The Dry Bones of Brittany

Containing the bones of the dead within an ossuary – a receptacle which could range from a simple stone casket to an entire elaborate chapel – was an ancient practice once quite widespread in the Near East and Europe; the role and nature of an ossuary being heavily influenced by a combination of social factors and religious beliefs. In Europe, they were a simple solution for handling the problem faced by having limited burial space for the dead and served as a useful marketing tool for the teachings of the Church.

In the early Middle Ages, burial grounds were established against and around parish churches but inevitably, given the relatively short life expectancy of the time, these plots, most of which contained large common graves, were soon filled. Sometime around the 14th century, it became common practice for local churches to clear their burial grounds to create much needed space for new burials.

Typically in the western European tradition, bodies in these places would initially be interred for several years to allow the body sufficient time to decompose. The skeletal remains would then be exhumed, the bones cleaned, dried and sorted according to type; skulls, small bones & long bones, before being  placed in an ossuary where they were stored together in stacked groups. These could be sited in a crypt or in the loft inside a church but spaces here too were limited and usually reserved for the clergy or privileged nobles, so, other solutions were needed.

Some parish churches chose to create special niches set within or against their churchyard walls which, over time, often developed into quite elaborate affairs. Some created annexes contiguous to the south wall of the church whilst others constructed discrete purpose-built buildings close to the church or graveyard with window openings faced to the east.

Stone-built monumental ossuaries (known as garnals in Breton) began to appear in Brittany in the 15th century and were relatively widespread within a hundred years or so.

‘..over one half of the surviving ossuary monuments were constructed between 1550 and 1600. After a period of slow but persistent monument construction in the first third of the seventeenth century, a second notable phase of ossuary building occurred between 1630 and 1680. After 1700 there was little new construction; of the ossuaries erected in the eighteenth century, some were second or third ossuaries for the same churchyard or the reconstruction of existing structures.’ The Changing Face of Death (1997), P C Jupp & G Howarth (Editors)

This boom in construction in the 16th and 17th centuries coincided with a prolonged period of economic prosperity in Brittany, largely based on mercantile shipping, commercial fishing and a thriving trade in canvas, linen & flax. This increased wealth gave rise to a broader flourishing of ecclesiastical building activity with new churches built and older ones extended and embellished. It was during this period of increased wealth and religious fervour that arguably the most beautiful parish enclosures were built and by the end of the 17th century, most parishes in western Brittany boasted some, if not all, of the features of a monumental parish enclosure.

Whether also serving as a funerary chapel or not, many ossuaries benefited from the same degree of architectural richness and detail as their associated churches, becoming ecclesiastical masterpieces in their own right, perhaps most notably at Ploudiry, Pleyben, Saint-Thégonnec and Sizun. The ossuaries at Guimiliau and Kermoroc’h are particularly noteworthy as both contain external preaching pulpits.

It is the abundance of such well-designed and strongly built stone structures within a relatively small region that sets the ossuaries of Brittany, particularly to the west of the Saint Brieuc-Vannes axis, apart from those of elsewhere in Europe.  While the use of ossuaries was widespread throughout western Europe in the Middle Ages, the practice was in terminal decline by the end of the 17th century.

However, this was not the case in Brittany where 18th century moves by Church and State to shift burials from churchyards to edge-of-town cemeteries were resisted; the use of ossuaries remained widespread here long after such practices had died out elsewhere, much to the consternation of some visitors.

‘A very strange practice reigns in Brittany. The kinfolk of the deceased unearth the dead after several years, when they believe that the soil will have absorbed all of the decomposed flesh. The recovered bones are then placed in a small building constructed near to the church, the ossuary. Sometimes one takes the head of the dead, puts it in a box and places it in the church inscribed “Here lies the skull of N.” It is impossible to imagine nothing more repulsive …. Often, great zeal does not allow time for the complete de-fleshing of the corpse and shreds of putrefying flesh attract dogs which no-one cares to chase away.’ Notes d’un voyage dans l’Ouest de la France (1836), P Mérimée

inside an ossuary in brittany
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The author Gustave Flaubert toured Brittany with Maxime Du Camp in 1847 and, noting a very crowded village cemetery near Quiberon, observed the ossuary ‘contains skeletons that have been exhumed in order to make room for other corpses. Who has said: “Life is a hostelry and the grave is our home?” But these corpses do not remain in their graves, for they are only tenants and are ejected at the expiration of the lease.’ He continues:

‘Around this ossuary, where this cluster of bones resemble a jumble of faggots, is arranged, man-high, a series of small black boxes, six inches square, covered with a roof surmounted by a cross and pierced in front in the shape of a heart to reveal the skull inside. Above the heart are painted letters: “This is the head of –, died such year and such day.” These heads did not belong only to persons of a certain rank and he would pass for a bad son if, after seven years, he did not give his parents’ skulls the luxury of one of these little chests. The rest of the body is sent to the ossuary and 25 years later the head is thrown in. Some years ago they wanted to abolish this custom. A riot ensued and it remained.’ Par Les Champs et Par Les Grev̀es (1886), G Flaubert & M Du Camp

It is difficult to pinpoint when the practice of placing skulls in decorated boxes began in Brittany, although the earliest written references are from the late 18th century and the practice seems to have continued up until WW1. The procedure began with the exhumation ceremony which was usually a collective affair with the procession to the ossuary accompanied by prayers and song ; ‘Let us go to the charnel house, Christians! Let us contemplate the relics! Of our brothers, our sisters, our fathers, our mothers! Here, no more nobility, neither riches nor beauty. The earth and death have confused all.’   The skull would then be separated from the other bones and placed in a wooden box, known as a ‘boîte à chef’ (skull box), painted with the individual’s name and age at death. These boxes were then placed in the church or ossuary, often on special ‘Étagères de la Nuit’ (Shelves of the Night), or sometimes in a niche in the churchyard wall but always in view.

skull boxes
Skull Boxes in St Pol-de-Leon

Aside from providing a long-term storage solution for the remains of the dead, the ossuaries of Brittany were designed to provide the people with a visible display of the dead. Ossuaries attached to the wall of a church were usually colonnaded or arcaded and the windows of the grand chapel ossuaries left unglazed for the same purpose – the illumination and exhibition of human remains. The sight of such earthly remnants was meant to serve as a reminder of the inevitably of death the leveller and to encourage the faithful to reflect on the transience of human life and the consequent need to commit to a permanent Christian existence to secure salvation through the Church.

The iconography associated with Breton ossuaries shared the same themes and designs as other parts of Catholic Europe such as portrayals of death, judgement, repentance and salvation but there were quite distinctive Breton elements too, such as the depiction of the Ankou – the Breton personification of death who guides the souls of the dead to the Otherworld. A figure also sometimes seen on and inside churches in western Brittany.

The ossuaries of Brittany are a key part of the region’s unique religious heritage; they are distinct, in part, due to their abundance and the sheer longevity of their functional use by the people. Hundreds of these buildings, of all sizes, survive to this day and can be visited freely.

Most ossuaries were cleared of their bones during the last century but you can still encounter ones that have clung tightly to their precious charge, for instance at Lanrivain, Trégornan, Gouarec and the half a dozen skulls in the ossuary at Plouzélambre. Similarly, most skull boxes have been removed from the churches and ossuaries or are now hidden away in vaults but you may still chance to happen upon some on display such as those in Saint-Pol-de-Léon, Saint-Fiacre, Kermaria-an-Iskut and La Méaugon.

monumental ossuary in brittany
Pleyben ossuary

The ornate ossuary at Pleyben dates from around 1560, making it one of the oldest monumental ossuaries in Brittany, and serves as a useful example of how some of these buildings were used over time. After restoration in 1733, it was used as a mortuary chapel and subsequently to house a school, the Town Hall and a Post Office. It now serves as a museum, as does the beautiful, two-storey ossuary at Sizun – both are well worth visiting by those keen to explore Brittany’s heritage.

Death Lore of Brittany

In Brittany, as elsewhere in France, All Saints’ Day is known as la Toussaint and is widely celebrated as both a religious holiday and a secular Public Holiday.  Although All Souls’ Day, more formally known as the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, falls on the following day, the majority of people here tend to honour their dead relatives & friends the day before. Thus, la Toussaint is the day when dispersed families gather together and visit their cemeteries to tend graves, pray and lay flowers (usually chrysanthemums or heather) on the graves of their dead relatives and loved ones. Consequently, the distinction between All Saints’ Day, which is dedicated to those who are in Heaven, and All Souls’ Day when prayers are offered for the dead who have yet to reach Heaven, are blurred.

Having been observed on different days in various places, the precise origin of All Saints’ Day can’t be agreed definitively. During the 7th century it was celebrated on 13 May which has caused some to suggest its origins are pagan and hark back to the Roman festival of Lemuria which was held to pacify the dead. In the 8th century, the date was fixed to 1 November and some see this as an attempt by the Church to co-opt the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain which marked the shift from summer to winter and celebrated the harvest.

If it is difficult to pinpoint the origins of All Saints’ Day, establishing the roots of All Souls’ Day is doubly so. What is known is that around the turn of the 11th century, Odilo, the long-serving Benedictine Abbot of Cluny, established 2 November as an especial date for prayers of intercession on behalf of the faithful departed undergoing purification in Purgatory; a convention that was steadily embraced and adopted throughout Europe.  In addition to putting the Church’s stamp on the importance of honouring the humble dead, this day was significant as it endorsed the link between the living and the dead, in the prayer of the former for the latter. 

Of course, the broader practice of celebrating and honouring the dead stretches back thousands of years before Odilo and transcends geographic and cultural lines but this conflation of the celebration of All Saints and All Souls allowed plenty of scope for the ancient traditions associated with death and ancestor worship to survive in a Christian world-view as le Jour des Morts (Day of the Dead) or, in Breton, Gouel an Anaon (Festival of the Dead). It is the echoes of these ancient traditions that I hope to highlight in this post.

a funeral in Brittany
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The ethnographers Le Braz and Van Gennep (La Légende de la mort en Basse-Bretagne, 1893 & Folklore, 1924, amongst others) noted a number of traditional beliefs relating to death prevalent in Brittany at the turn of the 20th century. They found that, to some, earthly life was only a passage between an earlier eternal life and a subsequent eternal life. There was a significant absence of separation between the living and the dead, both seen as existing or living in two discrete worlds. In the Breton tradition, the world after earthly death – the Otherworld – is called Anaon and is a word for both the dead and the place where they reside. Not surprisingly, it is very similar to the Welsh word ‘Annwn’ which refers to the Otherworld.

The community of the dead were always close. Those buried in the cemetery were thought to live there under the protection of Saint Yves, retaining their earthly personalities, sympathies and aversions for their fellow dead. Earthly feuds and disputes would continue beyond the grave, so, care was taken not to bury two quarrels side-by-side.  As for the living, they would help or harass according to the love or disdain brought to them.

‘The graveyard is as truly the centre of the commune as the dolmen was of the prehistoric tribe. The dead who lie there are by no means cut off from the world; the voices of the living reach them in muffled tones; they know that they are not forgotten; they are associated with every event of importance in the family. Nowhere else, and at no period, have people lived in such familiarity with death. The consciousness of the presence of the dead never leaves the people. The evening of a wedding is like a funeral wake. The betrothed meet at the graves of their dead and seal their vows over the tombs.’
A Book of Britanny (1901), Rev. S Baring-Gould

The dead were thought to return to their villages after midnight to see their homes and watch their families but – importantly – not to plead with or to frighten them. Thus, it was customary to let a little fire burn under the ashes overnight, just in case the dead were to visit the hearth of their former home. On the eve of All Saint’s Day, the fire would be kept burning overnight by a large log known as the log of the dead. The dead were always considered to be cold!

In some areas of Brittany, this veil of separation between the living and the dead was at its most vulnerable on those feast days when the dead congregated, namely; Christmas Eve, the night of Saint John’s Day (Midsummer) and the evening of All Saints’ Day. At these times, some believed that the dead wandered freely in the land of the living; they were to be avoided and placated by the living.

‘.. on November Eve the living are expected to prepare a feast and entertainment for them (the dead) of curded-milk, pancakes & cider, served on the family table covered with a fresh white table-cloth, and to supply music. The Breton dead come to enjoy this hospitality of their friends; and as they take their places at the table the stools are heard to move and sometimes the plates; and the musicians who help entertain them think that at times they feel the cold breath of the invisible visitors.’
The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911), W Y Evans-Wentz

‘On November Eve milk is poured on graves, feasts and candles set out on tables and fires lighted on the hearths to welcome the spirits of departed kinsfolk and friends…The poor who live on the mountains have only black corn, milk, and smoked bacon to offer but it is given freely. Those who can afford it spread on a white cloth, dishes of clotted milk, pancakes and cups of cider.’
Book of Hallowe’en (1919), R E Kelley

The Breton scholar and folklorist Pierre-Jakez Hélias recounted that in his childhood some twenty years after Kelley’s book: ‘On the evening of All Saints’ Day, we prepared food (cake, bread, milk, cider), to welcome the neighbours of the cemetery and we left for them in the hearth, a big log’. People would also leave food outside for the dead without a home to go to.

After Vespers on the eve of All Saints, people would visit the cemeteries to kneel, bare-headed, at the graves of their loved ones to pray and anoint the hollow of the gravestones with holy water or milk (small cup-like holes can be found in many old gravestones) before hurrying home. Interaction with the Anaon was to be avoided at all costs. Once at home, people would go to bed early so that they would not chance to see the dead feasting. Go to bed too early and you might be awakened by neighbours urging you, in song, to pray for the souls of the dead. Others would fear to go outside at all during Allhallowtide.

Yesterday’s Bretons did not fear death, for it was seen as simply part of the natural order of things and the beginning of a new and better life but they did fear ‘An Ankou’ – the Breton personification of death. Master of the afterlife, the Ankou is omnipotent. He is portrayed as a skeletal figure, sometimes draped in a shroud, holding an arrow, spear or very occasionally a scythe. While the word Ankou is masculine in Breton, some, such as the folklorist Lewis Spence (Legends and Romances of Brittany, 1917) believe the Ankou to be female and that “it is probable that the Ankou is a survival of the death-goddess of the prehistoric dolmen-builders of Brittany”.

Standing on a cart whose axles creak, the Ankou roams at night, gathering souls to guide into the Otherworld. He is often spoken of as being accompanied by a screeching owl and attended by one or more assistants. To hear the squeak of Ankou’s chariot signified that someone close to you would soon die. In coastal areas (which covers a great deal of Brittany), the Ankou was said to steer a black boat.

‘The Ankou who is a king of the dead, and his subjects, like a fairy king and fairies, have their own particular paths over which they travel in great sacred processions; the hosts of the dead are in possession of the earth on November Eve….’
The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911) W Y Evans-Wentz

In some parts of Brittany, the Ankou’s persona was more fluid – the first or last death of the year would become Ankou. Thus, he would be renewed each year and could be imbued with some of the characteristics of the soul once living – if he had been an evil character in life then, as Ankou, he would search relentlessly for fresh souls to gather. In these traditions, the Ankou is assisted by the second on the list of the deceased of a parish. It is he who guides the Ankou’s black horse by the bridle, opens the gates and loads the dead souls onto the cart. Rather than draped in a shroud, the Ankou of the 19th century was often depicted as dressing contemporaneously while hiding his face under a black felt hat with a wide brim; a style then popularly worn in Brittany.

In the Brittany of yesteryear, the dead were never far removed from the living. It was more than being at ease with the idea of death it was almost a comfortable familiarity with it; death and birth were commonplace, natural happenings.  But by the mid-1980s, anthropologist Ellen Badone (The Appointed Hour: Death, Worldview, Social Change in Brittany, 1989) discovered that, due to the rapid social and cultural changes in Brittany since WW2, the customs and traditions associated with death highlighted just fifty years earlier had all but disappeared.  She found that repression of the idea of death and marginalisation of the act of dying were increasingly evident and postulated that this culture change was likely a result of a complex mix of factors. Particularly the shift from an agricultural economy based on shared labour to one of mechanisation & solitary working; the rise of retirement homes and the migration of young Bretons to jobs in the cities creating a rarity of multi-generational families; and the growing prestige of science with its opposition to the supernatural.

As the passage of time dims the old traditions, the relentless Ankou warns us against forgetting him. His image, carved deep into timeless granite edifices, continues to adorn countless churches, chapels and ossuaries throughout Brittany. These are well worth visiting and, if you do, take time to contemplate his words at the church in La Roche-Maurice : Remember You, Man, That You Are Dust!

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 an 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.

As might be expected in a region so reliant on agriculture, several Pardons specifically involved animals, such as those of the dogs and cats at Laniscat or horses at Goudelin and Plérin where the animals are blessed in the water of the fountain. In the early part of the last century, cattle were even brought for blessing to the church in Moncontour whose church is dedicated to Saint Mathurin, patron saint of such beasts.

A Pardon in Brittany
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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 eager to touch the holy relic or statue.

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.”

the banners at a pardon
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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 carousing, 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.

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 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.

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

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

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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Brittany is Different

It is France but somehow it’s not. It is the same as Wales or Ireland but it is not. It seems like an independent nation but it is not and has not been for several hundred years. Brittany (Breizh in Breton or Bretagne in French) is different! Lazy comparisons are too easy to cast about and a measured analysis would take a decade or more and still leave us scratching around for an agreeable descriptor. So, let us just agree to say that Brittany is unique.

The traveller to Brittany will see signs of this uniqueness all around, it is not just the (predominantly) bilingual road signs or the omnipresent bigoudène-adorned figure on the backs of cars that make Brittany different from the rest of Metropolitan France or elsewhere. Although both are probably the biggest public manifestation of that especial difference.

So, what else helps contribute to Brittany’s uniqueness? The Breton language certainly, although, for a variety of reasons, it’s quite unusual to hear anyone between the ages of 20 and 70 speaking it in the street. The spoken French, in terms of accent and tonality, is different too but, thanks to television, markedly less so nowadays in the younger generation. The culture is assuredly distinct and there is a strong sense of national identity entwined with this: a shared pride in the uniqueness of Brittany’s rich cultural heritage.

What has, despite the odds, fostered and nurtured a distinct and thriving Breton culture into the 21st century is a fascinating subject but probably unfit for the limited confines of a blog such as this. Instead, I hope to use this blog to highlight some of the noticeable things that, for me, make Brittany interestingly different from other places. You can therefore expect postings on cultural events, festivals, food and drink, folklore and legends, history, geography and landscapes.

I am no expert, so, please feel free to share your thoughts. Let us try and add some real colour to the Brittany travel guides and feature the best of Brittany for today’s inquisitive traveller.

Brittany
..

Thank you!

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