The Land of Holy Wells - 2

by Tristan Gray Hulse


     St Mériadek's main sphere of influence in Brittany was in the south, in the Morbihan. Four churches are still dedicated to him, each with its own holy well; and of these, two are still the objects of pilgrimage and devotion. [1]

     Mériadek's principal Breton foundation was a Stival, a village 3 km to the west of Pontivy. Here he spent the latter years of his life, and here he died c. 570. The church at Stival is a glorious 16th-century structure, filled with nationally-recognised treasures in the form of stained glass, wall paintings, and wooden sculptures. But for the pilgrim, the greatest treasure is a large (nearly one foot tall) Celtic hand-bell of bronze, now polished to a rich golden colour by centuries of use. It is known as the Bonnet of St Mériadek, because, as local tradition asserts, the saint used it to cure headaches and deafness in a very specific way. (Scholarship, more prosaically, assigns it to the 9th/10th centuries.) One of the series of early 16th-century paintings in the sanctuary of the church depicts Mériadek placing the bell on the head of a kneeling woman; and each year, after Mass on the Pardon of St Mériadek (Saturday before Trinity Sunday), the pilgrims approach the altar one by one, where the priest rings the bell in the pilgrim's ears, and then places it upon his head, like a hat.

     About 100 yards S-W of the church, on the other side of the main road from Pontivy, in a wooded valley, and on the bank of a little river, is found the saint's holy well, a granite structure of great beauty. It stands in a square walled enclosure, entered by stone stiles in the east and west walls. Stone seats run around the inside of the enclosure. At the northern end is the well itself, the water rising in a basin some four feet square and three feet deep. Above this stands a delightful Flamboyant Gothic well-shrine, elegantly carved in granite – wonderful to look at, and impossible to describe! (See illustration). The structure is some nine feet high. Above the arch is a shield carved with the arms of the once-powerful Rohan family, who promoted the cult of St Mériadek, and at one time even claimed him as a member of their family. (The present Duc de Rohan – a Euro-MP – while not totally convinced, still thinks it 'might be useful to have a saint in the family'!) From the well, a channel in the pavement leads the water into a large square pool for bathing. The whole structure dates to the late 16th century. Above the well, a niche shelters an ancient statue of the saint, dressed as a bishop. (His legend has him end his days as the bishop of Vannes – a statement for which there is no authority – and he is always depicted as such in art.)Stival

     At the time of my visit to Stival, a bunch of red camellias had been placed by the statue, in a jam-jar. On the jar was pasted a hand-written label, asking the saint to pray for the donor.

     It was March when I visited Brittany, and the camellias were in full flower everywhere across the country. Every altar and statue in every church I visited seemed to be piled high with them. I had chosen March in order to attend the Pardon of St Mériadek at a remote chapel in the parish of Pluvigner. Pluvigner is a small town some kilometres south of Pontivy, at the centre of one of the largest parishes in Brittany. Even now it has ten subsidiary churches and chapels, and once there were half as many more. This was a common feature of the larger and more important parishes throughout the Celtic lands in the medieval period (the remote and always sparsely populated St Davids in Dyfed, for instance, besides its cathedral, had fifteen other chapels), though the pattern has persisted intact only in Brittany. Most of the chapels were used publicly only once or twice each year. They marked the sites of former hermitages, or sheltered the tomb of some half-forgotten saint, or were built at the side of some popular holy well. The smallest and simplest of Pluvigner's chapels is situated some 5 km E of the town, and is dedicated to St Mériadek. The chapel is an austerely attractive building, dating from the middle ages, and remodelled in 1549. In form, it is a simple rectangle. Inside, the flagged floor and whitewashed walls are pleasantly green with age and mould. There is no decoration beyond the carved roof timbers; and normally the only colour is provided by three old wooden statues painted in strong tints: St Mériadek as a bishop and Notre-Dame des Fleurs, both of the 17th century, and a wonderful and undatable statue of St Noyala carrying her head in her hands, as enigmatic and full of presence as any Celtic stone head, though undoubtedly much later. And at the time of my visit, the chapel was full of camellias.St Meriadek's Well, Pluvigner

     The chapel is used only twice a year, for the Pardons. One is in August, the other on the third Saturday in March (in times past, it was spread over the first three Saturdays). The summer Pardon is like most Breton pardons, a characteristic mix of religious devotion and secular celebration, and features the usual procession and lighting of the ceremonial bonfire. But the March Pardon preserved a much older, more solemn, form. It centres on the celebration of a Mass in honour of St Mériadek, and its distinguishing feature is the singing of the kannen or canticle of the saint. This ancient hymn, sung in Breton to a simple, plaintive, and slightly unnerving melody, has 49 verses – each followed by the chorus! – and tells the life of St Mériadek. It is sung both before and after Mass. Accompanied by pipes, drones, and a small drum, it was deeply impressive and moving. At the end of the Mass, coloured prints of St Mériadek are distributed. In Pluvigner, Mériadek is the patron saint of domestic cattle; and in this rural area he is still popularly invoked as their protector. Each year, the prints are taken home to the farms, and pasted up in the byres and shippons, to bless the cattle for the coming 12 months. This aspect of the saint's cult, which is also the reason or function of the Pardon, is well summed up in the refrain of the kannen:

O san Mériadek béniget,

Aveit omb, aveit hun lonnet.

Cheleuet mat hur pedenneu

Pelleit doh emb en ol drougeu.

That is:

O blessed St Mériadek

Listen well to our prayers

For ourselves and for our animals:

Keep us from harm.

     The church probably marks the site of a hermitage once occupied by Mériadek or one of his followers, and has never had any other function than that of pardon chapel. Thus, for instance, despite the distance from the parish church, no burials have ever been made in the tiny churchyard. Just outside this churchyard, to the south, is the saint's holy well. Its structure is a plain as the church: a three feet square basin backed and in part sheltered by a stone-built gable above a rounded arch. Beneath the arch is an empty niche – its ancient stone statue of the saint was stolen a few years ago. The well is still popular. It forms one of the stations of the procession in the summer; and after Mass at the March pardon, there was a steady stream of people collecting water from the well. (It was amusing to note that many of the bottles still bore labels proclaiming 'Evian' or 'Vichy'!) I was told that the water is kept to be mixed with the feed of sick animals; and is also used by the people themselves, especially for the cure of headaches – something Mériadek is invoked for throughout Brittany.

     But the most important holy well in Pluvigner is the Fontaine St-Guignér, situated on the banks of the river, on the edge of town directly east of the church. St Guignér was a 6th-century monk, probably from Wales, and almost certainly a companion of St Mériadek. In Cornwall, as here in Brittany, churches and wells bearing their names are founding adjoining areas, at Camborne and Gwinear. But only the place-name evidence bears witness to their association: history and tradition has forgotten it. The principal witness to the early traditions concerning Guignér/Gwinear is the c. 1300 Latin Life of St Fingar (another form of the name) by a Breton prince named Anselm. [2] This was evidently based on the Breton tradition, though it does incorporate some Cornish material. According to the Life, Guignér was an Irish prince converted by St Patrick, who fled to Brittany to avoid persecution by his pagan father. He was kindly received by the Duke of Brittany, who gave him and his companions land in the Morbihan.

     'One day the band of Irish exiles were hunting. A stag was found and pursued by the dogs, closely followed by Fingar, who rode so hard that his companions were left far behind. The stag was overtaken and killed by Fingar, who… looked about for water to wash his hands and clothes… But he could find none. At last Fingar struck his spear in the ground and a fountain miraculously sprang up.' [3]

     This was the origin of the Pluvigner well. The miracle convinced Guignér to become a monk. Eventually he moved to Cornwall with his community, where they were martyred by the tyrant Teudar (who also features as the persecutor of St Mériadek, in that saint's traditions). 'Immediately the saint picked up his head and proceeded to carry it in his hands… to another place further on, where he washed it carefully in a spring which still flows there'. [4] Though the Life is not clear on this point, this well appears to be the one he had earlier created: 'Guignér, after prayer, struck his staff in the ground and immediately a fountain spring up, from which the saints quenched their thirst', [5] and is perhaps the one still identifiable in Gwinear. [6]

     Local Breton tradition has supplemented Anselm's Life, relating, for instance, how the saint's relics were later returned to Pluvigner. Insofar as the whole tangle of legends can be plausibly unravelled, it seems that Guignér, like Mériadek, escaped to Brittany from whatever threatened their welfare in Cornwall, and while Mériadek settled in Stival, Guignér settled just to the south, in the place now called after him, Pluvigner – the 'plou' or parish of Guignér. In Cornwall, the tradition of religious persecution hardened into one of actual martyrdom; and when Anselm (or his source) came to compose the Vita, the two strands, Breton and Cornish, were woven into one.St Guigner's Well

     St Guignér's Well is very impressive. It rises in a large sunken rectangular enclosure entered by flights of steps; from the Rue de la Fontaine to the north, and from a large grassy area to the west. The actual well is incorporated into the west wall. The tank is approximately eight feet by six feet, and some three and a half feet  deep. The water is cold and clear, and overflows into a narrow channel cut into the pavement, running into a larger but rather shallower rectangular tank. Behind and above the source is a pointed stone arch, perhaps twelve feet high, surmounted by a cross. The back wall bears an inscription in Gothic lettering, and a coat-of-arms; both too weathered to be deciphered. Beneath the inscription a stone shelf runs across the wall, over the spring; probably it once supported statuary. To the right of the well, a small hollow has been carved into the surrounding masonry, intended to receive the offerings of pilgrims (a feature observed at other sacred sites in Brittany). In the N-W corner of the enclosure are two further small wells, both round in form, and perhaps two and a half feet deep. Stone channels carry their water to connect with the water from the main well. Local oral tradition accounts for these two additional wells by supplementing Anselm's account. In Pluvigner they say that Guignér did not kill the stag, but was converted by a vision he had of a cross between its antlers. It was thirst that caused him to look for water, and faith which inspired his to stick his lance into the earth, not once, but three times, thereby causing three springs to appear: one for himself, one for his horse, and one for his dog. Unfortunately, no-one could tell me which of the two small wells was for the dog, and which for the horse!

     The water from all three wells is collected in the larger rectangular tank, from whence another channel carries it into the first of two further interconnected tanks. These are very large, shallow (perhaps one foot deep), and paved with tiles.Plan of St Guigner's Well

     This elaborate construction permits the well to be used for a variety of purposes. Water is drunk from the main source; the sick bathe in the tank which collects the water of the three springs; and the two large cistern are used for washing clothes. I observed this washing in process one afternoon. All around the large tanks is a paved 'path', along which the women work on wooden kneelers, called 'lavoirs'. They said that the town's women prefer to wash their linen in the well, because it is 'purer' than the ordinary tap water. But it was equally evident that it was a social affair, an occasion to meet friends and gossip: and this dual sacred-and-secular function of urban holy wells is observable throughout Brittany. Nor is the well's sacred function forgotten. On another occasion, early in the morning, I met a man filling bottles with water from the spring. He was drinking it every day, he told me, to cure… whatever it was, my severely limited French was unable to understand, though he told me several times!

     The whole structure appears to date from c. 1600, and much of the stonework is worn and covered with lichens. It provides a home for the numerous small lizards I saw at the Well, basking in the spring sunshine.

     The Well comes into its own on the third Sunday of May, at the annual Pardon of St Guignér. For centuries this has been one of the major pardons of the Morbihan, attended by people from all over the region. This is how it was described 100 years ago, by Canon Guillotin de Corson.

     'Arriving in Pluvigner to attend the famous pardon, according to custom, on the third Sunday in May, we offered our first respects to the relics of the parish in the chapel of Our Lady of the Nettles [Notre-Dame des Orties: a separate church, now in ruins, in the churchyard alongside the parish church]. There, ranged before the altar of the Virgin, were the seven great reliquaries of Pluvigner, the "Bannielo", as they are called, even though the Breton word means "banners". First were two busts of gilded wood, both representing St Guignér, and each enclosing part of his relics: one shows St Guignér as a young man, shortly after his conversion; the other shows him dressed as a warrior, carrying the martyr's palm. Two other reliquaries shaped like arms contain the bones of these parts of the saint's body. The next reliquary is very impressive: it encloses the head of St Bieuzy… Here, now, two angels uphold a sort of monstrance enclosing relics of SS Goustan and Vital. Lastly, wooden busts of St Martin of Tours and St Francis de Sales contain some relics of these great bishops, and conclude the glorious series of the Pluvigner reliquaries.

     The solemn procession takes place after Vespers on the day of the Pardon. It is an attractive affair, in all its pomp, with the seven reliquaries carried on stout shoulders one after the other. They are accompanied by some half-dozen banners, which, better than the reliquaries, justifies the name "Bannielo" which we mentioned. Further, and at the head, naturally after the cross, the parish flag is unfurled, on the ample folds of which is depicted the holy image of the patron, St Guignér, then comes statues of the holy Virgin, of St Joseph, etc. – but what are such images alongside the great relics of Brittany!

     Besides, these are the object of a very special devotion, in the following manner. Three times during the course of the procession, the clergy and their assistants come to a solemn halt: firstly, as they leave the town, next at St Guignér's Well, and lastly, on re-entering the town. At each stop, the bearers of the reliquaries raise the precious shrines on high, holding them at arms' length above their heads. Then begins a pious, incessant and picturesque march under all the reliquaries: the pilgrims, the sick, those seeking some special favour from God through the intervention of the saints, pass one after the other from the first reliquary to the second, from the third to the fourth, and so one, to the end, bending devoutly beneath the shrines, passing rapidly from this one to that, criss-crossing even, always praying. Not only women and children, but grown men and fathers of families pay homage to their saints, and seek their protection as they pass thus, humbly and with confidence, beneath their sacred bones.

     Arriving at the Well, a pretty little arched building furnished with three basins, the procession sings an antiphon in honour of St Guignér. Then the priests set fire to a huge pile of wood stuffed with fire-crackers, producing with an instant blaze a wonderful series of bangs accompanied by showers of start – in a word, everything that is necessary to celebrate a Breton pardon properly!

     As the fire begins to die down, the procession gets under way again and returns to the church. A few of the pilgrims, especially the young people, remain to watch for the fall of the religious pennant which, here in Brittany, tops every feu de joie [ceremonial bonfire, lit at many traditional Breton pardons]. This is in order to collect a scrap, which they take home with them, preserving it as a blessed souvenir of the pardon.' [7]

    The Bannielo are still preserved in the church at Pluvinger, exuberant examples of religious folk art, half-way between high Baroque and travelling fair-ground! During the lighting of the feu de joie, they are arranged along the walls of St Guignér's Well. Though they can no longer be exhibited in N-D des Orties (an act of official vandalism destroyed the church in 1961), they are still carried at the Pardon. In fact, in all other ways, the pardon of the Bannielo and the procession to St Guignér's Well continue today exactly as described by Canon de Corson.

 


References

1. The major study of the life and cultus of St Mériadek is that of G.H. Doble: The Saints of Cornwall, Part 1, Truro 1960, pp. 111-145, 'Saint Meriadoc' (originally published as Cornish Saints Series 34, 1935).
2. Gilbert H. Doble, The Saints of Cornwall, Part 1, Truro 1960, pp. 100-110: 'Saint Gwinear' (originally published as Cornish Saints Series 9, 1926).
3. Doble 1960, p. 101.
4. Doble 1960, p. 103.
5. Doble 1960, p. 102.
6. J. Meyrick, A Pilgrim's Guide to the Holy Wells of Cornwall, Falmouth 1982, pp. 54-5.
7. Joseph Danigo, Eglises et Chapelles du pays de Lanvaux, Vannes 1983, pp. 109-110 (translation, T.G.H.).

I would like to thank my friend Père Mathurin Le Gallic, who guided me around Pluvigner, supplied me with much relevant information, and first drew my attention to Chanoine Danigo's book.

 

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Text © Tristan Gray Hulse (1994) | Illustrations © David Taylor (1994)

Designed & Maintained by Richard L. Pederick (© 1999) | Created 15/11/99