
The violence that imbued the game sat uneasily with some and in 1440 the Bishop of Tréguier issued a statute declaring that: “dangerous and pernicious games must be prohibited because of hatred, grudges and enmities which, under the veil of a recreational pleasure, accumulate in many hearts and of which a disastrous occasion discovers the venom. We have learned from reports of worthy men of faith that in some parishes and other places subject to our jurisdiction, that on feast days and holidays, going back many years, a certain game has been played; a very pernicious and dangerous game called mellat in the vulgar language. There have already been many outrages and it is clear that even more serious scandals would occur in the future, if the right remedy is not resorted to. This is why we prohibit this dangerous and scandalous game and declare liable to the penalty of excommunication and a fine of one hundred sous those of our diocesans, whatever their rank or condition, who have the audacity to play this game.”
Needless to say, games continued as did the resultant deaths and permanent disabilities. One noted competition in Pont-l’Abbé at the end of the 18th century was reported to have resulted in the deaths of more than fifty men. Such massive displays of public disorder incited the authorities to clamp-down on these games; first by inducements, such as in 1773 when the Duke of Rohan, whose seneschal traditionally launched the popular games in the central town of Pontivy, stopped awarding cash prizes to the winning team. Later, by official decree when, in 1819, the local administration prohibited all games of soule throughout the district of Pontivy.
Old habits clearly died hard and games continued to be played in the Morbihan region despite the official ban. Writing in his book The Last Bretons (1836), the Breton author Émile Souvestre described: “Soule, in Morbihan, is not an ordinary amusement; it is a hot and dramatic game, where we fight and choke; a game that allows you to kill an enemy, without giving up your Easter, provided that you take care to hit him as if by accident and with a stroke of misfortune. It is a day of plenary indulgence granted to assassination and who does not have someone to kill, as one of the most renowned soulers once told me.”
“When the day and the place of a soule have been designated, you see old men, women and children running from all sides, eager for such a spectacle.” A sight Souvestre recounted most vividly: “Soon the blood is flowing and at this sight a frenzied intoxication seizes the souls; a bestial instinct seems to awaken in the hearts of these men; the thirst for murder seizes them by the throat, pushes them and blinds them. They merge, crowd together, twist one over the other; in an instant, the combatants form a single animated block, above which we see arms rising and falling incessantly, like the hammers of a paper mill. From time to time, pale or tanned faces appear, disappear, then rise bloody and mottled with blows. As this strange mass stirs, we see it melting and diminishing because the weakest fall and the struggle continues over their bodies. Finally, the last combatants on both sides remain face to face, half-dead from fatigue and suffering. It is then up to the one who has retained some vigour to escape with the soule.”
A new banning order was promulgated in 1848 but it seems that the games stubbornly continued as another decree prohibiting the game as a menace to public order was issued in 1857. This latter edict seems to have put a popular end to the game but, in all likelihood, simply drove it underground. In June 1888, a newspaper carried a report of some five hundred men belonging to the parishes surrounding the village of Saint-Caradec in central Brittany fighting bitterly for a soule. Even as late as February 1912, games were still reported being played on Easter Monday on a moor outside Locmalo; a village within 22km (14 miles) of both Pontivy and Saint-Caradec.
Breton wrestling, known as gouren is another sport attested since the Middle Ages that some people have tried to attach far older origins to; even suggesting that the wrestling is symbolic of the struggle between Celt and Saxon that led to the founding of Brittany. In gouren, competitors could only battle while standing and hand-holds were only allowed above the opponent’s belt. Like the sport of pole-raising, it was as much a trial of balance and agility as of strength.
Other sports, often traditionally tied to the days between Shrove Sunday and Mardi-Gras, were once popularly noted across Brittany. Some were fairly benign, such as trying to eat sausages suspended from a line; others were less so, such as attempting to remove the head of a live goose suspended from a line with a single blow whilst riding past on horseback or balancing on the back of a cart. A game known as the Russian Bucket was also quite popular. In this, a tub of water or more noxious substances was suspended from a line over the street. The base of the tub was pierced with a hole and it was necessary for players to pass a wooden lance through this hole while balancing on a hand-pulled cart. If the aim failed, the tub would tip; spilling its contents all over the competitor.
In the northern town of Guerlesquin, on Mardi-Gras, the men of the town still play a game known as Bouloù Pok. Here, the men are divided into two teams depending on whether they live north or south of the town square. The game, which lasts all day, is unique to the town and is best described as a cross between bowls and shuffleboard; the participants must throw the bouloù – a carved half-cylinder of hardwood with a lead core – as close as possible to the mestr, a wooden ball sited on the field of play. A bay leaf is presented to each player on the winning team along with the prestigious title of ‘World Champion’. The origins of this game are now lost but local tradition claims that the contest was invented by the parish priest in the 17th century in order to curb the more aggressive sports hitherto engaged in by his male parishioners.
A once popular game noted around the eastern town of Bécherel took place on Sunday afternoons. Here, a duck or rabbit was buried so that only its head could be seen above ground while the competitors were blindfolded and required to stand some twenty to thirty metres away. Armed with a scythe, the competitor tried to cut off the beast’s head. If he did not succeed in delivering a fatal blow, his position was taken by another competitor and the sorry spectacle repeated until the certain death of the beast whose body the victor claimed as his prize.
Many towns across Brittany once carried the right to stage tournaments of marksmanship; a tradition that dated back to a series of edicts issued by the Duke of Brittany in the early-1480s in an effort to enact some of the lessons learned from the Hundred Years’ War, namely the importance of ensuring that his subjects were practiced enough in shooting so as to be able to defend their towns until reinforced by the army.
Generally, these shooting competitions were organised on a yearly basis although the exact date varied from place to place; in Bain in eastern Brittany the event was held on the Feast of the Assumption (15 August) but in Guingamp, in western Brittany, the moveable feast of Pentecost was favoured. These events became popularly known as Papegai tournaments; the name derives from the French word for a parrot and was given to the wooden target, fashioned in the form of a pigeon or other bird, which was affixed to the top of a very high pole. Contestants were initially required to destroy the target from a range of up to fifty metres with arrows fired from a bow although crossbows and arquebuses were later used.
Such tournaments seem to have been popular with contestants and spectators alike with several accounts talking of a carnival like atmosphere prevailing with rowdy crowds, entertainers and tents selling food and cider. Sometimes, the pole was erected just outside town but some towns staged the event within the town walls and in Montfort-sur-Meu the pole was even attached to the keep of the castle.
The victor of such tournaments was publicly fêted and granted such titles as ‘King of the Papegai’ or ‘Lord of the Bow’ before being led to a feast in his honour in a grand, if tumultuous procession, of past winners, lords, priests, men-at-arms, tradesmen and beggars. Some competitions offered generous tangible rewards too; the winner of the Guingamp event was granted 25 barrels of wine that he could sell free of restrictions or tax, the privilege of leading the companies of archers and arquebusiers at the Corpus Christi processions and of presiding over the following year’s Papegai tournament.
With the abolition of such tournaments in all the provinces of France in 1770, some towns sought to fill the calendar with other public spectacles of skill. Sadly, the one noted in the town of Bain-de-Bretagne was a poorly considered affair. Here, a goose was suspended by its legs from the branches of an apple tree and blindfolded contestants, armed with a sabre, were spun around several times before having to advance and cut off the bird’s head. As can be imagined, the unfortunate goose usually underwent great torment before its head was completely severed. The contestant that managed to strike the final decapitating blow was adjudged the winner. Thankfully, this barbaric ‘sport’ did not last long into the 19th century.
It seems from the few examples cited above that custom and fashion, as opposed to official or ecclesiastical sanction, dictated the longevity of the popular recreations enjoyed by the people of rural Brittany. Over time, changes in societal attitudes, particularly in regards to animal cruelty, and increased interchanges with neighbouring communes and beyond, thanks to infrastructure improvements that made travel easier, had a marked effect on the traditional sports and pastimes of the province.