SOON after the Vicomte Hersart de la Villemarqué published his Barzaz-Breiz, a collection of popular ballads from the Breton, critics who possessed a knowledge of the language and were acquainted with its literature exposed the true nature of the work, acting, indeed, as did British critics when Macpherson published his fragments of Ossian. Villemarqué was, in fact, a Breton Macpherson. He would hear a Breton ballad sung or recited, and would then either enlarge upon it and torture it out of all resemblance to its original shape, or he would instigate a literary friend to do so. We must remember that such a proceeding was fashionable at the time, as no less a personage than Sir Walter Scott had led the way, and he had been preceded by Burns in the practice. But whereas Burns made no secret of what he did and greatly enhanced the poetical value of the songs and ballads he altered, Scott and his friends, Kirkpatrick Sharpe, Leyden, and others, indulged in what they described as the "mystification" of their acquaintances by these semi-forgeries. Like theirs, Villemarqué's work had usually an historical or legendary basis, but it is impossible to say how much of it is original matter of folk-song and how much his own invention, unless we compare his versions with those furnished by M. Luzel in his Guerziou Breiz-Izel (1868), which, however, only contains a few of the originals of the tales given in the Barzaz-Breiz, and those not the most interesting.
I have cast the following tales into narrative form from the ballads published in the Barzaz-Breiz, where they
obviously appear as traditional tales in a polished, modern dress. 1 They may be regarded, largely, as efforts of the modern imagination regarding the Breton past. In any case the author of a book on Breton romances would not be justified in omitting all mention of Villemarqué and refraining from affording the reader a specimen of his work, any more than he would be in founding solely upon the labours of the Vicomte.
Morvan, chief of Léon, so celebrated in the history of the ninth century as one of the upholders of Breton independence, and known to tradition as 'the Prop of Brittany,' is the subject of a remarkable series of ballads or hero-tales in the Barzaz-Breiz which together constitute what is almost an epic. These tell of his life, death, adventures, travels, and the marvellous feats of derring-do he accomplished. In some measure he is to Breton legend what Arthur is to British or Holger to that of Denmark. That he is familiar to Breton tradition there can be no question, and whether Villemarqué himself wove the following adventures around him or not they are certainly typical of the age in which the hero flourished.
One day the child Morvan was sitting at the edge of the forest when a cavalier issued from its depths
armed at all points and riding a great charger. The boy, excited by his martial appearance, ran from him in terror, calling out that here indeed was St Michael; but the cavalier rode so swiftly that he soon came up with the lad, who devoutly threw himself on his knees and made the sign of the Cross, calling out:
"Seigneur Saint Michael, in the name of God I pray thee do me no harm!"
The knight laughed loudly. "Why, lad," he said, "I am no more Saint Michael than I am a thief, but merely a belted knight, such as one may meet with by the score in this land of chivalry."
"I have never seen a knight," replied Morvan; "and what may that be which you carry?"
"That is called a lance, my boy."
"And what are these that you wear on your head and breast?"
"The one is a casque and the other a breast-plate. They are intended to protect me from the stroke of sword and spear. But tell me, lad, have you seen any one pass this way?"
"Yes, Seigneur, a man went by this very road not half an hour agone."
"Thank you, boy," replied the knight. "If you are asked who spoke to you, say the Count of Quimper," and with these words he spurred his horse and set off down the road in the direction which the little Morvan had indicated.
Morvan returned to his mother, who had been sitting some distance away, and began to tell her of his meeting. He was so full of the gallantry of the knight he had met, his grace and martial bearing, that the good dame
could not stem the torrent of words which flowed from him.
"Oh, mother," he babbled on, "you never saw anyone so splendid as him whom I have seen to-day, a man more beautiful than the Lord Michael the Archangel, whose image is in our church."
His mother smiled and patted him fondly on the cheek.
"Come, my son," she said, "there is no man so beautiful as the Archangel Michael."
But little Morvan shook his head.
"Saving your grace, there are, my mother," he said gravely. "There are many men more splendid than Saint Michael, and they are called knights. How I wish that I might grow up and become a knight too!"
At these words the poor lady, who had lost her husband in battle and who dreaded that her only son might be taken from her, was seized with such dismay that she sank to the ground unconscious. The little Morvan, without turning his head, entered the stables and led out a fresh horse. Jumping lightly on the steed's back, he turned its head in the direction in which the splendid cavalier had gone and rode hastily after him.
Ten years passed--years full of martial achievement and adventure for young Morvan. Then a desire to return to the ancestral mansion seized upon the youth, and he made his way homeward. But great was his dismay when he entered the courtyard of the manor and looked about him, for the blackberry bushes and the nettles were growing round the threshold of the house and the walls were half ruined and covered with
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MORVAN RETURNS TO HIS RUINED HOME
ivy. As he was about to enter he observed a poor old blind woman standing in the entrance.
"Pardon me, dame, but perhaps you can give me hospitality for the night," he said.
"Alas! sir, we have but little," she replied. "This house has been allowed to go to ruin since its son and heir quitted it."
As she ceased speaking a young damsel descended the broken stone steps, and after regarding Morvan for a moment burst into tears.
"How now, maiden," said Morvan, "wherefore do you weep?"
"Alas, Seigneur," replied the maiden, "I have a brother who left us ten years ago to lead the life of a warrior, and every time that I see a youth about his age I feel myself compelled to weep."
"Tell me, my child," said Morvan, "have you no other brother?"
"None in the world, Sir Knight."
"And your mother, what of her?"'
"Alas! sir, she too is gone. There is no one but myself and my old nurse in the house. My poor mother died of grief when my brother rode off to become a knight."
On hearing these words Morvan was deeply affected.
"Alas!" he cried, "wretch that I am, I have slain her who gave me birth!"
When he spoke thus the damsel turned deadly pale.
"In the name of heaven, sir, who are you?" she cried.
How are you named?"
"I am Morvan, son of Conan, and Lez-Breiz is my surname, my sister."
The young girl stared for a moment, sighed, and then
fell into his arms; but soon she opened her eyes and praised God that she had found her long-lost brother.
But Lez-Breiz could not remain long at home. The tented field was his fireside, the battle his sport. Adventure followed adventure in his full and stirring life. One day he said to his young squire:
"Arouse you, my squire, and furnish my sword, my casque, and my shield, that I may redden them in the blood of the Franks, for with the help of God and this right arm I shall carry slaughter into their ranks this day."
"Tell me, my lord," asked the squire, "shall I not fight along with you to-day?"
Morvan smiled at the lad's eagerness, perhaps because he remembered his own on the day he met the Count of Quimper, then a grave shadow crossed his face.
"Think of your mother, lad," said he. "What if you never return to her? Think of her grief should you die this day."
"Ah, Seigneur, entreated the stripling, "if you love me, grant my prayer; let me fight along with you."
When Morvan rode out to battle an hour later his squire rode beside him, knee to knee. Passing near the church of St Anne of Armor they entered.
"O Saint Anne, most holy dame," prayed Morvan, "I am not yet twenty years old and I have been in twenty battles. All those I have gained by your aid, and if I return again to this land I shall make you a rich gift. I shall give you enough candles to go three times round the walls of your church, and thrice round your churchyard--
aye, thrice round your lands, when I come home again and further I shall give you a banner of white satin with an ivory staff. Also shall I give you seven silver bells which will ring gaily night and day above your head. And three times on my knees will I draw water for your use."
The enemy saw Morvan coming from afar. He was mounted on a small white ass with a halter of hemp, to signify his contempt for them. Lorgnez, his chief foe, came against him with a troop of warriors, while Morvan had only his little squire behind him. The foemen came on, ten by ten, until they reached the Wood of Chestnuts. For a moment the little squire was dismayed, but a word from his master rallied him, and, drawing his sword, he spurred forward. Soon they came front to front with Lorgnez and hailed him in knightly fashion.
"Ho! Seigneur Lorgnez, good day to you."
"Good morrow, Seigneur Morvan. Will you engage in single combat?"
"No; I despise your offer. Go back to your King and tell him that I mock him; and as for yourself, I laugh at you and those with you. Return to Paris, stay among your women, take off your mail and put on the silken armour of fops."
Lorgnez's face flamed with anger.
"By heaven!" he cried, "the lowest varlet in my company shall hew your casque from your head for this!"
At these words Morvan drew his great sword.
. . . . .
The old hermit of the wood heard some one knocking on the door of his cell. He opened it quickly and saw the young squire standing before him. He started
back at the sight of the youth's; blood-stained armour and death-pale countenance.
"Ha, my son," he cried, "you are sorely hurt. Come and wash your wounds at the fountain and repose for a little."
"I may not rest here, good father," replied the squire, shaking his head. "I have come to find water to take to my young master, who has fallen in the fight. Thirty warriors lie slain by his hand. Of these the Chevalier Lorgnez was the first."
"Brave youth!" said the hermit. "Alas that he has fallen!"
"Do not grieve, father. It is true that he has fallen, but it is only from fatigue. He is unwounded and will soon recover himself."
When he was recovered Morvan betook him to the chapel of St Anne and rendered the gifts he had promised her.
"Praise be to Saint Anne," cried he, "for she it is who has gained this victory."
One day the King of the Franks was sitting among his courtiers.
"Would that some one would rid me of this pestilent Morvan, who constantly afflicts the Frankish land and slays my doughtiest warriors," he said, on hearing of a fresh exploit on the part of the Breton chief.
Then the King's blackamoor, who heard these words, arose and stood before his master. He was tall and great of thew and sinew--a giant among men, towering head and shoulders even above the tall Frankish warriors.
"Allow me to fulfil your wishes, sire," he said. "Sir Morvan has sent me his glove, and if to-morrow I do not bring you his head I will willingly part with my own."
On the next morning Morvan's squire came to his master trembling violently.
"Seigneur," he said, with ashy countenance, "the King's Moor is here and bids you defiance."
Morvan rose and took his sword.
"Alas! my dear master," said the squire, "take heed what you do, I pray you, for I assure you that this Moor is nothing but a demon who practises the most horrible enchantments."
Morvan laughed. "Well, we shall see whether this demon can withstand cold steel or not," he said. "Go and saddle my black horse."
"Saving your grace," said the page, "if you will hearken to my words you will not fight on the black charger. He has been bewitched. Moreover, you will notice that when you enter the lists to fight the Moor he will cast his mantle to the ground. But do not follow his example, for should your mantle fall beneath his the strength of the black giant will be doubled. When the Moor advances to the attack make the sign of the Cross with the shaft of your lance, and when he rushes upon you in his battle-fury receive him with the steel. If you do this you may be sure that your lance will not break."
The heroes met within the lists. The King of France and his nobles had followed the giant Moor in order to witness the combat, and when all had been seated the trumpets sounded and the two champions rushed together with the utmost fury. They circled round one
another like eagles seeking an opening to strike. Now one struck, then the other, and the blood flowed down their bright armour. The Frankish King in high excitement called out:
'Ho! black crow of the sea, pierce me now this merle." At these words the giant assailed Morvan most furiously, as a great tempest assails a ship. The lances crossed, but that of the Moor broke like matchwood. Both leaped to earth, sword in hand, and rushed at each other like lions. Many lusty strokes were given and taken, and from their armour flew sparks like those from a smith's anvil. Then the Moor, grasping his sword with both hands, made ready to strike a mighty blow, when swift and trenchantly Morvan thrust his blade far into the arm-pit and the heart and the giant tumbled to the earth like a falling tree. Morvan placed his foot on the dead man's breast, withdrew his sword, and cut off the Moor's head. Then, attaching the bleeding trophy to the pommel of his saddle, he rode home with it and affixed it to the gate of his castle. All men praised him for his doughty deed, but he gave the grace of his victory entirely to St Anne, and declared that he would build a house of prayer in her honour on the heights between Léguer and the Guindy.
One day Morvan sallied forth to encounter the King of the Franks himself. The King brought no fewer than five thousand mounted men-at-arms. As this host was about to set out, a great clap of thunder resounded in the vault of heaven, and the King's nobles perforce regarded it as a bad omen.
"For heaven's sake, sire, go not hence," said one of them, since the day has begun with such an evil token.
"Impossible," was the royal reply. "I have given the order; we must march."
That morning, on the other hand, the sister of Morvan said to her brother: "My dear brother, if you love me seek not this combat, for if you do you will certainly go to your death, and what will become of me afterward? I see on the shore the white sea-horse, the symbol of Brittany. A monstrous serpent entwines him, seizing him round the hind legs and the body with his enormous coils. The sea-steed turns his head to seize the reptile. The combat is unequal. You are alone; the Franks are legion!"
But Morvan was already beyond ear-shot.
. . . . .
As the hermit of the wood of Helléan 1 slept three knocks sounded on his door.
"Good hermit," said some one, "open the door. I seek an asylum and help from you."
The wind blew coldly from the country of the Franks. It was the hour when savage beasts wander here and there in search of their prey. The hermit did not rise with alacrity.
"Who are you who knock at my door at this hour of night demanding an entrance?" he asked sulkily; "and by what sign shall I know whether you are a true man or otherwise?
"Priest, I am well known in this land. I am Morvan Lez-Breiz, the Hatchet of Brittany."
I will not open my door to you," said the hermit hastily.
"You are a rebel; you are the enemy of the good King of the Franks."
"How, priest!" cried Morvan angrily, "I am a Breton and no traitor or rebel. It is the King of the Franks who has been a traitor to this land."
"Silence, recreant!" replied the hermit. "Rail not against the King of the Franks, for he is a man of God."
"Of God, say you? Nay, rather of the devil! Has he not ravaged and wasted the Breton land? The gold that he wrings from the Breton folk is expended for the good of Satan. Open, hermit, open!"
"Not so, my son, for should I do so the Franks would surely fix a quarrel upon me."
"You refuse?" shouted Morvan in a voice of thunder. "Good; then I shall burst into your cell," and with these words he threw himself against the door, which creaked ominously.
"Hold, my son, hold!" cried the old hermit in tremulous tones. "Forbear and I will open to you"; and seizing a torch he lit it at the remains of his fire and went to open the door.
He unlocked it and drew it back, but as he did so he recoiled violently, for he saw advancing upon him a terrible spectre, holding its head in its two hands. Its eyes seemed full of blood and fire, and rolled round and round in a most horrible manner. The hermit was about to shriek in terror when the head of the apparition, after laughing grimly, addressed him:
"Come now, old Christian, do not be afraid. God permits this thing to be. He has allowed the Franks
to decapitate me, but for a time only, and as you see me now I am only a phantom. But He will permit you yourself to replace my head on my shoulders if you will."
The hermit stammered and drew back. This was not his first encounter with the supernatural, which he had good reason to dread, but like all Bretons he had come under the magnetism of Morvan, even although he believed that the King of the Franks was his rightful overlord; so, steeling himself against his natural timidity, he said:
"If God permits this thing I shall be very willing to replace your head on your shoulders."
"Take it, then," said the decapitated Morvan, and with trembling hands the priest took the gory trophy and replaced it on the Breton chiefs shoulders, saying at the same time: "I replace your head, my son, in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Spirit."
And by virtue of this benediction the phantom once more became a man.
"Morvan," said the hermit, "you must do penance, heavy penance, with me. You must carry about with you for seven years a robe of lead, padlocked to your neck, and each day at the hour of twelve you must go to fetch water from the well at the summit of the mountain yonder."
"I will do as you desire," said Morvan; "I will follow your saintly wish."
When the seven years of the penance had passed the robe had flayed Morvan's skin severely, and his beard, which had become grey, and the hair of his head, fell almost to his waist. Those who saw him did not recognize him; but a lady dressed in white, who passed
through the greenwood, stopped and gazed earnestly at him and her eyes filled with tears.
"Morvan, my dear son, it is indeed you," she said. "Come here, my beloved child, that I may free you of your burden," and she cut the chain which bound the shirt of lead to the shoulders of the penitent with a pair of golden scissors, saying:
"I am your patron, Saint Anne of Armor."
Now for seven years had the squire of Morvan sought his master, and one day he was riding through the greenwood of Helléan.
"Alas!" he said, "what profits it that I have slain his murderer when I have lost my dear lord?"
Then he heard at the other end of the wood the plaintive whinnying of a horse. His own steed sniffed the air and replied, and then he saw between the parted branches a great black charger, which he recognized as that of Lez-Breiz. Once more the beast whinnied mournfully. It almost seemed as if he wept. He was standing upon his master's grave!
But, like Arthur and Barbarossa, Morvan Lez-Breiz will yet return. Yes, one day he will return to fight the Franks and drive them from the Breton land!
We have sundry intimations here of the sources from which Villemarqué drew a part at least of his matter. There are resemblances to Arthurian and kindred romances. For example, the incident which describes the flight of young Morvan is identical with that in the Arthurian saga of Percival le Gallois, where the child Percival quits his mother's care in precisely the same fashion. The, Frankish monarch and his Court, too, are distinctly drawn in the style of the chansons de gestes, which celebrated the deeds of Charlemagne and
his peers. There are also hints that the paganism against which Charlemagne fought, that of the Moors of Spain, had attracted the attention of the author, and this is especially seen in his introduction of the Moorish giant, so common a figure in the Carlovingian stories.
A sorrowful and touching ballad, claimed by Villemarqué as being sung in the Breton dialect of Léon, tells of the warrior Bran, who was wounded in the great fight of Kerlouan, a village situated on the coast of Leon, in the tenth century. The coast was raided by the Norsemen, and the Bretons, led by their chief, Even the Great, marched against them and succeeded in repelling them. The Norsemen, however, carried off several prisoners, among them a warrior called Bran. Indeed, a village called Kervran, or 'the village of Bran,' still exists near the seashore, and here it was, tradition relates, that the warrior was wounded and taken by the Scandinavian pirates. In the church of Goulven is to be seen an ancient tablet representing the Norse vessels which raided the coast.
The ballad recounts how Bran, on finding himself on the enemy's ship, wept bitterly. On arriving in the land of the Norsemen he was imprisoned in a tower, where he begged his gaolers to allow him to send a letter to his mother. Permission to do so was granted, and a messenger was found. The prisoner advised this man, for his better safety, to disguise himself in the habit of a beggar, and gave him his gold ring in order that his mother might know that the message came from her son in very truth. He added: "When you arrive in
my country proceed at once to my mother, and if she is willing to ransom me show a white sail on you return, but if she refuses, hoist a black sail."
When the messenger arrived at the warrior's home in the country of Léon the lady was at supper with her family and the bards were present playing on their harps.
"Greeting, lady," said the messenger. "Behold the ring of your son, Bran, and here is news from him contained in this letter, which I pray you read quickly."
The lady took the missive, and, turning to the harpers, told them to cease playing. Having perused the letter she became extremely agitated, and, rising with tears in her eyes, gave orders that a vessel should be equipped immediately so that she might sail to seek her son on the morrow.
One morning Bran, the prisoner, called from his tower:
"Sentinel, Sentinel, tell me, do you see a sail on the sea?
"No," replied the sentinel, "I see nothing but the sea and the sky."
At midday Bran repeated the question, but was told that nothing but the birds and the billows were in sight. When the shadows of evening gathered he asked once more, and the perfidious sentinel replied with a lie:
"Yes, lord, there is a ship close at hand, beaten by wind and sea."
"And what colour of a sail does she show?" asked Bran. "Is it black or white?"
"It is black, lord," replied the sentinel, in a spirit of petty spite.
When the unhappy warrior heard these words he never spoke more.
That night his mother arrived at the town where he
had been imprisoned. She asked of the people: "Why do the bells sound?"
"Alas! lady," said an ancient man, "a noble prisoner who lay in yonder tower died this night."
With bent head the lady walked to the tower, her white hair falling upon her folded arms. When she arrived at its foot she said to the guard: "Open the door quickly; I have come to see my son."
And when the great door was opened she threw herself upon the corpse of Bran and breathed her last.
. . . . .
On the battlefield of Kerlouan there is an oak which overshadows the shore and which marks the place where the Norsemen fled before the face of Even the Great. On this oak, whose leaves shine in the moon, the birds gather each night, the birds of the sea and the land, both of white and black feather. Among them is an old grey rook and a young crow. The birds sing such a beautiful song that the great sea keeps silence to hear it. All of them sing except the rook and the crow. Now the crow says: "Sing, little birds, sing; sing, little birds of the land, for when you die you will at least end your days in Brittany."
The crow is of course Bran in disguise, for the name Bran means 'crow' in the Breton tongue, and the rook is possibly his mother. In the most ancient Breton traditions the dead are represented as returning to earth in the form of birds. A. number of the incidents in this piece are paralleled in the poem of Sir Tristrem, which also introduces a messenger who disguises himself for the purpose of travelling more safely in a foreign country, a ring of gold, which is used to show the messenger's bona-fides, a perfidious gaoler,
and the idea of the black or white sail. The original Poem of Sir Tristrem was probably composed about the twelfth or thirteenth century, and it would seem that the above incidents at least have a Breton source behind them. A mother, however, has been substituted for a lover, and the ancient Breton dame takes the place of Ysonde. There is, indeed, little difference between the passage which relates the arrival of the mother in the Norsemen's country and that of Ysonde in Brittany when she sails on her last voyage with the intention of succouring Tristrem. Ysonde also asks the people of the place why the bells are ringing, one of the ancient inhabitants tells her of the death of her lover, and, like the Breton mother, she casts herself on the body of him she has lost.
"This passage," says Villemarqué, with wonderful sangfroid, duly attests the prior claim of the Armorican piece"! But even if he had been serious, he wrote without the possession of data for the precise fixing of the period in which the Breton ballad was composed; and in any case his contention cannot assist the Breton argument for Armorican priority in Arthurian literature, as borrowing in ballad and folk-tale is much more flagrant than he, writing as he did in 1867, could ever have guessed--more flagrant even than any adaptation he himself ever perpetrated!
He adds, however, an antiquarian note to the poem which is of far greater interest and probably of more value than his supposition. He alludes to the passage: contained in the ballad regarding the harpers who are represented as playing in the hall of Bran's mother while she sits at supper. The harp, he states, is no longer popular in Brittany, and he asks if this was
always the case. There can be very little doubt that in Brittany, as in other Celtic countries--for example, Wales, Ireland and Scotland--the harp was in ancient times one of the national instruments. It is strange that it should have been replaced in that country by the biniou, or bagpipe, just as the clairschach, or Highland harp, was replaced by the same instrument in the Highlands of Scotland.
Guy Eder de Fontenelle, a son of the house of Beaumanoir, was one of the most famous partisans of the Catholic League, and, according to one who saw him in 1587, had then begun to show tendencies to the wild life he was afterward to lead. He was sent as a scholar to Paris to the College of Boncotest, but in 1589, when about sixteen years of age, he became impatient of scholastic confinement, sold his books and his robe, and bought a sword and poignard. Leaving the college, he took the road to Orléans, with the object of attaching himself to the army of the Duke of Mayenne, chief of the Catholic party in France, but, returning to his native Brittany, he placed himself at the head of the populace, which had risen in arms on behalf of the Leaguers. As he was of good family and a Breton and displayed an active spirit, they obeyed him very willingly. Soon he translated his intentions into action, and commenced to pillage the smaller towns and to make captive those who differed from him politically. He threatened Guingamp, which was held for the King, and made a sally into Léon, carrying away the daughter of the Lady of Coadelan, a wealthy heiress, who was only about eight or nine years of age. This
occurrence Villemarqué has related for us in Breton verse, assuring us that it was 'recovered' by the Comte de Kergariou, a friend of his. Fontenelle is supposed to have encountered the little heiress plucking flowers in a wayside ditch.
"Tell me, little one," said he, "for whom do you pluck these flowers?"
"For my foster-brother, whom I love. But I am afraid, for I know that Fontenelle is near."
"Ha, then, so you know this terrible Fontenelle, my child?"
"No, sir, I do not know him, but I have heard tell of him. I have heard folk say that he is a very wicked man and that he carries away young ladies."
"Yes," replied Fontenelle, with a laugh, "and, above all, heiresses."
He took the child in his arms and swung her on to the crupper of his saddle. Then, dashing the spurs into his charger's flanks, he set off at a gallop for Saint-Malo, where he placed the little heiress in a convent with the object of marrying her when she had arrived at the age of fourteen.
Years afterward Fontenelle and the heiress, who was now his wife, went to live at their manor of Coadelan. They had a little child beautiful as the day, who greatly resembled his father. One day a letter arrived for the Seigneur, calling upon him to betake himself to Paris at once. His wife was inconsolable.
"Do not set forth alone for Paris, I pray you," she said, "for if you do I shall instantly follow you. Remain at home, I beg of you, and I will send a messenger in your stead. In the name of God, do not go, husband, for if you do you will never return."
But Fontenelle disregarded his wife's entreaties, and, begging her to take good care of their son during his absence, set forth on his journey to the capital. In due time he arrived in Paris and stood before the King and Queen. He greeted them courteously, but they looked coldly on him, and the King told him bluntly that he should not return to Coadelan, adding: "There are sufficient chains in my palace to restrain you."
On hearing this Fontenelle called his little page and begged him to return at once to his mistress and tell her to discard her finery, because she would soon be a widow, and to bring him back a coarse shirt and a white sheet, and, moreover, to bring a gold plate on which his enemies might expose his head after his death.
"And, little page," he added, "take a lock of my hair and place it on the door of Coadelan, so that all men as they go to Mass may say, 'God have mercy on the soul of Fontenelle.'"
The page did as he was bidden, but as for the plate of gold it was useless, for Fontenelle's head was thrown on the pavement to serve as a ball for the children of the gutter.
All Paris was surprised when one day a lady from a distant country arrived and made great stir in its narrow streets. Every one asked his neighbour who this dame might be. It was the heiress of Coadelan, dressed in a flowing robe of green. "Alas!" said the pitiful burgesses, "if she knew what we know she would be dressed in black." Shortly she stood before the King.
"Sire," said she, "give me back my husband, I beg of you."
"Alas! madam," replied the King, with feigned sorrow, "what you ask is impossible, for but three days ago he was broken on the wheel."
"Whoso goes to Coadelan to-day will turn away from it with grief, for the ashes are black upon the hearth and the nettles crowd around the doorway--and still," the ballad ends naïvely, "still the wicked world goes round and the poor folk weep with anguish, and say, 'Alas that she is dead, the mother of the poor.'"
There is a good deal of evidence to show that a considerable body of Bretons accompanied the invading army of William the Conqueror when he set forth with the idea of gaining the English crown. They were attached to his second battle corps, and many of them received land in England. A ballad which, says Villemarqué, bears every sign of antiquity deals with the fortunes of a young Breton, Silvestik, who followed in the train of the Conqueror. The piece is put into the mouth of the mother of Silvestik, who mourns her son's absence, and its tone is a tender and touching one.
"One night as I lay on my bed," says the anxious mother, "I could not sleep. I heard the girls at Kerlaz singing the song of my son. O God, Silvestik, where are you now? Perhaps you are more than three hundred leagues from here, cast on the great sea, and the fishes feed upon your fair body. Perhaps you may be married now to some Saxon damsel. You were to have been wed to a lovely daughter of this land, Mannaïk de Pouldergat, and you might have been among us surrounded by beautiful children, dwelling happily in your own home.
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THE FINDING OF SILVESTIK
"I have taken to my door a little white dove which sits in a small hollow of the stone. I have tied to his neck a letter with the ribbon of my wedding-dress and have sent it to my son. Arise, my little dove, arise on your two wings, fly far, very far across the great sea, and discover if my son is still alive and well."
Silvestik rested in the shade of an English wood, and as he did so a familiar note fell upon his ear.
"That sound resembles the voice of my mother's little white dove," he said. The sound grew louder; it seemed to say, "Good luck to you, Silvestik, good luck to you. I have here a letter for you."
Silvestik in high happiness read the letter, and resolved to return home to his sorrowing parent.
Two years passed, three years passed, and the dove did not return to delight the heart of the longing mother, who day by day walked the dismal seashore waiting for the vessel that never came. One day of storm she was wandering on the beach as usual when she saw a vessel being driven with great force upon the iron coast. Even as she watched it it dashed upon the rocks. Soon there were cast upon the shore the forms of many dead, and when the gale abated and the heart-sick mother was able to search among them she found Silvestik!
Several competent judges are of opinion that this ballad is contemporary with the events which it relates. Many of the Breton lords who sailed with William the Conqueror did not return for several years after the expedition had accomplished its object, and some not at all. Nothing is known regarding the hero. The bird is frequently the messenger between lovers in ballad literature, but it is seldom that it is found
carrying letters between a mother and her son--indeed, this is perhaps the only instance known.
This ballad has reference to the Breton expedition which sailed for Wales in 1405 to assist the Welsh under Owen Glendower to free their principality from,. the English yoke. The Bretons rendered material assistance to their Welsh brothers, and had the satisfaction on their return of knowing that they had accomplished that which no French king had ever been able to achieve--the invasion of English territory. The expedition was commanded by Jean de Rieux, Marshal of France, and numbered ten thousand men.
The ballad tells how a young man on the morning after his betrothal received orders to join the standard of de Rieux "to help the Bretons oversea." It was with bitterness in his heart, says the lover, that he entered the house of his betrothed with the object of bidding her farewell. He told her that duty called him, and that he must go to serve in England. At this her tears gushed forth, and she begged him not to go, reminding him how changeful was the wind and how perfidious the sea.
"Alas!" said she, "if you die what shall I do? In my impatience to have news of you my heart will break. I shall wander by the seashore, from one cottage to another, asking the sailors if they have heard tell of you."
"Be comforted, Aloïda," said her lover, "and do not weep on my account. I will send you a girdle from over the sea, a girdle of purple set with rubies."
They parted at daybreak, he to embark on the sea, she
to weep, and as he sought his ship he could hear the magpies cackle: "If the sea is changeable women are even more so."
When the autumn had arrived the young girl said: "I have looked far over the sea from the heights of the mountains of Arez. I have seen upon the waters a ship in danger, and I feel that upon it was him whom I love. He held a sword in his hand, he was engaged in a terrible combat, he was wounded to death and his garments were covered with blood. I am certain that he is dead."
And before many weeks had passed she was affianced to another.
Then good news arrived in the land. The war was finished and the cavalier returned to his home with a gay heart. No sooner had he refreshed himself than he went to seek his beloved. As he approached her dwelling he heard the sound of music, and observed that every window in the house was illuminated as if for a festival. He asked some revellers whom he met outside the cause of this merrymaking, and was told that a wedding was proceeding.
It is the custom in Brittany to invite beggars to a wedding, and when these were now admitted one of them asked hospitality for the night. This was at once granted him, but he sat apart, sad and silent. The bride, observing this, approached him and asked him why he did not join in the feasting. He replied that he was weary with travel and that his heart was heavy with sorrow. Desirous that the marriage festivities should not flag, the bride asked him to join her in the dance, and he accepted the invitation, saying, however, that it was an honour he did not merit.
Now while they danced he came close to her and murmured in her ear:
"What have you done with the golden ring that you received from me at the door of this very house?"
The bride stared at him in wild dismay. "Oh, heaven, she cried, "behold, I have now two husbands! I who thought I was a widow!"
"You think wrongly, ma belle," hissed the beggar; "you will have no husband this side of the grave," and drawing a dagger from under his cloak he struck the lady to the heart.
In the abbey of Daoulas there is a statue of the Virgin decorated with a splendid girdle of purple sparkling with rubies, which came from across the sea. If you desire to know who gave it to her, ask of a repentant monk who lies prostrate on the grass before the figure of the Mother of God.
It is strange that the faithless damsel should have alleged that she saw her ]over perish in a naval combat when in the very year to which the circumstances of the ballad refer (1405) a Breton fleet encountered and defeated an English flotilla several leagues from Brest. "The combat was terrible," says a historian of the Dukes of Burgundy, "and was animated by the ancient hate between the English and the Bretons." Perhaps it was in this sea-fight that the lady beheld her lover; and if, as she thought, he was slain, she scarcely deserves the odium which the balladeer has cast upon her memory.
This ballad somewhat belies its name, for it has some relation to an extraordinary incident which was the
means rather of preventing than precipitating a battle. In 1758 a British army was landed upon the shores of Brittany with the object of securing for British merchant ships safety in the navigation of the Channel and of creating a diversion in favour of the German forces, then our allies. A company of men from Lower Brittany, from the towns of Tréguier and Saint-Pol-de Léon, says Villemarqué, were marching against a detachment of Scottish Highlanders. When at a distance of about a mile the Bretons could bear their enemies singing a national song. At once they halted stupefied, for the air was one well known to them, which they were accustomed to hear almost every day of their lives. Electrified by the music, which spoke to their hearts, they arose in their enthusiasm and themselves sang the patriotic refrain. It was the Highlanders' turn to be silent. All this time the two companies were nearing one another, and when at a suitable distance their respective officers commanded them to fire; but the orders were given, says the tradition, "in the same language," and the soldiers on both sides stood stock-still. Their inaction, however, lasted but a moment, for emotion carried away all discipline, the arms fell from their hands, and the descendants of the ancient Celts renewed on the field of battle those ties of brotherhood which had once united their fathers.
However unlikely this incident may seem, it appears to be confirmed by tradition, if not by history. The air which the rival Celts sang is, says Villemarqué, 1 common
to both Brittany and "the Highlands of Scotland." With the music before me, it seems to bear a marked resemblance to The Garb of Old Gaul, composed by General Reid (1721-1807). Perhaps Reid, who was a Highlander, based his stirring march on an older Celtic theme common to both lands.
One of the most famous of Breton nautical traditions tells of the chivalry displayed by a Breton crew toward the men of a British warship. During the American War of Independence much enthusiasm was excited in France in connexion with the valiant struggle for liberty in which the American colonies were engaged. A number of Breton ships received letters of marque enabling them to fight on the American side against Great Britain, and these attempted to blockade British commerce. The Surveillante, a Breton vessel commanded by Couédic de Kergoaler, encountered the British ship Quebec, commanded by Captain Farmer. In the course of the action the Surveillante was nearly sunk by the British cannonade and the Quebec went on fire. But Breton and Briton, laying aside their swords, worked together with such goodwill that most of the British crew were rescued and the Surveillante was saved, although the Quebec was lost, and this notwithstanding that nearly every man of both crews had been wounded in the fighting.
I have here attempted a very free translation of the stirring ballad which relates this noteworthy incident, which cannot but be of interest at such a time as the present.
See, yonder is the British craft
That seeks to break blockade;
St George's banner floats abaft
Her lowering carronade.
A flash! and lo, her thunder speaks,
Her iron tempest flies
Beneath her bows, and seaward breaks,
And hissing sinks and dies.
Thunder replied to thunder; then
The ships rasped side by side,
The battle-hungry Breton men
A boarding sally tried,
But the stern steel of Britain flashed,
And spite of Breton vaunt
The lads of Morbihan were dashed
Back on the Surveillante.
Then was a grim encounter seen
Upon the seas that day.
Who yields when there is strife between
Britain and Brittany ?
Shall Lesser Britain rule the waves
And check Britannia's pride?
Not while her frigate's oaken staves
Still cleave unto her side!
But hold! hold! see, devouring fire
Has seized the stout Quebec.
The seething sea runs high and higher,
The Surveillante's a wreck. p. 240
Their cannon-shot has breached our side,
Our bolts have fired the foe.
Quick, to the pumps! No longer bide!
Below, my lads! below!
The yawning leak is filled, the sea
Is cheated of its prey.
Now Bretons, let the Britons see
The heart of Brittany !
Brothers, we come to save, our swords
Are sheathed, our hands are free.
There is a fiercer fight toward,
A fiercer foe than we!
A long sea-day, till sank the sun,
Briton and Breton wrought,
And Great and Little Britain won
The noblest fight ere fought.
It was a sailors' victory
O'er pride and sordid gain.
God grant for ever peace at sea
Between the Britains twain!
212:1 For the criticism on Villemarqué's work see H. Gaidoz and P. Sébillot, "Bibliographie des Traditions et de la Littérature populaire de la Bretagne" (in the Revue Celtique, t. v, pp. 277 ff.). The title Barzaz-Breiz means "The Breton Bards," the author being under the delusion that the early forms of the ballads he collected and altered had been composed by the ancient bards of Brittany.
221:1 Once a part of the forest of Broceliande. It has now disappeared.
237:1 Barzaz-Breiz, p. 335. Sébillot (Traditions de la Haute-Bretagne, t. i, p. 346) says that he could gain nothing regarding this incident at the village of Saint-Cast but "vague details."