Recollections of My Youth/The Flax-Crusher: Part I

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The Flax-Crusher: Part I[edit]

Treguier, my native place, has grown into a town out of an ancient monastery founded at the close of the fifth century by St. Tudwal (or Tual), one of the religious leaders of those great migratory movements which introduced into the Armorican peninsula the name, the race, and the religious institutions of the island of Britain. The predominating characteristic of early British Christianity was its monastic tendency, and there were no bishops, at all events among the immigrants, whose first step, after landing in Brittany, the north coast of which must at that time have been very sparsely inhabited, was to build large monasteries, the abbots of which had the cure of souls. A circle of from three to five miles in circumference, called the minihi, was drawn around each monastery, and the territory within it was invested with special privileges.

The monasteries were called in the Breton dialect pabu after the monks (papae), and in this way the monastery of Treguier was known as Pabu Tual.

It was the religious centre of all that part of the peninsula which stretches northward. Monasteries of a similar kind at St. Pol de Leon, St. Brieuc, St. Malo, and St. Samson, near Dol, held a like position upon the coast. They possessed, if one may so speak, their diocese, for in these regions separated from the rest of Christianity nothing was known of the power of Rome and of the religious institutions which prevailed in the Latin world, or even in the Gallo-Roman towns of Rennes and Nantes, hard by.

When Nomenoe, in the ninth century, reduced to something like a regular organisation this half savage society of emigrants and created the Duchy of Brittany by annexing to the territory in which the Breton tongue was spoken, the Marches of Brittany, established by the Carlovingians to hold in respect the forayers of the west, he found it advisable to assimilate its religious organisation to that of the rest of the world. He determined, therefore, that there should be bishops on the northern coast, as there were at Rennes, Nantes, and Vannes, and he accordingly converted into bishoprics the monasteries of St. Pol de Leon, Treguier, St. Brieuc, St. Malo, and Dol. He would have liked to have had an archbishop as well and so form a separate ecclesiastical province, but, despite the well-intentioned devices employed to prove that St. Samson had been a metropolitan prelate, the grades of the Church universal were already apportioned, and the new bishoprics were perforce compelled to attach themselves to the nearest Gallo-Roman province at Tours.

The meaning of these obscure beginnings gradually faded away, and from the name of Pabu Tual, Papa Tual, found, as was reported, upon some old stained-glass windows, it was inferred that St. Tudwal had been Pope. The explanation seemed a very simple one, for St. Tudwal, it was well known, had been to Rome, and he was so holy a man that what could be more natural than that the cardinals, when they became acquainted with him, should have selected him for the vacant See. Such things were always happening, and the godly persons of Treguier were very proud of the pontifical reign of their patron saint. The more reasonable ecclesiastics, however, admitted that it was no easy matter to discover among the list, of popes the pontiff who previous to his election was known as Tudwal.

In course of time a small town grew up around the bishop's palace, but the lay town, dependent entirely upon the Church, increased very slowly. The port failed to acquire any importance, and no wealthy trading class came into existence. A very fine cathedral was built towards the close of the thirteenth century, and from the beginning of the seventeenth the monasteries became so numerous that they formed whole streets to themselves. The bishop's palace, a handsome building of the seventeenth century, and a few canons' residences were the only houses inhabited by people of civilized habits. In the lower part of the town, at the end of the High Street, which was flanked by several turreted buildings, were a few inns for the accommodation of the sailors.

It was only just before the Revolution that a petty nobility, recruited for the most part from the country around, sprang up under the shadow of the bishop's palace. Brittany contained two distinct orders of nobility. The first derived its titles from the King of France and displayed in a very marked degree the defects and the qualities which characterised the French nobility. The other was of Celtic origin and thoroughly Breton. This latter nobility comprised, from the period of the invasion, the chief men of the parish, the leaders of the people, of the same race as them, possessing by inheritance the right of marching at their head and representing them. No one was more deserving of respect than this country nobleman when he remained a peasant, innocent of all intrigues or of any effort to grow rich: but when he came to reside in town he lost nearly all his good qualities and contributed but little to the moral and intellectual progress of the country.

The Revolution seemed for this agglomeration of priests and monks neither more nor less than a death warrant. The last of the bishops of Treguier left one evening by a back door leading into the wood behind his palace and fled to England. The concordat abolished the bishopric, and the unfortunate town was not even given a sub-prefect, Lannion and Guingamp, which are larger and busier, being selected in preference. But large buildings, fitted up so as to fulfil only one object, nearly always lead to the reconstitution of the object to which they were destined. We may say morally what is not true physically: when the hollows of a shell are very deep, these hollows have the power of re-forming the animal moulded in them. The vast monastic edifices of Treguier were once more peopled, and the former seminary served for the establishment of an ecclesiastical college, very highly esteemed throughout the province. Treguier again became in a few years' time what St. Tudwal had made it thirteen centuries before, a town of priests, cut off from all trade and industry, a vast monastery within whose walls no sounds from the outer world ever penetrated, where ordinary human pursuits were looked upon as vanity and vexation of spirit, while those things which laymen treated as chimerical were regarded as the only realities.

It was amid associations like these that I passed my childhood, and it gave a bent to my character which has never been removed. The cathedral, a masterpiece of airy lightness, a hopeless effort to realise in granite an impossible ideal, first of all warped my judgment. The long hours which I spent there are responsible for my utter lack of practical knowledge. That architectural paradox made me a man of chimeras, a disciple of St. Tudwal, St. Iltud, and St. Cadoc, in an age when their teaching is no longer of any practical use. When I went to the more secular town of Guingamp, where I had some relatives of the middle class, I felt very ill at ease, and the only pleasant companion I had there was an aged servant to whom I used to read fairy tales. I longed to be back in the sombre old place, overshadowed by its cathedral, but a living protest, so to speak, against all that is mean and commonplace. I felt myself again when I got back to the lofty steeple, the pointed nave, and the cloisters with their fifteenth century tombs, being always at my ease when in the company of the dead, by the side of the cavaliers and proud dames, sleeping peacefully with their hound at their feet, and a massive stone torch in their grasp. The outskirts of the town had the same religious and idealistic aspect, and were enveloped in an atmosphere of mythology as dense as Benares or Juggernaut. The church of St. Michael, from which the open sea could be discerned, had been destroyed by lightning and was the scene of many prodigies. Upon Maunday Thursday the children of Treguier were taken there to see the bells go off to Rome. We were blindfolded, and much we then enjoyed seeing all the bells in the peal, beginning with the largest and ending with the smallest, arrayed in the embroidered lace robes which they had been dressed in upon their baptismal day, cleaving the air on their way to Rome for the Pope's benediction.

Upon the opposite side of the river there was the beautiful valley of the Tromeur, watered by a sacred fountain which Christianity had hallowed by connecting it with the worship of the Virgin. The chapel was burnt down in 1828, but it was at once rebuilt, and the statue of the Virgin was replaced by a much more handsome one. That fidelity to the traditions of the past which is the chief trait in the Breton character was very strikingly illustrated in this connection, for the new statue, which was radiant with white and gold over the high altar, received but few devotions, the prayers of the faithful being said to the black and calcined trunk of the old statue which was relegated to a corner of the chapel. The Bretons would have thought that to pay their devotions to the new Virgin was tantamount to turning their backs upon their predecessor.

St. Yves was the object of even deeper popular devotion, the patron saint of the lawyers having been born in the minihi of Treguier, where the church dedicated to him is held in great veneration. This champion of the poor, the widows and the orphans, is looked upon as the grand justiciary and avenger of wrong. Those who have been badly used have only to repair to the solemn little chapel of Saint Yves de la Verite, and to repeat the words: "Thou wert just in thy lifetime, prove that thou art so still," to ensure that their oppressor will die within the year. He becomes the protector of all those who are left friendless, and at my father's death my mother took me to his chapel and placed me under his tutelary care. I cannot say that the good St. Yves managed our affairs very successfully, or gave me a very clear understanding of my worldly interests, but I nevertheless have much to thank him for, as he endowed me with a spirit of content which passeth riches, and a native good humour which has never left me.

The month of May, during which the festival of St. Yves fell, was one long round of processions to the minihi, and as the different parishes, preceded by their processional crucifixes, met in the roads, the crucifixes were pressed one against the other in token of friendship. Upon the eve of the festival the people assembled in the church, and on the stroke of midnight the saint stretched out his arms to bless the kneeling congregation. But if among them all there was one doubting soul who raised his eyes to see if the miracle really did take place, the saint, taking just offence at such a suspicion did not move, and by the misconduct of this incredulous person, no benediction was given.

The clergy of the place, disinterested and honest to the core, contrived to steer a middle course between not doing anything to weaken these ideas and not compromising themselves. These worthy men were my first spiritual guides, and I have them to thank for whatever may be good in me. Their every word was my law, and I had so much respect for them that I never thought to doubt anything they told me until I was sixteen years of age, when I came to Paris. Since that time I have studied under many teachers far more brilliant and learned, but none have inspired such feelings of veneration, and this has often led to differences of opinion between some of my friends and myself. It has been my good fortune to know what absolute virtue is. I know what faith is, and though I have since discovered how deep a fund of irony there is in the most sacred of our illusions, yet the experience derived from the days of old is very precious to me. I feel that in reality my existence is still governed by a faith which I no longer possess, for one of the peculiarities of faith is that its action does not cease with its disappearance. Grace survives by mere force of habit the living sensation of it which we have felt. In a mechanical kind of way we go on doing what we had before been doing in spirit and in truth. After Orpheus, when he had lost his ideal, was torn to pieces by the Thracian women, his lyre still repeated Eurydice's name.

The point to which the priests attached the highest importance was moral conduct, and their own spotless lives entitled them to be severe in this respect, while their sermons made such an impression upon me that during the whole of my youth I never once forgot their injunctions. These sermons were so awe-inspiring, and many of the remarks which they contained are so engraved upon my memory, that I cannot even now recall them without a sort of tremor. For instance, the preacher once referred to the case of Jonathan, who died for having eaten a little honey. "Gustans gustavi paululum mellis, et ecce morior." I lost myself in wonderment as to what this small quantity of honey could have been which was so fatal in its effects. The preacher said nothing to explain this, but heightened the effect of his mysterious allusion with the words--pronounced in a very hollow and lugubrious tone--tetigisse periisse. At other times the text would be the passage from Jeremiah, "Mors ascendit per fenestras" This puzzled me still more, for what could be this death which came up through the windows, these butterfly wings which the lightest touch polluted? The preacher pronounced the words with knitted brow and uplifted eyes. But what perplexed me most of all was a passage in the life of some saintly person of the seventeenth century who compared women to firearms which wound from afar. This was quite beyond me, and I made all manner of guesses as to how a woman could resemble a pistol. It seemed so inconsistent to be told in one breath that a woman wounds from afar, and in another that to touch her is perdition. All this was so incomprehensible that I immersed myself in study, and so contrived to clear my brain of it.

Coming from persons in whom I felt unbounded confidence, these absurdities carried conviction to my very soul, and even now, after fifty years' hard experience of the world[1] the impression has not quite worn off. The comparison between women and firearms made me very cautious, and not until age began to creep over me did I see that this also was vanity, and that the Preacher was right when he said: "Go thy way, eat thy bread joyfully ... with the woman whom thou lovest." My ideas upon this head outlived my ideas upon religion, and this is why I have enjoyed immunity from the opprobrium which I should not unreasonably have been subjected to if it could have been said that I left the seminary for other reasons than those derived from philology. The commonplace interrogation, "Where is the woman?" in which laymen invariably look for an explanation of all such cases cannot but seem a paltry attempt at humour to those who see things as they really are. My early days were passed in this high school of faith and of respect. The liberty in which so many giddy youths find themselves suddenly landed was in my case acquired very gradually; and I did not attain the degree of emancipation which so many Parisians reach without any effort of their own, until I had gone through the German exegesis. It took me six years of meditation and hard study to discover that my teachers were not infallible. What caused me more grief than anything else when I entered upon this new path was the thought of distressing my revered masters; but I am absolutely certain that I was right, and that the sorrow which they felt was the consequence of their narrow views as to the economy of the universe.


  1. This passage was written at Ischia in 1875.