The equinox arrived and so did the the end of summer, just as I rolled into Vannes, a medieval city of Bretagne. Before setting off I posted a final tranquil farewell reading from the beautiful hermit hideaway in Ecalgrain, La Hague, Normandie (the land of the Dukes of Normandy and William who conquered Britain in 1066).
This is my first visit to Bretagne and I’m so excited to be here. It’s a place that steeped in mirroring history between Bretagne and Briton. Which came first? Le coq or the egg? It seems a very confusing issue that all wrapped up and fogged over with shared folklore, legends and myths that surround not just the languages but also the origins of King Arthur and Merlin (more about this in a later blog).
It’s as if the body of water the British call the ‘English Channel’ and the French ‘La Manche’ hardly seems to exist since these early tribes were all seafaring cultures that traded wheat from the Middle East, joining Bretagne, Cornwall, Devon, Wales and England in a tangled web of their respective Celtic histories. The connection between the Brittonic languages of Breton and Cornish are staggering to say the least as well as with Welsh. Most of the place names in both Cornwall and Bretagne begin with Ker, Tre and Pen. In the medieval period a vast area just west of Vannes was called Cornouaille or in the Breton language Kernev and in Cornish Kernow, both pronounced the same way.
The entire region is covered in the world’s largest collection of Neolithic standing stones that to this day baffle archaeologists. Early bronze age finds in Brittany seem to show that there were connections to the Beaker culture. This is named after many ceramic beakers from around 2800 BCE – 2300 BCE. These finds here however, strangely also have links to Wessex in ancient Briton so there has been much early to-ing and fro-ing. After that there appears evidence of the Únětice culture which has Czech origins. Slavic, the old Czech tongue is closely linked with Sanskrit! So no simple answer to who was here first, last or at all times in-between. We have always been nomadic and have migrated.
Vannes is now a thriving medieval tourist city that has done well by preserving its past especially its narrow medieval cobbled streets. The echos of history are woven into each cobblestone, at every step you drift through endless epochs of history. Past times unfold before you as you pass through old stone arches and iron gateways.
Vannes all began way back with the Vaneti tribe of Gauls in the south western part of Armorica, in then Gaul. Vaneti is Gaulish for “the kin or the friendly ones” and this fascinates me as it links with the Norse “Vanir”, meaning friendly ones. The Vaneti were seafarers and their trading overseas influenced the customs and culture of the southwest of ancient Briton.
They were eventually defeated by Junius Brutus Albinus in a naval battle in 56 CE. Interestingly the postal code for Vannes today is 56000. During Roman occupation their seafaring skills were stopped to control them. Instead they were taught agriculture and farming which flourishes to this day. Most of the Vaneti were slaughtered or sold into slavery by the invading Roman army. The settlement was renamed Darioritum and so this era of Vannes was relinquished to the annuals of time.
At around end of the 4th century, after the fall of Rome many Celts from Briton’s Roman legions who had been stationed in Bretagne were now the dominant force. The remaining Gauls living in the region were slowly displaced by the arrival of yet more Celts fleeing the Saxon invasion of Briton during the 6th Century. They brought with them their native tongues and customs and the Kingdoms of Brittany were born. This new Celtic wave of immigration brought with it their new, Christian religion and the Bishoprics of Brittany were established as the four Breton-speaking dioceses of Trégor, Léon, Cornouaille and Vannes.
The diocese of Vannes was created in the 5th century. The Council of Vannes first met in 461. During the early 6th century their power and greed saw them annexe their neighbouring region of Cornouaille. Soon after in 635 CE they agreed to join with Domnonia, another Bretagne kingdom with its roots in Devon.
Each region had its own distinct Brittonic tongue and the dialect of Vannes is almost unintelligible to the other Breton languages as it has Gaulish words and consonants absorbed into it.
Bretagne remained stubbornly independent until the French Revolution in 1789-1799 and defended itself against a British Royalist invasion. It is said that most inhabitants of Bretagne were happy to join the new republic as they were exhausted by the greed of the high taxes imposed by the ruling aristocracy. Especially Vannes et sa femme.
The Bretagne Fairies
Not me cheeky. There does however seem to be a lot of Breton folklore energies still alive in the time soup all around this area. I’ve been very aware of the frequencies of water fairies or Groac’h. These beings traditionally live in the wells and springs and tempt people into their dwellings before turning them into fish and eating them.
Trying to discover old water sources around Vannes is extremely difficult but after many hours digging around I stumbled on a building project where an ancient well was unearthed dating from around 2000 years ago according to pottery found. I reached for the local map only to discover that it is 100m from where I am staying.
I was so thrilled at this as I have been hearing fairy bells tinkling from within the house for a few days. When I went to visit the place it is still awaiting the block of flats that are to be built there. I’m not sure it’s advisable right now to mess with the Groac’h though but that’s commerce for you. Greed will not be rewarded, ultimately.
Saturday is market day and many hundreds of locals pack the medieval centre of the city to visit the market to buy local produce. With the current Covid restrictions in the old part of town, everyone is out and about but covering their faces.
I was thinking about how in Tudor and Jacobean England a Masque was a play or fantastical folly acted out at court or at Aristocrtic soirées. I couldn’t help but titter at this modern masque where we all walk about pretending that all is normal wearing our masks, while those dining or drinking coffee or even smoking a cigarette, stand and sit outside all the bars and cafés all around us, entirely maskless.
The absurdities that we all accept are mystifying to me. Small samples of food are still available for all try and pick up by hand without any fear of any infection reaching the other free samples on the food stalls. The French, unlike the British are famous for handling fruit and vegetables for quality before purchasing so the folly of viral caution seems to stumble at the first hurdle.
Pick a Gargoyle
Gargoyles are gothic architecture’s solution to drainpipes. These four gargoyles are however at ground level on the Cathedral in the centre of Vannes. What’s needing to be flushed out of your system?
Thanks for reading my blog. With luck I’m cycling to some Neolithic sites as this video goes live, so talk among yourselves until I get back.