‘A holy nation, a peculiar people’: Religion, Region and Nation in late-medieval Brittany

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‘A holy nation, a peculiar people’:

Religion, Region and Nation in late-medieval Brittany.

1. Introduction 1
2. The French Connection 7
3. The Role of Indigenous Traditions 17

4. Reception and Response 25

5. Conclusion: A Modest Proposal 35
Appendix I: Images 39
Appendix II: Source Material in French 53
Bibliography 59

1. Introduction

Political expression in the Duchy of Brittany in the final centuries of the Middle Ages was characterised by a conscious and persistent struggle between various political powers to manipulate religious imagery and discourse in order to cultivate the allegiance of a broad spectrum of society to a particular dynasty. Dukes, kings and their supporters commissioned works written in French, particularly historical narratives, which underlined the sanctity of a particular family or highlighted the role of divine providence in a dynasty’s ascent to power.1 Writers even went so far as to attach a deep religious significance to the omnipresent heraldic emblems of the late Middle Ages, such as the French fleur de lys or the Breton ermine. The concepts of vernacular writing were then disseminated even more widely by their depiction in the visual arts, not only in illuminated manuscripts, but also in frescoes, statues and stained-glass windows. The similarity of certain depictions of the Breton dukes to the Wilton Diptych, a prime example of the appropriation of religious symbolism to support secular power in late-medieval England, is particularly striking [Fig. 1.1 and Fig. 1.2].2 Since the inhabitants of Brittany in the fifteenth century, whether they identified as Breton, French, both, or neither, would have primarily thought of themselves as Christians, the imagery and language of Christianity provided a particularly effective means of promoting loyalty.3

In the summer of 1471, for example, Jean Meschinot, the court poet of François II of Brittany (1458-88), recited a ballade he had written for the Duke’s second marriage, welcoming the future Duchess:
‘Rich country and most fortunate land,

Which, as all clearly see, is beloved of God,

A Duchy without equal, most prosperous Brittany.’4
Meschinot did not compose this poem, known to literary historians as the Ballade for the Arrival of the Duchess of Foix in Brittany, in the narrow, private context that this retrospective title might suggest. His rhetoric was tailored to a wide audience, including nobles and merchants, who had gathered in Nantes to mark this marriage, a political alliance between the autonomous principalities of Brittany and Béarn, both eager to maintain their independence from France.5 In the early 1470s Meschinot’s patron was in a precarious political position. Still without a male heir, which only aggravated his problems, the François’s chief internal rival, Viscount Jean II of Rohan (1462-1516), was seeking political support at the court of King Louis XI (1461-1483), the deceitful king of Meschinot’s political ballads, who seemed intent upon definitively extending royal power into Brittany.6 In this particular poem then, Meschinot specifically emphasised the divine favour given to Brittany in order to promote unity behind the Duke in an increasingly instable time.

Despite the abundance of religious reference in the political poems of the most celebrated medieval Breton poet, the spiritual aspect of identity in late-medieval Brittany has, for the most part, evaded comment. Recent scholarship, dominated by Michael Jones and Jean Kerhervé, has tended to underline the temporal concerns of Jean IV (1345-99) and his successors, much to the detriment of the sacred imagery that permeates the sources.7 The growing use, from the mid-fourteenth century, of the formula, ‘Duke by the grace of God’, on ducal coins and seals has received much attention as a challenge to French royal power, but few have commented on the theological implications of this principle.8 Furthermore, although many have noted the political connotations of the gradual replacement of the cercle ducal with a royal crown in this period, nobody has commented on the widespread depiction of a crown supported by angels in Breton illuminated manuscripts [Fig. 1.3 and Fig. 1.4].9 Finally, whereas historians have thoroughly scrutinised the account of the Trojan origins of the Bretons in the anonymous Cronicon Briocense and Bouchart’s Grandes Croniques de Bretagne, they have neglected to examine the narratives of the Bretons’ conversion to Christianity.10 Only when these concepts and others besides have received careful attention can an accurate image of Breton identity in the late Middle Ages emerge.

Unfortunately, on one of the few occasions when it has been deemed necessary to comment of the religious aspects of identity in late-medieval Brittany, an eminent medievalist has been just as guilty as a recent popular historian in resorting to the hackneyed preconception of, ‘The profoundly religious spirit of Breton Catholics’.11 Besides being a post-Revolutionary caricature of the inhabitants of a modern-day région whose borders have no relation to the medieval Duchy, this stereotype completely overlooks the fundamental nature of identity in the medieval period.12 Yet this is by no means the only anachronism to have plagued the study of identities in late-medieval Brittany. Several writers, expecting to uncover a Montfortist equivalent to Saint Denis, have expressed their surprise at the scarcity of references to Saint Yves de Kermartin, the current patron saint of Brittany, in the propagandist writings of ducal historians.13 Indeed, after an account of the canonisation, Bouchart mentions this saint primarily in brief exclamations.14 This comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with iconography; in the years immediately following his canonisation in 1347, artists represented Yves as a lawyer with books in his hands, not as a Breton with an ermine at his side. It is time that the sources are approached in their own context, free of modern preconceptions.

This dissertation will reinstate the fundamental importance of Christianity in the various attempts at cultivating a national sentiment in late-medieval Brittany and examine how different dynasties competed for the allegiance of the Breton people. The first chapter will focus upon the relationship between Breton writings and a highly developed French royal ideology that was consciously directed at justifying royal encroachment upon the principalities.15 In many senses the Breton chronicles can be read as both an imitation and direct rebuttal of French claims. The very name of Alain Bouchart’s Grands Croniques de Bretagne imitates the title of the main French vernacular chronicle tradition, Les
Grands Chroniques de France, which was well known amongst the Breton nobility. Every individual claim of the French seemed to have a direct rebuttal. Whereas King Louis IX (1226-70) had, much to the annoyance of his hagiographers, only been placed amongst the confessors at his canonisation, the Bretons had gone one further with King Salomon (857-878), who was venerated in both Brittany and in France as a martyr, the highest level of sainthood.16 Yet, with the warm reception of the dauphin into several Breton towns, including Chateaubriant and Rennes, in the 1460s, and the images on the royal coinage that circulated alongside the dukes’ own money, the so-called royal ideology was pervasive throughout Brittany in the fifteenth century and continued to exert a significant appeal.

Yet, in order to have a wide social reach, the Montfortist ideology developed on one level that was impossible for the French to manipulate. The second chapter will analyse how the ideology of the chronicles of Brittany focused on the links between the dukes and the insular religious traditions of the peninsula they ruled. By reading themselves back into the practices of their subjects, the dukes were particularly likely to encourage the people to identify directly with their dynasty. The long-standing, traditional belief in the migration of the Bretons from the island of Great Britain was transformed into a pseudo-crusade, with the pious, Christian Bretons crossing the channel to conquer a land chosen for them by God and conquer a pagan people, centuries before Clovis (466-511) was crowned King of France. Writers singled out characters that were not only significant in late-medieval Breton culture, but who were charged with a particular emotional significance. Hence, the legendary King Arthur is described in the anonymous Chronicon Briocense receiving the ducal coat of arms from the Virgin Mary, whose cult was flourishing in Brittany in the period, and the role of Saint Salomon, a stock character of the chansons des gestes and an important figure of the religious calendar, is highlighted in all the written texts.17

At this point, however, we are faced with the particularly thorny question of the reception of the Breton ideology. Alongside looking at how some families demonstrated their allegiance to the dukes, the third chapter will examine how the upper nobility, the Counts of Rohan, Penthièvre and Laval in particular, actually turned the Montfortist ideology against the dukes; their reception of the texts and images of the Montfortist dynasty was characterised by imitation. In a sense, the commissioning of genealogies and sacred images this involved tied in with a tendency that was widespread amongst the entire European nobility.18 Yet, in the Breton context, the conflict between the Valois and the Montfortists to monopolise the imagery of religion was opened up to a second front. In a salient parallel with the instability that characterised Breton politics in this period, the upper nobility directly intended to undermine the legitimacy of the Montfortist dynasty by demonstrating their own connections with the holy, hence legitimising their claims to the throne and the new royal titles they began to claim for themselves.19 The Montfortists, in turn, had to respond to these challenges, undermining the pretentions of their political rivals whist asserting their own superiority.

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