Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Village Violence at Vespers: Quimper versus Vannes

Pardons in Brittany have their origins in pre-Christian rites. They are held on the feast day of the patron saint of a village. They are most often held at the parish church, although they can also be held outside in woodland, on moors or on the cliffs. Many are pilgrimages and involve vows, prayers and observances made by the participants.

Unfortunately, one of the most remarkable pardons is now a thing of the past. This used to be held on the edge of the forest of Dualt ('black hill' from Breton: du, ‘dark’, black’ [Old Cornish: duw; Welsh: du] and Old Breton: alt, ‘hill’  [Breton: aod; Old Cornish: alt; Welsh: allt]) and attracted 17,000 pilgrims or more from Ouimper and Vannes, the two adversaries at this pardon.

Saint Servais, or Gelvest in Breton, was invoked here on May 13th every year to protect crops from late frosts. On the night before, men and women arrived in troops, the men armed with staffs and cudgels.
The story now continues as told by an old countess who had walked here as a barefoot pilgrim from Quimper (Cornouaille) many times. The story appears in Sabine Baring-Gould’s ‘Book of Brittany’ (1901) and was originally told  in Anatole Le Braz's 'Au pays des pardons' (1894):

"We started in numerous bands. As we approached the chapel we encountered the Gwenediz (the people ofVannes). These were our most implacable foes.  
Vespers was awaited by all ranged in two camps, the Gwenediz on one side of the stream that courses by the cemetery wall, and we on the other. Glances of acute hostility passed between the rival bodies. 
When the vesper-bell rang the chapel doors were thrown open, and we all rushed within. At the further end of the nave was a large banner, upright, the staff passed through a ring of the altar rail. Hard by on a handbarrow was a little wooden saint, S. Gelvest ar Piliau. There had to be a new statue every year ; one would not serve twice after the rough usage to which it was subjected.                                                                                              The Magnificat was chanted. Then all the cudgels were raised, and no sooner was the last verse sung than the whole church resounded with a frightful clashing of cudgels. The Cornouaillais yelled, 'Drive away the frost! Give us wheat in Cornouaille.' Whilst those of Vannes shouted, ' Drive away the frost! Wheat and oats and buckwheat to the Vannetais!'                        
A stout fellow laid hold of the banner, the pole of which is eighteen feet high, and two others raised the bier to which the image was attached. The rector of Duault advanced, pale as ashes, between the serried ranks of the Gwenediz on the left and the Cornouaillais on the right.
The terrible moment had arrived. The banner was inclined to pass under the arch of the doorway. Suddenly a furious clamour burst forth, howls from thousands of mouths, ' Hijar reiu ! hijar reiu ! Down with the frost!' and at once the conflict with the cudgels began. They were flourished, whirled like the sails of windmills, they descended, clashed, and the rector with the choristers fled to the sacristy.                                               
The battle was fought to obtain possession of the banner and the wooden statuette, for the side that secured them secured also immunity from late frosts and an abundant harvest.
The women were wont to fight as furiously as did the men, employing their nails and teeth.
I remember especially one occasion on which the Cornouaillais were victorious. There had been a hurricane of blows, arms had been broken, and heads cut open. On the tombs without were men seated with blood streaming from their mouths.
The saint had been smashed to atoms, and the women had collected the chips in their aprons. The banner alone was intact. The Vannetais made a last attempt to secure it. They were, however, successfully repulsed, and retired carrying off their wounded, who groaned in their pain as their carts jolted from the field of action.
Our side carried off the banner in triumph to the church. That year, I well remember, the harvest was unusually abundant."

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