Recollections of My Youth/St. Renan

St. RenanEdit

When I come to look at things very closely, I see that I have changed very little; my destiny had practically welded me, from my earliest youth, to the place which I was to hold in the world. My vocation was thoroughly matured when I came to Paris; before leaving Brittany my life had been mapped out. By the mere force of things, and despite my conscientious efforts to the contrary, I was predestined to become what I am, a member of the romantic school, protesting against romanticism, a Utopian inculcating the doctrine of half-measures, an idealist unsuccessfully attempting to pass muster for a Philistine, a tissue of contradictions, resembling the double-natured hircocerf of scholasticism. One of my two halves must have been busy demolishing the other half, like the fabled beast of Ctesias which unwittingly devoured its own paws. As was well said by that keen observer, Challemel-Lacour: "He thinks like a man, feels like a woman, and acts like a child." I have no reason to complain of such being the case, as this moral constitution has procured for me the keenest intellectual joys which man can taste.

My race, my family, my native place, and the peculiar circle in which I was brought up, by diverting me from all material pursuits, and by rendering me unfit for anything except the treatment of things of the mind, had made of me an idealist, shut out from everything else. The application of my intellect might have been a different one, but the principle would have remained the same. The true sign of a vocation is the impossibility of getting away from it: that is to say, of succeeding in anything except that for which one was created. The man who has a vocation mechanically sacrifices everything to his dominant task. External circumstances might, as so often happens, have checked the cause of my life and prevented me from following my natural bent, but my utter incapability of succeeding in anything else would have been the protest of baffled duty, and Predestination would in one way have been triumphant by proving the subject of the experiment to be powerless outside the kind of labour for which she had selected him. I should have succeeded in any variety of intellectual application; I should have failed miserably in any calling which involved the pursuit of material interests.

The characteristic feature of all degrees of the Breton race is its idealism--the endeavour to attain a moral and intellectual aim, which is often erroneous but always disinterested. There never was a race of men less suited for industry and trade. They can be got to do anything by putting them upon their honour; but material gain is deemed unworthy of a man of spirit, the noblest occupations being those which bring no profit, as of the soldier, the sailor, the priest, the true gentleman who derives from his land no more than the amount sanctioned by long tradition, the magistrate and the thinker. These ideas are based upon the theory, an incorrect one perhaps, that wealth is only to be acquired by taking advantage of others, and grinding down the poor. The outcome of these views is that the man of wealth is not thought nearly so much of as he who devotes himself to the public welfare, or who represents the views of the district. The people have no patience with the idea, very prevalent among self-made men, that their accumulation of wealth confers a benefit upon the community. When in former times they were told that "the king sets great value upon the Bretons," they were content, and in his abundance they felt themselves rich. Being convinced that money gained must be taken from some one else, they despised greed. A like idea of political economy is very old-fashioned, but human opinion will perhaps come back to it some day. In the meanwhile, let me claim immunity for these few survivors of another world, in which this harmless error has kept alive the tradition of self-sacrifice. Do not improve their worldly lot, for they would be none the happier; do not add to their wealth, for they would be less unselfish; do not drive them into the primary schools, for they would perhaps lose some of their good qualities without acquiring those which culture bestows; but do not despise them. Contempt is the one thing which tells upon those of simple nature; it either shakes their faith in what is right or makes them doubt whether the better classes are good judges upon this point.

This disposition, for which I can find no better name than moral romanticism, was inherent in me from my birth, and in some measure by descent. I had, so Code, the old sorceress, often told me, been touched by some fairy's wand before my birth. I came into the world before my time, and was so weak for two months that they did not think I should live. Code informed my mother that she had an infallible way of ascertaining my fate. She went one morning with one of the little shifts which I wore to the sacred lake, and returned in high glee, exclaiming: "He means to live! No sooner had I thrown the little shift on to the surface than it lifted itself up." In later years she used often to say to me with much animation of feature: "Ah! if you had seen how the two arms stretched themselves out." The fairies were attached to me from my childhood, and I was very fond of them. You must not laugh at us Celts. We shall never build a Parthenon, for we have not the marble; but we are skilled in reading the heart and soul; we have a secret of our own for inserting the probe; we bury our hands in the entrails of a man, and, like the witches in Macbeth, withdraw them full of the secrets of infinity. The great secret of our art is that we can make our very failing appear attractive. The Breton race has in its heart an everlasting source of folly. The "fairy kingdom," which is the most beautiful on earth, is its true domain. The Breton race alone can comply with the strange conditions exacted by the fairy Gloriande from all who seek to enter her realm; the horn which will give no sound except when touched by lips that are pure, the magic cup which is filled only for the faithful lover, are our special appurtenances.

Religion is the form behind which the Celtic races disguise their love of the ideal, but it would be a mistake to imagine that religion is to them a tie or a servitude. No race has a greater independence of sentiment in religion. It was not until the twelfth century, and owing to the support which the Normans of France gave to the See of Rome, that Breton Christianity was unmistakably brought into the current of Catholicism. It would have taken very little for the Bretons of France to have become Protestant like their brethren the Welsh in England. In the seventeenth century French Brittany was completely permeated by Jesuitical customs and by the modes of piety common to the rest of the world. Up to that time the religion of the country had had features of its own, its special characteristic being the worship of saints. Among the many peculiarities for which Brittany is noteworthy, its local hagiography is assuredly the most remarkable. Going through the country on foot there is one thing which immediately strikes the observer. The parish churches, in which the Sunday services are held, do not differ in the main from those of other countries. But in country districts it is no uncommon thing to find as many as ten or fifteen chapels in a single parish, most of them little huts with a single door and window, and dedicated to some saint unknown to the rest of Christendom. These local saints, who are to be counted by the hundred, all date from the fifth or the sixth century; that is to say from the period of the emigration. Most of them are persons who have really existed, but who have been wrapped by tradition in a very brilliant network of fable. These fables, which are of the most primitive simplicity, and form a complete treasure of Celtic mythology and popular fancies, have never been reduced to writing in their entirety. The instructive compilations made by the Benedictines and the Jesuits, even the candid and curious work of Albert Legrand, a Dominican of Morlaix, reproduce but a very small fraction of them. So far from encouraging these antique forms of popular worship, the clergy only just tolerate them, and would suppress them altogether if they could, feeling that they are the survivals of another and a much less orthodox age. They consent to say mass once a year in these chapels, as the saints to whom they are dedicated have too great a hold in the country to be dislodged, but they say nothing about them in the parish church. The clergy let the people visit these little sanctuaries of the antique rite, to seek in them the cure for certain complaints, and to worship there after their own way; they pretend to be blind to all this. Where, then, it may be asked, lies concealed the treasure of all these old stories? Why, in the memory of the people? Go from chapel to chapel, get the good people who attend them into conversation, and if they think they can trust you they will tell you with a mixture of seriousness and pleasantry wonderful stories, from which comparative mythology and history will one day reap a rich harvest.[1]

These stories had from the first a very great influence upon my imagination. The chapels which I have spoken of are always solitary, and stand by themselves amid the desolate moors or barren rocks. The wind whistling amid the heather and the stunted vegetation thrilled me with terror, and I often used to take to my heels, thinking that the spirits of the past were pursuing me. At other times I would look through the half ruined door of the chapel at the stained glass or the statuettes of painted wood which stood on the altar. These plunged me in endless reveries. The strange and terrible physiognomy of these saints, more Druid than Christian, savage and vindictive, pursued me like a nightmare. Saints though they were, they were none the less subject to very strange weaknesses. Gregory, of Tours, has told us the story of a certain Winnoch, who passed through Tours on his way to Jerusalem, his only covering being some sheep skins with their wool taken off. He seemed so pious that they kept him there and made a priest of him. He made wild herbs his sole food, and raised the wine flagon to his lips in such a way that it seemed as if he scarcely moistened his lips. But as the liberality of the devout provided him with large quantities of it he got into the habit of drinking, and was several times observed to be overcome by his potations. The devil gained such a hold over him that, armed with knives, sticks, stones, and whatever else he could get hold of, he ran after the people in the streets. It was found necessary to chain him up in his cell. None the less was he a saint. St. Cadoc, St. Iltud, St. Conery, St. Renan (or Ronan), appeared to me as giants. In after years, when I had come to know India, I saw that my saints were true Richis, and that through them I had became familiarised with the most primitive features of our Aryan world, with the idea of solitary masters of nature, asserting their power over it by asceticism and the force of the will.

The last of the saints whom I have mentioned naturally attracted my attention more than any of the others, as his name was the same as that by which I was known.[2] There is not a more original figure among all the saints of Brittany. The story of his life has been told to me two or three times, and each time with more extraordinary details. He lived in Cornwall, near the little town which bears his name (St. Renan). He was more a spirit of the earth than a saint, and his power over the elements was illimitable. He was of a violent and rather erratic temperament, and there was no telling beforehand as to what he would do. He was much respected, but his stubborn resolve to take in all things his own course caused him to be regarded with no little fear, and when he was found one day lying dead on the floor of his hut there was a feeling of consternation in the country. The first person who, when looking in at the window as he went by, saw him in this position, took to his heels. He had been so self-willed and peculiar in his lifetime that no one ventured to guess as to how he might wish to have his body disposed of. It was feared that if his wishes were incorrectly interpreted, he would punish them by sending the plague, or having the town swallowed up by an earthquake, or by converting the country around into a marsh. Nor would it be wise to take his body to the parish church, as he had sometimes shown an aversion to it.

He might, perhaps, create a scandal. All the principal inhabitants were assembled in the cell, with his stark black corpse in their midst, when one of them made the following sensible suggestion: "We never could understand him when he was alive; it was easier to trace the flight of the swallow than to guess at his thoughts. Now that he is dead, let him still follow his own fancy. We will cut down a few trees, make a waggon of them and harness four oxen to it. Then he can let them take him to the place where he wishes to be buried." This was done, and the body of the saint deposited on the vehicle. The oxen, guided by the invisible hand of Ronan, went in a straight line into the thick of the forest, the trees bent or broke beneath their steps with an awful crackling sound. The waggon stopped in the centre of the forest, just where the largest of the oaks reared their head. The hint was taken and the saint was buried there and a church erected to his memory.

Tales of this kind inspired me early in life with a love of mythology. The simplicity of spirit with which they were accepted carried one back to the early ages of the world. Take for instance the way in which, as I was taught to believe, my father was cured of fever when a child. Before daybreak he was taken to the chapel of the saint who exercised the healing power. A blacksmith arrived at the same time with his forge, nails, and tongs. He lighted his fire, made his tongs red hot, and held them before the face of the saint, threatening to shoe him as he would a horse unless he cured the child of his fever. The threat took immediate effect, and my father was cured. Wood-carving has long been in great favour in Brittany. The statues of these saints are extraordinarily life-like, and in the eyes of people of vivid imagination they may well seem to be actually alive. I remember in particular one good man, who was not more daft than the rest, who always made off to the churches in the evening when he got the chance. The next morning, he was invariably found in the building, half dead with fatigue. He had spent the whole night in detaching the figures of Christ from the crosses and drawing the arrows out of the bodies of St. Sebastian.

My mother, who was a Gascon on one side (her father was a native of Bordeaux), told these anecdotes with much wit and tact, passing deftly between what was real and what was fanciful, so as to leave the impression that these things were only true from an ideal point of view. She clung to these fables as a Breton; as a Gascon she was inclined to laugh at them, and this was the secret of the sprightliness and gaiety of her life. This state of things has been the means of giving me what little talent I may have for historical studies. I have derived from it a kind of habit of looking below the surface and hearing sounds which other ears do not catch. The essence of criticism is to be able to realise conditions different from those under which we are now living. I have been in actual contact with the primitive ages. The most remote past was still in existence in Brittany up to 1830. The world of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries passed daily before the eyes of those who lived in the towns. The epoch of the Welsh emigration (the fifth and the sixth centuries) was plainly visible in the country to the practised eye. Paganism was still to be detected beneath a layer, often so thin as to be transparent, of Christianity, and with the former were mixed up traces of a still more ancient world which I afterwards came upon again among the Laplanders. When visiting in 1870, with Prince Napoleon, the huts of a Laplander encampment near Tromsoe, I felt some of my earliest recollections live again in the features of several women and children and in certain customs and traits of character. It occurred to me that in ancient times there might have been admixtures between the lost branches of the Celtic race and races like the Laplanders which covered the soil upon their arrival. My ethnical position would in this case be: "A Celt crossed with Gascon with a slight infusion of Laplander blood." Such a condition of things ought, if I am not mistaken, according to the theories of the anthropologists, to represent the maximum of idiocy and imbecility; but the decrees of anthropology are only relative: what it treats as stupidity among the ancient races of men is often neither more nor less than an extraordinary force of enthusiasm and intuition.


  1. A conscientious and painstaking student, M. Luzel, will, I hope, be the Pausanias of these little local chapels, and will commit to writing the whole of this magnificent legend, which is upon the point of being lost.
  2. The ancient form of the word is Ronan, which is still to be found in the names of places, Loc Ronan, the well of St. Ronan (Wales).