Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/September 1898/Christianized Megalithic Monuments

1393875Popular Science Monthly Volume 53 September 1898 — Christianized Megalithic Monuments1898Adrien de Mortillet



WE possess now more precise and more scientific data concerning megalithic monuments than those which we had before they were studied and explored methodically. We know that the dolmens, whether still covered with a tumulus or stripped of the envelope of stone or earth which formerly covered them, are simply sepulchral caverns, that they were built in the polished stone age, and that that mode of burial was abandoned at the beginning of the Fig. 1.—Church of the Seven Saints. From the southwest. bronze age. While we do not know so exactly for what purpose the menhirs were erected, we have every reason to believe that they were for the most part contemporary with the dolmens. The great antiquity of these rude constructions—monoliths sometimes of imposing dimensions—seems to be confirmed by their being often the subject of very ancient and deep-rooted legends, which have been preserved through ages without material alterations. The recollection of the real purpose of these stones was lost at the beginning of the Christian era, and probably a long time before. Marvelous tales then began to be current, assuming to explain their existence, form, and arrangement. The habit gradually was developed of resorting to them to perform curious rites which have continued or are remembered to the present day. A considerable number of them were held in such veneration that they became clothed in a sort of sacred character, of which it has not always been possible to divest them.

When Christianity was introduced into France, it had of course to contend against the old beliefs. A bitter war was declared against everything that might tend to cast the new religion into the shade. Vigorous attacks were made upon superstitions which by their antiquity or the strength of the popular attachment to them seemed dangerous to the early Christians, and in particular against the devotion it had been customary to give to certain stones. A council held at Aries in 452 notified the bishops in districts where this cult prevailed that if they neglected to destroy it they would be guilty of sacrilege. A council at Tours in 567 advised the clergy to exclude from the church all who performed before certain stones rites strange to it. A century afterward, in 668, the Council of Nantes, calling the attention of the bishops and their servitors to venerated stones in retired and woody spots where vows were made and offerings brought, enjoined them to throw the stones where their worshipers would never be able to find them. The Council of Rouen in 689 denounced those who made vows at stones as if they were altars, or who offered candles and presents before them as if some power resided within them that could dispense good and harm. Two councils at Toledo, in 681 and 693, threatened "the venerators of stones" with various penalties. The worship of stones figured in a list of superstitions still in use at that period drawn up in 743 by a council at Leptines, near Mons. These customs were also denounced in royal ordinances and episcopal instructions. A decree of Chilperic in the second half of the sixth century ordered the stone monuments standing in the fields to be destroyed. In the middle of the next century, St. Eloi, Bishop of Noyon, prohibited Christians from performing vows or diabolical ceremonies around stones. We read in the Capitulary of Charlemagne, which was drawn up at Aix-la-Chapelle in 789, "On the subject of stones to which some foolish people come and give themselves up to superstitious practices, we order that this abuse so detestable and so execrable to God be abolished and destroyed." Similar measures were adopted in England. A decree of Edgar in 967 threatened with terrible punishments those who should perform before certain stones practices savoring of their ancient consecration, or who should omit to destroy them. The decree does not seem, however, to have been of much effect. Canute was obliged to renew it in an edict which characterized such worship of stones as barbarous.

The effect of these ordinances and threats was far from complete. The people kept on in their old ways. The church, not succeeding in destroying the reverence in which the megalithic monuments were held, and fearing the wrath of the people if they overthrew them, decided to sanctify them, to put them under the care of the Virgin, and to derive some profit from the worship paid them. It was necessary, as Fréminville says, to resort to pious frauds and senseless modifications.

A considerable number of menhirs have preserved evident traces of efforts made at different times to Christianize them. The Christians were satisfied at first to scratch rude crosses upon their faces. Sometimes, however, more regularity was first given to their shapes by rounding off their Fig. 2.—Plan of the Dolmen of the Seven Saints. Scale, 1 to 100. A, altar; C, open-work partition; E, ventilator; P, entrance door to the dolmen; S1, S2, S3, supports; T1, T2, tables. tops or marking rough panels on them, and adding to the cross other figures and inscriptions. Many monuments thus treated may be found in Morbihan. The crosses cut upon these stones, particularly in Brittany, generally have the four branches equal. They are Maltese crosses, furnished with feet or braces at the bottom, of very ancient forms—some seeming to be earlier than of the ninth century, and possibly with their ornaments too, dating from the Merovingian period. Some menhirs have been cut so as to give them a more or less regular form of a cross, and have curious designs sculptured in their faces in intaglio or relief, of certainly quite as remote an epoch.

More frequently a cross has simply been planted on a monolith, and instances of the kind are not rare in France. Of these, a cross on the Great Stone at La Rigandière, in the commune of Tour-Landy, (Maine-et-Loire), was erected as recently as 1862. These crosses are of stone or wood; a large wooden cross with a Christ on the Pierre de Champs Dolent—a regularly shaped stone more than twenty feet high—has been renewed several times. A number of menhirs dedicated to the Virgin or to saints have been adorned with statues. A menhir in the Isle of Hoëdic, Morbihan, thirteen feet high, which has become an object of pilgrimage, has a niche hollowed in one of its faces to accommodate a statue of the Virgin. The Pierre Fritte, in the department of Maine-et-Loire, has a niche containing an ancient statue of the Virgin in painted faïence, inclosed with an iron grating. A large painted wooden statue representing St. Peter, patron of the parish, was placed in 1878 on a granite block twenty-five feet high, in the parish of Pedernec. In the same department of Côtes-du-Nord is a stone picturesquely decorated with a wooden statue of the Virgin reposing, attended by three other less modern statues representing a man and two saints, numerous chapels have been built at menhirs to receive the offerings of pilgrims visiting them.

The most remarkable of all the menhirs on which the Roman Catholic religion has placed its seal, and at the same time one of the least know of them, is that of Pleumeur-Bodou, department of Côtes-du-Nord—a handsome granite block, solidly planted in the ground, roughly rectangular, about twenty feet high, and topping in an obtuse point. It is rendered particularly interesting by the religious imagery that covers its southern face. The whole upper third of this face is occupied by quaint sculptures in relief, colored in red, yellow, white, and black, representing a complete series of the attributes of the passion of Jesus Christ. There are the purse, red, containing the thirty pieces of silver which Judas received for his treason, and eight of the pieces shown; the cup, yellow, which Jesus handed round to his apostles at the last supper; the sword, white with a yellow hilt, indicating the arms borne by the persons who came to arrest him; the lantern carried by Judas at the betrayal; the sword with which Peter cut off the ear of Malchus; the cock that crowed three times; the post at which Jesus was scourged, with the scourge and rods; the reed which the soldiers derisively put in Jesus' hand as a scepter; the vessel in which Pontius Pilate washed his hands before giving Jesus up to the mob; St. Veronica's handkerchief; the hammer and three of the nails with which Jesus was Fig. 3.-Transversal Section of the Dolmen of the Seven Saints. Scale, 1 to 100. nailed to the cross; the dice which the soldiers cast for his robe, and the robe; Mary Magdalene praying; the sun and the moon, which were obscured; the sponge with which Jesus was given vinegar, and the lance that was thrust into his side; a skull and bones symbolizing the opening of the tombs when Jesus expired; the pincers and the ladder by the aid of which Joseph of Arimathea took him down from the cross; and the glove in which Nicodemus caught a few drops of Jesus' blood while burying him. Beneath these figures was depicted a large Christ fixed on a red cross, with a dark background standing for a cloth, five feet by eight. The top of the decorated face of the stone has been shaped into a pediment rising to a kind of base supporting a cross on which is sculptured in bold relief a Christ holding a cup in each hand. The execution of these figures is rude, but the style of some of the designs relates them to the age of Louis XIII, or the beginning of the seventeenth century. The paint with which they are colored can not but suffer from the weather and has to be renewed at times. It looks now comparatively fresh.

Among the dolmens that have been sanctified by the church, some have been used as supports for the cross, and others have been transformed into altars or converted into chapels. Besides the cathedrals of Chartres and Puy, which according to local traditions were built over dolmens very anciently held in reverence, many examples may be cited of megalithic structures which bear the marks of the more or less important modifications they have suffered in view of their changed destination. The partly fallen dolmen of Cruz-Molten, not far from Carnac, bears a very simple stone cross that takes the place of an ancient historical one, of which a view appears on a picture made in 1845. Another monument consists of a slab which is supposed to have belonged to a dolmen, that rests upon four pillars supposed to have been borrowed from neighboring ruins, and supports a cross apparently more recent. The monument supposed to be the tomb of St. Ethbin at Port Mort, which people having kidney troubles pass under on certain days to be cured, was a dolmen, for which a table supported by four small columns was substituted about 1875. So probably was the Grosse Pierre of Ymase, a roughly squared slab with a cross cut in one of its corners, sustained by two stone supports, and under which people passed to be cured of various diseases. A rectangular slab resting on four large square pillars at the entrance of the cemetery of Arcy-Saint-Restitue came from a dolmen and is the scene of a sort of religious ceremony. St. Margaret's stone in the commune of Petit Lessac is a large, heavy slab of rough granite resting on four columns of the eleventh or twelfth century, with a stone altar underneath. It was once covered by a chapel, the walls of which could till recently be traced on the surface of the ground.

At Canges de Onis, near Oviedo, in the northeast of Spain, is a little church, built probably in the tenth or eleventh century upon a tumulus of broken stones covering a dolmen. The dolmen, in the shape of a circular chamber with a passage leading to it, is composed of fifteen supports and four tables. It constitutes a part of the church, and was formerly used as a crypt. It has been explored at different times, and a few articles of stone and copper have been found in it. Pere Càrvallo, a writer of the seventeenth century, says that in his time devotees regarded grottoes of this sort as the burial places of holy bodies, and scratched up the ground in them for the cure of their diseases.

A megalithic monument in France of similar character is represented by the church of Sept Saints (of Seven Saints), in the hamlet of that name, which was built between 1702 and 1744, probably on the site of an older chapel. There is nothing remarkable in the church itself, which is in the form of a Latin cross, oriented in the orthodox direction, with a simple rustic steeple of some beauty. The arms of the cross constitute two chapels, in one of which is the sacristy, while the other one covers the crypt, which gives the church all its interest. On going down into this crypt one may realize without difficulty that he is in a real dolmen which has been converted into a place of worship. Two large granite tables resting on vertical slabs appertain to the primitive monument. A fourth support, now masked, apparently closes the end of the chamber. The chamber is rectangular, and its walls are filled in with stonework. It is divided by an openwork wooden partition provided with a door into two unequal parts, of which the front one is a sort of vestibule, and the other, with a floor sunk about a foot, is the chapel proper. It is dimly lighted, and at the end is a stone altar planked in front, over which is a niche containing seven small statues in a line, made in the most rudimentary style, and painted in colors tarnished with age. These represent the seven saints whose remains tradition says were found in the dolmen, and in honor of whom the church is named. These personages are likewise represented in the church by more imposing and more freshly colored wooden statues, but pilgrims prefer to pay their devotions to the old, faded, miraculously discovered statuettes below. The dolmen has probably, as Luzel affirms, been a cherished holy place from antiquity, and Christianity has simply given a sort of consecration to the pagan tradition. It is the subject of numerous legends, the most famous of which is the Breton story of the Gwerz des Sept Saints, which makes it of divine origin, and is in other respects almost the exact counterpart of the legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Mensuelle de l'Ecole d'Anthropologie.

The English Physical Society visited Eton in February, and were welcomed by Prof. T. C. Porter, who spoke of the value of the classics, on which Eton College prides itself, in education; and expressed the belief that others as well as himself desired that this reverent tradition of the classics should be preserved at the school; "at the same time they would agree with him that there was no better supplement to classics than a fair knowledge of the natural sciences."