The Breton Saints

Saint Yves between the rich and the poor. Patron Saint of lawyers. La Roche Maurice (Fin.) THE PROBLEM

The official list of Saints acknowledged by the Catholic Church includes only 3 Saints originated from Brittany: Saint Yves (a “newcomer”, who died in 1303), Saint Clair (1st Bishop of Nantes in the 3rd century, unknown in Quimper) and Saint Corentin (Bishop of Quimper, who died in 460).
And yet the Breton hagiography includes over 400 Saints, whose existence is uncertain: Saint Rittan of Crozon, Saint Riwalatr of Quimperlé, Saint Sutic of Guissény, Saint Thamec of Moélan, Saint Néventer of Plounéventer, etc. , or who are recognized by the Church, but were not canonized.
As from 1180 (Pope Alexander the Third), only the Pope is entitled to impart the style “Saint” to a defunct person. But most of the Breton Saints, according to tradition, lived earlier, in times when public veneration and the local bishop’s agreement were enough to qualify for sanctity.
No canonization process was made and no official writ was kept for them. It is therefore difficult to decide if the “Saints” of that kind really existed. In particular the fact that a Saint is the eponymous patron of a “plou”, a “tre or a “lan” town (as in “Ploeven”, “Treguennec”, “Landerneau”) is no sufficient proof: the eponymous Even, Gwennec and Ternoc have certainly existed, but were they really the Saints tradition has it that they were?
For instance, the (in)famous Vortigern whom the Britons (of Great Britain) consider a traitor, who agreed with the Saxons Hengist and Horsa on a shameful treaty and who is even said to have married his own daughter, is the eponymous Saint of the Breton hamlet Saint-Gurthiern near Quimperlé!


In the Middle Ages, monks committed to paper the traditional narratives. These “Lives of Saints” (Vitae) appear to be all similar and may be sorted into a short list of archetypes. There are about fifty of them, not including the multiple versions for the most popular saints.
Composed between the 7th and 13th century, they were used by the historian A. Le Moyne de la Borderie for his description of 5th century- mid-7th century Brittany in his "History of Brittany" (1905 - 1908). His successors in the first quarter of the 20th century put no confidence, whatsoever, in these "Vitae".
Nowadays it is admitted that this hagiography is not deprived of serious historical background, even if, obviously, it aims in the first place at morally edifying the reader, or promoting certain monasteries, Episcopal sees or relic shrines, in claiming that they date back to the landing of the first Britons. In fact, a few of these "Vitae" were written soon after the occurrence of the events they report: less than a century in the case of the "Life of Saint Samson", if we admit that it was composed around 610.
Besides, even newer texts, like "Saint Guénolé's Life" that was written in the second half of the 9th century or the "Life of Saint Malo of Bili", are derived from previous "Vitae", as we can judge from the ancient form of the names quoted in them. The second "Life" of Saint Tugdual expressly refers to an older version in Celtic language. However this is an artful device often used by authors to increase the importance of a book.
The oldest Lives (St Guénolé, St Idunet, St Paul Aurélien - precisely dated from 884) are originated from Landévennec Abbey, or from Redon and Dol, while a series of other "vitae" were written in the abbeys that were re-established in the 11th century: St Gildas, St Méen, St Judicaël . The production created in the mainEpiscopal sees increases as from the 12th and 13th centuries: Quimper (St Corentin, Life of St Ronan), Tréguier (St Maudez, St Efflamm, St Budoc) and Vannes (St Goneri, St Gobrien, St Paterne). From the same time date the "Lifes" of more locally honoured Saints (Méloir, Hervé, Goulven, Lunaire or Jacut...) of which sometimes only digests or excerpts are extant.
Plausible facts related in these books but not corroborated by other sources are no longer systematically discarded by historians, who on the contrary endeavour to comprehend the expression features to which old chroniclers had recourse when depicting actual facts.
The musicologist Donatien Laurent and the historian L. Fleuriot, among others, have proved that oral tradition, - that is chiefly exploited by these "Vitae" -, is able to preserve without major alterations the memory of past events. That was precisely La Villemarqué's point.

Saint Miliau, a headless martyr like St Dennis. Guimiliau (Fin.)
In the 17th Century the friar Albert Le Grand endeavoured to compose a book on all Breton Saints, whereby he admitted the most surprising traditions.
Early in the 18th Century, a Benedictine monk of Rennes, Dom Lobineau, also composed “Lives of the Saints of Brittany” but was much less gullible than Le Grand. He finds for instance doubtful that Saint Gildas ever came to Brittany, though this Saint is very popular in the Ruis Abbey area. This hypercriticism was still increased in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The relationship between the Breton lore and this hagiographic literature is complex.
A few legends of Saints were included in La Villemarqué’s “Barzaz Breiz” and seem, sometimes, to recall pre-Christian creed in conflict with the religion brought by the Breton settlers in the 5th century, which clerical literature does not.
For instance, a song refers to Saint Ronan whose historicity is by no way attested. Another song stages a debate between Saint Efflam and Arthur, a king whose historic character is still more questionable and is carefully ignored by Le Grand and Lobineau.
The song “Submersion of Is Town” refers to a Saint who is only addressed as “den Doue”, the "man of God" and it is difficult to decide if he is Guénolé or Corentin, as tradition has it, or another Saint.

The clerical “Lives of Saints” are a mix:
° of Christian hagiography, since their authors were priests conversant with the Latin “lives” of other Roman and Oriental Saints and recopied them partly and
° of local lore, where oral tradition and history were put together, without caring for chronology or geography: flooded Roman ruins, strange place names, historical events (Breton migration, Norman raids, wars waged by the Bretons against the Franks) are intertwined in these edifying narratives.


Not only the works of Albert le Grand and Lobineau were aimed at advocating the Breton Saints against the “Roman” acknowledged Saints.
In many Breton parishes, clergy and laymen alike, were bent on adorning their churches with statues and magnificent churchyard decorations, so-called “enclos paroissiaux” discreetly or conspicuously extolling the local Saints beside the “official” ones, Saint Peter, Saint Paul, the 12 Apostles etc. Most of them are comparatively recent (17th century).

These circumstances explain the similarities among the Breton Saints who may be categorized as follows:

Saints related to animal kingdom:
Saint Corentin. At his feet, the fish. Locronan (Fin.) ° Cow: Saint Cornely in Carnac (in charge of the horned -"corne", "karn"=horn - animals), Saint Herbot in Berrien (milk cows), Saint Suliau (who fenced in cows by magic and may be considered the inventor of the electric fence!),
°Horses: Saint Alar,
some of them being related to wild animals.
° Stag: Saint Edern in Lannédern, Saint Ké in Cléder and Saint Nennock
° Wolf: Saint Ronan in Locronan, Saint Thégonnec, Saint Hervé in Bourg-Blanc, Saint Malo and Saint Brieuc.
° Wild hound: Saint Ronan, Saint Bieuzy, a disciple of Gildas in Rhuys, Saint Thégonnec, Saint Tugen in Primelin.
° Snakes: Saint Maudez in Lanmodez (heals snake bites).
° Birds: Saint Lunaire, Saint Guénolé (there is a story of the wild goose who had swallowed up his sister's, Saint Clervie’s eye), Saint Malo ( who abandoned his monk’s frock when a wren built her nest and laid her eggs in it).
° Diverse hitched up animals: Saint Joua came back from Brasparts, where he died, to Plouvien where he was buried, when the wagon carrying his corpse halted. The same story is told about Saint Ronan’s corpse that came back from Hillion, near Saint Brieux, to Locronan, on a wagon drawn by buffaloes.
° Whale: Saint Brendan.
° Mythical animals and in the first place, dragons: Saint Paul-Aurélien in Saint-Paul-de-Léon and on the Isle of Batz near Roscoff, Saint Tugdual in Tréguier, Saint Méen, Saint Efflam in Plestin. Ever regenerating fish in the legend of Saint Corentin in Quimper and a “miracle of the eels”, very similar to the multiplication of loaves and fishes of the gospels.

Saints related to nature and natural elements:
Saint Edern, maybe an avatar of the Celtic horned god Cernunos. Edern (Fin.) ° Sea water: Saint Paul-Aurélien in Saint-Pol-de-Léon, Saint Gildas in Rhuys, Guénolé (legend of Is) in Quimper, Saint Malo, Saint Vouga in Tréguennec
° Rain water: Saint Malo
° Air: Saint Gunstan who commanded the winds on Houedic Island
° Earth: Saint Gouesnou and Saint Hernin who raised dykes in a miraculous way in Duault
° Fire: Saint Rhodon, Saint Sezni (self igniting wood), Saint Cado, Saint Malo, Saint Tanguy and his sister Saint Haude (“Tan” is Breton for “fire”) are the heroes of a complex story involving fire and thunderbolt and located in different places in Léon
° Desert: Saint Bieuzy, Saint Jacut and his brother Saint Guethenoc, in Saint-Jacut.

Some Saints appear to be real “stars”:
° Saint Samson who founded the bishopric of Dol,
° Saint Melar or Mélaire, supposed to have been a “Prince of Brittany in the 7th century whose marvellous story is strangely similar to that of Miliau in Lampaul-Guimiliau, and of other Saints with synonymous names: Saint Magloire, Saint Mélor, Saint Méloir who could do all sorts of tricks with their silver hand prostheses.
° Saint Paul Aurélien founder of the bishopric of Léon, who was a far-travelled bishop whose name is quoted in connection with a no-end of local place names, so that his “Story” by the monk Wrmonoc may reasonably be considered a copy from Virgil’s Eneid.

Saint Nennok, Saint Riok, Saint Derien and Saint Neventer are described as typical examples of Saints invented to explain unclear place names (Lanennec, Plouneventer, Derrien).


Saint Hervé, the blind hermit leaning on young Guiharan who keeps the wolf on a leash. Plonévez-Porzay (Fin.) The ”Lives” account for
° the sometimes strained relationship between clerical and civil power
° the inferior, if not malefic, role imparted on women (the Keban of the Saint Ronan legend and the devilish Dahut, daughter to the King of the flooded city Is, Gradlon, whose statue rides a horse between the two towers of Quimper cathedral), whereas others, like Saint Azenor, are pure and heroic victims
° the difficult imposition of celibacy on the clergy: the “Barzaz Breiz” story staging Saint Efflam and his wife Saint Enora who don’t sleep together, highlights the embarrassment of the hagiographer who tried to conciliate old and new conceptions about this question.

The role played by the Saints in the cleric society:
° Saint Gildas had to fight against 4 devils “in monk attire!”. Saint Samson also was persecuted by monks.
° Many Saints leave their fellow priests to find rest and quietude: Saint Ronan was both a bishop and a hermit. Saint Gwenael (Guenaut, Guinal, Vendel, Vendal), after being Abbot of the important brotherhood of Landévennec, withdraw with two companions to a desert, before coming back. The history of Saint Azenor’s son, Saint Budoc, Archbishop of Dol is recounted in details in a pamphlet published c. 1620 by the then Bishop of Dol, Hector d’Ouvrier and is full of such conflicts within the cleric milieu as well as with the civil medieval society.
° An important role is imparted to the devil who is either the Saint’s enemy or a useful partner to highlight his eminent merits: Saint Geldouin, canon of Dol, Saint Gonéri in Rohan, Saint Friar, Saint Gildas, Saint Melaine, Saint Gwenolé, Saint Paul Aurélien are all tormented by the devil who is however always superseded eventually by the holy man.


The graves of the Saints: The Saints are sometimes buried on the sea-shore in little chapels like Saint Urnel in Plomeur, that resemble the “marabouts” of the Muslims in North Africa. Such graves are also found, side by side, in Saint-Guévroc, on the Isle Lavret near Bréhat whose name is the Greek “laura” for “street”. Such “lavras” also exist in Russia.

The relics of the holy men were a capital element of the cult and many legends show antagonist parishes struggling for the relics of a Saint (Locronan and Hillion). But this reverence for relics is no purely Breton phenomenon: Saint John Baptist’s finger is revered not only in Saint-Jean du Doigt (in Brittany) but also in Saint-Jean de Maurienne (in Savoy) and in Malta (and it is always the right hand index finger!). The relics of Saint Magloire were stolen from Lehon Abbey near Dinan and found again on the Channel Island Sark. Other relics were removed from Brittany to protect them against the Norman raids, so that the bodies of 5 Breton Saints are in Paris: Magloire, Samson, Malo, Patern while Corentin is in Tours, Judicael –a Saint and a king of Brittany is in Flanders, Saint Clair’s arm is in Angers and so on.

Special mention must be made of the Troménies: see “Legend of Saint Ronan”.

Another devotion, particular to Brittany was the “Tro-Breiz” consisting in a circular trip over places in connection with the Saints known as the Seven Saints of Brittany:
Source:Les Saints bretons par Louis Pape, Editions Ouest-France ° Samson in Dol,
° Malo in Saint Malo,
° Brieuc in Saint Brieuc,
° Tugdual in Tréguier,
° Paul-Aurélien in Saint-Pol-de Léon,
° Corentin in Quimper
° Patern in Vannes
The pilgrimage was performed, individually or in small parties, at precise times of the year, called the « quatre temporaux » (the four temporal feasts) : Saint Michael’s day, Eastern, Pentecost and –very seldom- Christmas, in thirty days, starting from one of these places. From 8,000 to 35,000 pilgrims were yearly concerned. This practice disappeared suddenly in the 17th century (but attempts at revival are made currently).

Source: "Les Saints bretons" by Louis Pape (Editions Ouest-France)

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