Sunday, November 01, 2009

For Toussaint, revisiting the Seven Saints.

' The great advantage of the saints was that they actually existed in the material world.   Some of them can still be seen in churches, where they have a dual audience: a parishioner or a pilgrim communicating with a real being, and a tourist looking at an example of religious art.  A saint was not a theological concept or an artisitic representation.  The statue or the figurine was the saint.'

(Graham Robb 'The Discovery of France', ch 7, 'Fairies, Virgins, Gods and Priests')

Robb's book is one that has impressed me perhaps more than any I've read this year.  Revelation is an overused word, but it is what it is; it unveils things I have struggled or been unable to see about the country I live in, provides a key to things hitherto closed.  A highly accomplished scholar of France and French literature, he spent four years cycling the length and breadth of the country researching aspects of its social history the depth of which are astonishing.  It causes me by turns to gasp, laugh aloud and, occasionally to weep, in part at the sufferings and hardship described, but also with regret at the passing of a world so rich and strange. In all, it caused me to wonder, and his writing is inspired, full of affect without giving any cause to doubt his accuracy and academic authenticity .  It's difficult to avoid quoting vast tracts of it here, or getting into the territory of reviewing it, but the discipline of daily blogging means best keep within parameters... There's a good NYT review here.

I was reading it when, back in August, I set off to revisit the Seven Saints chapel at Trédaniel, about which I have written before, with a view to finding some images for the current Qarrtsiluni theme of 'Words of Power'.  It was just after Assumption, when places dedicated to the Virgin Mary get a bit of special extra fuss, and imagine my surprise when I found that, not only was the chapel full of flowers and candles, but the Saints were back!

They are not the originals, which were stolen many years ago, nor the faithful copies which replaced them, which were also stolen rather more recently, but very carefully made new wooden copies.  They aren't at all bad, in my view, keeping and even perhaps strengthening the essential naivity of the originals, while bringing in a consistency of scale and palette of colours , and a simplicity of line which those rather lacked.  I've been meaning to find out who made them, and how they went about it, but so far haven't done so.  I am slack about keeping up with local press, and on-line information is hard to come by.

I admired the new arrivals, only regretting that the little roughly carved wooden dog who had led the blind St Hervé, and who had survived the theft, had somehow or other disappeared in the clean-up.

 I wondered afresh at the enigmatic angel with the book in granite relief,

and enjoyed the Virgin's starry blue gown, the baby Jesus' flannel nighty, and the Little Breton's red coat.

And in my search for Words of Power, I looked at the votives, plaques in marble, the oldest of which dates from the late 19th century, but the majority of which were from the 20th century, and even one or two from the 21st.

Robb points out that the veneration of local saints, which I've tended wrongly to think of as particularly Breton or Celtic, was truly a pagan thing, in the word's original sense of being of the pays, the local region, these spirits are rooted to the spot, earthbound.  Many local legend told of fruitless attempts to relocate images and statues, which magically became too heavy to move.  And their powers were practically and materially helpful to the people who invoked them by means of practical and material actions. There are hilarious stories of statues having bits of their anatomy rubbed and scraped away to effect the relevent remedies, and equally, of their being punished, thrown in rivers, thrashed, and dragged through nettles when they failed to deliver the goods.  People's relationships with the sacred was nothing if not down to earth. Their names were also construed to appertain to their powers, so St Clair was (who is believed once to have been among the saints in the chapel at Trédaniel) was supposed to help people's bad sight, St Pissoux to fix with urinary troubles, and the feast of All Saints, Toussaint, which is today, was said to be the time to pray to cure a cough, as it sounds like the verb tousser, to cough.

'These beliefs' Robb says, 'thrived on the established church like mistletoe on an oak'. Even the figure in St Bernadette's vision at Lourdes was described by her as 'uo petito damisela',  (she didn't speak French as we recognise it), dressed in white with flowers round her feet, which had a special meaning, not the holy Virgin she was eventually interpreted as, but a fairy, a not-always-benign nature spirit.  However, as he says, 'the vital point was not the metaphysical status of the being but her actions and sympathies'.

(St Mamert, who specialises in disorders of the stomach, especially in curing troubled babies of their colic, holds his exposed entrails carefully between his hands, all the while smiling beatifically.)

I braved the adders, and took the path down through the woods to the fountain, the holy well that probably predates the chapel as a place of healing.  A fallen tree, long since assimilated into the landscape and ivy-covered, forms a low arch in front of it.

A lop-armed crucifix, with the typical gingerbread-man granite Jesus, stands before the stone basins built around the spring,

where people have thrown in other votive offerings, as they always do.  The wishing well tradition derives from something much older.

I was followed by a foursome of Parisians, who had alighted, wearing slightly pastiche clothing, chiffon skirts and light trousers, from an open-top retro sports car.  They asked me what I knew of the place, and I tried to tell them as much as I was able.  It seemed to me slightly ironic, an agnostic expat Englishwoman with an interest in the quaint and folklorique and a bunch of dressed-up Parisian sophisticates earnestly comparing notes at a ruined and deserted place of former peasant  belief (and 'peasant' too, comes from the same root as 'pagan'...).

They skipped back up the path, and left the place to us.  As I was leaving, I saw another homespun votive, mysterious and poignant, written in marker pen on the ivy stems clasping the fallen tree trunk,

'Cécile, we miss you.'


The lasting changes to the world of saints and fairies came when people were no longer exposed to the frightening, isolated little worlds where unknown creatures lived complex lives of their own.  The great symbol of secularized France is not the operating theatre or the ballot box but the vast megalithic alignments of autoroutes that bypass towns and villages and offer just an occasional glimpse of a cathedral spire fleeing across the landscape.  New, high-speed roads erased the pagan spirits by removing knowledge of the spaces where they lived.  The spaces themselves are still there, and when the small road on the map turns into a track and the sky defies the weather forecast, it takes an act of faith to believe that their sacred inhabitants never existed.

(Graham Robb, 'The Discovery of France'.  Read it.)


Qarrtsiluni kindly accepted two of the photos I took; I have used slightly different ones here.  I'll post when they are published there.

Blogger's new post editor is really good once you get used to it.  You can upload all your pictures in a stream, keep them in reserve and just pop them into the text when you want, change their size and position sur place, delete and replace them. No more HTML headaches for me!  And it has a preview button that really works, and an undo/redo function... Go check on settings if you don't have it and change it.  Well worth the bother. 


Roderick Robinson said...

Virtually new and unmarked edition of "The discovery of France" from AbeBooks for 61 p (plus £2.50 pp, of course) but I'm mired in other things at the moment. Look forward to trying post-editor; am fed up with the gymnastics otherwise necessary when inserting pix in the text. Particularly enjoyed your encounter with the Parisians; one of the great pleasures in life is being able to pass on something unequivocally truthful to a French person - in French. Examining the recipient's face, noting that ever-present reluctance. But possibly this is something you no longer experience, having slipped linguistically into a chameleon-like background. A West Riding accent overlaid with shreds of south-east England and Pennsylvania tends to augment that reluctance.

Zhoen said...

Sainthood was a convenient place for the Church to put old kami, fairies and gods. Convert them along with the people, like a corporate takeover. No reduction in force, just a new boss.

I'd like to switch to the new blooger, but I don't know what will happen to my girl on a motorcycle photo, nor how to keep her.

marja-leena said...

Reading this right now is particularly fascinating for me right now for I've finished reading a book of tales based on some of the characters of the Finnish epic, the Kalevala - one of those pagan birth of the world myths that became so frowned on by the Church. As were the First Nations myths. I like how the French have incorporated them. And how timely too with Halloween and All Saints Day this weekend. Thank you Lucy for your always thoughtful and enjoyable little essays!

Michelle said...

Thank you for the intriguing and beautifully written post, Lucy.

And congratulations for your Qarrtsiluni photographs. I'm looking forward to seeing them up!

Sheila said...

This reminds me so much of Italy and the same things that happened there....and how misunderstood it all is both by those in the church and critics outside. Not that I claim to undertsand it all!

The book sounds great. Thanks for sharing about that.

Lucy said...

Thanks dears, for reading.

BB - My French comes and goes a bit. I sometimes warm to it, and can express myself adequately, but I'm not very good, in English either come to that, at being put on the spot, and find any eloquence tends to desert me. Hence I like blogging I suppose, it gives time to refelct. Do try the post editor, it clearly has advantages, adnyou won't have any trouble adjusting, not being a stick-in-the-mu like myself! The book is good to dip into too. I read the first section straightthrough very compulsively, but am still picking up and putting down the seconfd half. There's quite a lot about cartography, which I imagine might interest you.

Z - Many of these saints and their cults were never really part of the established church, who were quite antipathetic to them. At a grass roots level less so. They were quite home grown, do-it-yourself kind of entities! I don't imagine the post editor would interfere with your layout. I thought I'd have to reset the font every time, but it publishes everything just as before. Try it anyway?

ML - The French don't have that much in the way of great myths. I think perhaps that's one of the things the book shows, is how fragmentary and diverse the identity was, so perhaps this multiplicity of small local spirits and mythic beings was their version. And because the country was actually very largely left to its own devices, despite the great centralising drives of its more recent history, these things persisted quite peacefully intact.

Sheila - Robb, perhaps because of cycling extensively to do his research, uses the metaphor of the roads and highways to describe the France's history. He says away from 'the carnage-strewn main roads of French history', there is a surprising legacy of tolerance, accommodation and pragmatism about faith and religion. Also he stresses that because the peasants' belief was very concrete and practical, they had little difficulty in adapting to modern medicine and science. It interests me that, while there's a lot of tosh talked about reviving paganism and such like, in many ways it never went away, the link is more or less unbroken.

Lucy said...

Michelle - sorry, missed you there! In fact I just heard from Dave, who hadn't seen this, that they'd have liked more of the photos and a commentary for Q, to make it a more substantial submission, but it was too late, I'd already published this! So I'm slightly mortified about that.

Tant pis...

apprentice said...

A lovely photo essay as ever Lucy.
Congrats on the photos on Q. too, I look forward to seeing them.

Here we have travellers' trees, which have things tied to them and coins driven into the bark.

Rouchswalwe said...

You packed a lot into a short post here, Lucy! The Robb quote interested me and I will see if the book is available in the library here. And your description: "the typical gingerbread-man granite Jesus" is so on. I'll never again look at those without wondering if that's where that spicy aroma is coming from.

Laura Frankstone said...

Finally, I have a moment to drop in and see what you're up to. I've thought of you and Tom SO often in the hectic and stressful days since I returned home. Our day together was one of the most cherished of my Brittany stay.
I adored the Robb book, too. At first. But, oh, he gets bogged down in brain-numbing minutiae midway through! I plowed on til the end, though, loyal to my first overwhelming enthusiasm. He desperately needed a good editor!! Still, I'm glad I finished it.
I'll be popping in to admire your work and words and to say hello, as often as the situation here will let me.

Bee said...

I'm too inclined to fiction; I really should read this book. It does sound enlightening.

I'm agnostic, too, but fascinated by those who possess true faith. Just this afternoon I spent two hours talking about this subject with my mother. One of her closest friends has just died -- in a state of peaceful acceptance that only those with true faith can achieve, I think.

I've looked up the word "votive" -- and realized that I have long conflated it with candles (which the church I grew up in referred to as votives). Interesting that a votive can serve as both a "please" and a "thank you." Which do the French prefer?

Bee said...

Oh yes, and the updated post editor is so much easier to use. Julochka clued me in at Blog Camp in August.

Rouchswalwe said...

Struck by all the stone, yet there is warmth all about. Fascinating.