Recollections of My Youth by Ernest Renan

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  • 1863
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[Illustration: Ernest Renan]





































One of the most popular legends in Brittany is that relating to an imaginary town called Is, which is supposed to have been swallowed up by the sea at some unknown time. There are several places along the coast which are pointed out as the site of this imaginary city, and the fishermen have many strange tales to tell of it. According to them, the tips of the spires of the churches may be seen in the hollow of the waves when the sea is rough, while during a calm the music of their bells, ringing out the hymn appropriate to the day, rises above the waters. I often fancy that I have at the bottom of my heart a city of Is with its bells calling to prayer a recalcitrant congregation. At times I halt to listen to these gentle vibrations which seem as if they came from immeasurable depths, like voices from another world. Since old age began to steal over me, I have loved more especially during the repose which summer brings with it, to gather up these distant echoes of a vanished Atlantis.

This it is which has given birth to the six chapters which make up the present volume. The recollections of my childhood do not pretend to form a complete and continuous narrative. They are merely the images which arose before me and the reflections which suggested themselves to me while I was calling up a past fifty years old, written down in the order in which they came. Goethe selected as the title for his memoirs “Truth and Poetry,” thereby signifying that a man cannot write his own biography in the same way that he would that of any one else. What one says of oneself is always poetical. To fancy that the small details of one’s own life are worth recording is to be guilty of very petty vanity. A man writes such things in order to transmit to others the theory of the universe which he carries within himself. The form of the present work seemed to me a convenient one for expressing certain shades of thought which my previous writings did not convey. I had no desire to furnish information about myself for the future use of those who might wish to write essays or articles about me.

What in history is a recommendation would here have been a drawback; the whole of this small volume is true, but not true in the sense required-for a “Biographical Dictionary.” I have said several things with the intent to raise a smile, and, if such a thing had been compatible with custom, I might have used the expression _cum grano salis_ as a marginal note in many cases. I have been obliged to be very careful in what I wrote. Many of the persons to whom I refer may be still alive; and those who are not accustomed to find themselves in print have a sort of horror of publicity. I have, therefore, altered several proper names. In other cases, by means of a slight transposition of date and place, I have rendered identification impossible. The story of “the Flax-crusher” is absolutely true, with the exception that the name of the manor-house is a fictitious one. With regard to “Good Master Systeme,” I have been furnished by M. Duportal du Godasmeur with further details which do not confirm certain ideas entertained by my mother as to the mystery in which this aged recluse enveloped his existence. I have, however, made no change in the body of the work, thinking that it would be better to leave M. Duportal to publish the true story, known only to himself, of this enigmatic character.

The chief defect for which I should feel some apology necessary if this book had any pretension to be considered a regular memoir of my life, is that there are many gaps in it. The person who had the greatest influence on my life, my sister Henriette, is scarcely mentioned in it.[1] In September 1862, a year after the death of this invaluable friend, I wrote for the few persons who had known her well, a short notice of her life. Only a hundred copies were printed. My sister was so unassuming, and she was so averse from the stress and stir of the world that I should have fancied I could hear her reproaching me from her grave, if I had made this sketch public property. I have more than once been tempted to include it in this volume, but on second thoughts I have felt that to do so would be an act of profanation. The pamphlet in question was read and appreciated by a few persons who were kindly disposed towards her and towards myself. It would be wrong of me to expose a memory so sacred in my eyes to the supercilious criticisms which are part and parcel of the right acquired by the purchaser of a book. It seemed to me that in placing the lines referring to her in a book for the trade I should be acting with as much impropriety as if I sent a portrait of her for sale to an auction room. The pamphlet in question will not, therefore, be reprinted until after my death, appended to it, very possibly being several of her letters selected by me beforehand. The natural sequence of this book, which is neither more nor less than the sequence in the various periods of my life, brings about a sort of contrast between the anecdotes of Brittany and those of the Seminary, the latter being the details of a darksome struggle, full of reasonings and hard scholasticism, while the recollections of my earlier years are instinct with the impressions of childlike sensitiveness, of candour, of innocence, and of affection. There is nothing surprising about this contrast. Nearly all of us are double. The more a man develops intellectually, the stronger is his attraction to the opposite pole: that is to say, to the irrational, to the repose of mind in absolute ignorance, to the woman who is merely a woman, the instinctive being who acts solely from the impulse of an obscure conscience. The fierce school of controversy, in which the mind of Europe has been involved since the time of Abelard, induces periods of mental drought and aridity. The brain, parched by reasoning, thirsts for simplicity, like the desert for spring water. When reflection has brought us up to the last limit of doubt, the spontaneous affirmation of the good and of the beautiful which is to be found in the female conscience delights us and settles the question for us. This is why religion is preserved to the world by woman alone. A beautiful and a virtuous woman is the mirage which peoples with lakes and green avenues our great moral desert. The superiority of modern science consists in the fact that each step forward it takes is a step further in the order of abstractions. We make chemistry from chemistry, algebra from algebra; the very indefatigability with which we fathom nature removes us further from her. This is as it should be, and let no one fear to prosecute his researches, for out of this merciless dissection comes life. But we need not be surprised at the feverish heat which, after these orgies of dialectics, can only be calmed by the kisses of the artless creature in whom nature lives and smiles. Woman restores us to communication with the eternal spring in which God reflects Himself. The candour of a child, unconscious of its own beauty and seeing God clear as the daylight, is the great revelation of the ideal, just as the unconscious coquetry of the flower is a proof that Nature adorns herself for a husband.

One should never write except upon that which one loves. Oblivion and silence are the proper punishments to be inflicted upon all that we meet with in the way of what is ungainly or vulgar in the course of our journey through life. Referring to a past which is dear to me, I have spoken of it with kindly sympathy; but I should be sorry to create any misapprehension, and to be taken for an uncompromising reactionist. I love the past, but I envy the future. It would have been very pleasant to have lived upon this planet at as late a period as possible. Descartes would be delighted if he could read some trivial work on natural philosophy and cosmography written in the present day. The fourth form school boy of our age is acquainted with truths to know which Archimedes would have laid down his life. What would we not give to be able to get a glimpse of some book which will be used as a school-primer a hundred years hence?

We must not, because of our personal tastes, our prejudices perhaps, set ourselves to oppose the action of our time. This action goes on without regard to us, and probably it is right. The world is moving in the direction of what I may call a kind of Americanism, which shocks our refined ideas, but which, when once the crisis of the present hour is over, may very possibly not be more inimical than the ancient _regime_ to the only thing which is of any real importance; viz. the emancipation and progress of the human mind. A society in which personal distinction is of little account, in which talent and wit are not marketable commodities, in which exalted functions do not ennoble, in which politics are left to men devoid of standing or ability, in which the recompenses of life are accorded by preference to intrigue, to vulgarity, to the charlatans who cultivate the art of puffing, and to the smart people who just keep without the clutches of the law, would never suit us. We have been accustomed to a more protective system, and to the government patronizing what is noble and worthy. But we have not secured this patronage for nothing. Richelieu and Louis XIV. looked upon it as their duty to provide pensions for men of merit all the world over; how much better it would have been, if the spirit of the time had admitted of it, that they should have left the men of merit to themselves! The period of the Restoration has the credit of being a liberal one; yet we should certainly not like to live now under a _regime_ which warped such a genius as Cuvier, stifled with paltry compromises the keen mind of M. Cousin, and retarded the growth of criticism by half a century. The concessions which had to be made to the court, to society, and to the clergy, were far worse than the petty annoyances which a democracy can inflict upon us.

The eighteen years of the monarchy of July were in reality a period of liberty, but the official direction given to things of the mind was often superficial and no better than would be expected of the average shopkeeper. With regard to the second empire, if the ten last years of its duration in some measure repaired the mischief done in the first eight, it must never be forgotten how strong this government was when it was a question of crushing the intelligence, and how feeble when it came to raising it up. The present hour is a gloomy one, and the immediate outlook is not cheerful. Our unfortunate country is ever threatened with heart disease, and all Europe is a prey to some deep-rooted malady. But by way of consolation, let us reflect upon what we have suffered. The evil to come must be grevious indeed if we cannot say:

“O passi graviora, dabit deus his quoque finem.”

The one object in life is the development of the mind, and the first condition for the development of the mind is that it should have liberty. The worst social state, from this point of view, is the theocratic state, like Islamism or the ancient Pontifical state, in which dogma reigns supreme. Nations with an exclusive state religion, like Spain, are not much better off. Nations in which a religion of the majority is recognized are also exposed to serious drawbacks. In behalf of the real or assumed beliefs of the greatest number, the state considers itself bound to impose upon thought terms which it cannot accept. The belief or the opinion of the one side should not be a fetter upon the other side. As long as the masses were believers, that is to say, as long as the same sentiments were almost universally professed by a people, freedom of research and discussion was impossible. A colossal weight of stupidity pressed down upon the human mind. The terrible catastrophe of the middle ages, that break of a thousand years in the history of civilization, is due less to the barbarians than to the triumph of the dogmatic spirit among the masses.

This is a state of things which is coming to an end in our time, and we cannot be surprised if some disturbance ensues. There are no longer masses which believe; a great number of the people decline to recognise the supernatural, and the day is not far distant, when beliefs of this kind will die out altogether in the masses, just as the belief in familiar spirits and ghosts have disappeared. Even if, as is probable, we are to have a temporary Catholic reaction, the people will not revert to the Church. Religion has become for once and all a matter of personal taste. Now beliefs are only dangerous when they represent something like unanimity, or an unquestionable majority. When they are merely individual, there is not a word to be said against them, and it is our duty to treat them with the respect which they do not always exhibit for their adversaries, when they feel that they have force at their back.

There can be no denying that it will take time for the liberty, which is the aim and object of human society, to take root in France as it has in America. French democracy has several essential principles to acquire, before it can become a liberal _regime_. It will be above all things necessary that we should have laws as to associations, charitable foundations, and the right of legacy, analogous to those which are in force in England and America. Supposing this progress to be effected (if it is Utopian to count upon it in France, it is not so for the rest of Europe, in which the aspirations for English liberty become every day more intense), we should really not have much cause to look regretfully upon the favours conferred by the ancient _regime_ upon things of the mind. I quite think that if democratic ideas were to secure a definitive triumph, science and scientific teaching would soon find the modest subsidies now accorded them cut off. This is an eventuality which would have to be accepted as philosophically as may be. The free foundations would take the place of the state institutes, the slight drawbacks being more than compensated for by the advantage of having no longer to make to the supposed prejudices of the majority concessions which the state exacted in return for its pittance. The waste of power in state institutes is enormous. It may safely be said that not 50 per cent of a credit voted in favour of science, art, or literature, is expended to any effect. Private foundations would not be exposed to nearly so much waste. It is true that spurious science would, in these conditions, flourish side by side with real science, enjoying the same privileges, and that there would be no official criterion, as there still is to a certain extent now, to distinguish the one from the other. But this criterion becomes every day less reliable. Reason has to submit to the indignity of taking second place behind those who have a loud voice, and who speak with a tone of command. The plaudits and favour of the public will, for a long time to come, be at the service of what is false. But the true has great power, when it is free; the true endures; the false is ever changing and decays. Thus it is that the true, though only understood by a select few, always rises to the surface, and in the end prevails.

In short, it is very possible that the American-like social condition towards which we are advancing, independently of any particular form of government, will not be more intolerable for persons of intelligence than the better guaranteed social conditions which we have already been subject to. In such a world as this will be, it will be no difficult matter to create very quiet and snug retreats for oneself. “The era of mediocrity in all things is about to begin,” remarked a short time ago that distinguished thinker, M. Arniel of Geneva. “Equality begets uniformity, and it is by the sacrifice of the excellent, the remarkable, the extraordinary that we extirpate what is bad. The whole becomes less coarse; but the whole becomes more vulgar.” We may at least hope that vulgarity will not yet a while persecute freedom of mind. Descartes, living in the brilliant seventeenth century, was nowhere so well off as at Amsterdam, because, as “every one was engaged in trade there,” no one paid any heed to him. It may be that general vulgarity will one day be the condition of happiness, for the worst American vulgarity would not send Giordano Bruno to the stake or persecute Galileo. We have no right to be very fastidious. In the past we were never more than tolerated. This tolerance, if nothing more, we are assured of in the future. A narrow-minded, democratic _regime_ is often, as we know, very troublesome. But for all that men of intelligence find that they can live in America, as long as they are not too exacting. _Noli me tangere is_ the most one can ask for from democracy. We shall pass through several alternatives of anarchy and despotism before we find repose in this happy medium. But liberty is like truth; scarcely any one loves it on its own account, and yet, owing to the impossibility of extremes, one always comes back to it.

We may as well, therefore, allow the destinies of this planet to work themselves out without undue concern. We should gain nothing by exclaiming against them, and a display of temper would be very much out of place. It is by no means certain that the earth is not falling short of its destiny, as has probably happened to countless worlds; it is even possible that our age may one day be regarded as the culminating point since which humanity has been steadily deteriorating; but the universe does not know the meaning of the word discouragement; it will commence anew the work which has come to naught; each fresh check leaves it young, alert, and full of illusions. Be of good cheer, Nature! Pursue, like the deaf and blind star-fish which vegetates in the bed of the ocean, thy obscure task of life; persevere; mend for the millionth time the broken meshes of the net; repair the boring-machine which sinks to the last limits of the attainable the well from which living water will spring up. Sight and sight again the aim which thou hast failed to hit throughout the ages; try to struggle through the scarcely perceptible opening which leads to another firmament. Thou hast the infinity of time and space to try the experiment. He who can commit blunders with impunity is always certain to succeed.

Happy they who shall have had a part in this great final triumph which will be the complete advent of God! A Paradise lost is always, for him who wills it so, a Paradise regained. Often as Adam must have mourned the loss of Eden, I fancy that if he lived, as we are told, 930 years after his fall, he must often have exclaimed: _Felix culpa!_ Truth is, whatever may be said to the contrary, superior to all fictions. One ought never to regret seeing clearer into the depths. By endeavouring to increase the treasure of the truths which form the paid-up capital of humanity, we shall be carrying on the work of our pious ancestors, who loved the good and the true as it was understood in their time. The most fatal error is to believe that one serves one’s country by calumniating those who founded it. All ages of a nation are leaves of the self-same book. The true men of progress are those who profess as their starting-point a profound respect for the past. All that we do, all that we are, is the outcome of ages of labour. For my own part, I never feel my liberal faith more firmly rooted in me than when I ponder over the miracles of the ancient creed, nor more ardent for the work of the future than when I have been listening for hours to the bells of the city of Is.

[Footnote 1: Upon the very day that this volume was going to press, news reached me of the death of my brother, snapping the last thread of the recollections of my childhood’s home. My brother Alain was a warm and true friend to me; he never failed to understand me, to approve my course of action and to love me. His clear and sound intellect and his great capacity for work adapted him for a profession in which mathematical knowledge is of value or for magisterial functions. The misfortunes of our family caused him to follow a different career, and he underwent many hardships with unshaken courage. He never complained of his lot, though life had scant enjoyment save that which is derived from love of home. These joys are, however, unquestionably the most unalloyed.]



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.

[Footnote 1: This passage was written at Ischia in 1875.]



The education which these worthy priests gave me was not a very literary one. We turned out a good deal of Latin verse, but they would not recognize any French poetry later than the _Religion_ of Racine the younger. The name of Lamartine was pronounced only with a sneer, and the existence of M. Hugo was not so much as known. To compose French verse was regarded as a very dangerous habit, and would have been sufficient to get a pupil expelled. I attribute partly to this my inability to express thoughts in rhyme, and this inability has often caused me great regret, for I have frequently felt a sort of inspiration to do so, but have invariably been checked by the association of ideas which has led me to regard versification as a defect. Our studies of history and of the natural sciences were not carried far, but, on the other hand, we went deep into mathematics, to which I applied myself with the utmost zest, these abstract combinations exercising a wonderful fascination over me. Our professor, the good Abbe Duchesne, was particularly attentive in his lessons to me and to my close friend and fellow-student Guyomar, who displayed a great aptitude for this branch of study. We always returned together from the college. Our shortest cut was by the square, and we were too conscientious to deviate from the most direct route; but when we had had to work out some problem more intricate than usual our discussion of it lasted far beyond class-time, and on those occasions we made our way home by the hospital. This road took us past several large doors which were always shut, and upon which we worked out our calculations and drew our figures in chalk. Traces of them are perhaps visible there still, for these were the doors of large monasteries, where nothing ever changes.

The hospital-general, so called because it was the trysting-place alike of disease, old age, and poverty, was a very large structure, standing, like all old buildings, upon a good deal of ground, and having very little accommodation. Just in front of the entrance there was a small screen, where the inmates who were either well or recovering from illness used to meet when the weather was fine, for the hospital contained not only the sick, but the paupers, and even persons who paid a small sum for board and lodging. At the first glimpse of sunshine they all came to sit out beneath the shade of the screen upon old cane chairs, and it was the most animated place in the town. Guyomar and myself always exchanged the time of day with these good people as we passed, and we were greeted with no little respect, for though young we were regarded as already clerks of the Church. This seemed quite natural, but there was one thing which excited our astonishment, though we were too inexperienced to know much of the world.

Among the paupers in the hospital was a person whom we never passed without surprise. This was an old maid of about five-and-forty, who always wore over her head a hood of the most singular shape; as a rule she was almost motionless, with a sombre and lost expression of countenance, and with her eyes glazed and hard-set. When we went by her countenance became animated, and she cast strange looks at us, sometimes tender and melancholy, sometimes hard and almost ferocious. If we looked back at her she seemed to be very much put out. We could not understand all this, but it had the effect of checking our conversation and any inclination to merriment. We were not exactly afraid of her, for though she was supposed to be out of her mind, the insane were not treated with the cruelty which has since been imported into the conduct of asylums. So far from being sequestered they were allowed to wander about all day long. There is as a rule a good deal of insanity at Treguier, for, like all dreamy races, which exhaust their mental energies in pursuit of the ideal, the Bretons of this district only too readily allow themselves to sink, when they are not supported by a powerful will, into a condition half way between intoxication and folly, and in many cases brought about by the unsatisfied aspirations of the heart. These harmless lunatics, whose insanity differed very much in degree, were looked upon as part and parcel of the town, and people spoke about “our lunatics” just as at Venice people say “_nostre carampane_.” One was constantly meeting them, and they passed the time of day with us and made some joke, at which, sickly as it was, we could not help smiling. They were treated with kindness, and they often did a service in their turn. I shall never forget a poor fellow called Brian, who believed that he was a priest, and who passed part of the day in church, going through the ceremonies of mass. There was a nasal drone to be heard in the cathedral every afternoon, and this was Brian reciting prayers which were doubtless not less acceptable than those of other people. The cathedral officials had the good sense not to interfere with him, and not to draw frivolous distinctions between the simple and the humble who came to kneel before their God.

The insane woman at the hospital was much less popular, on account of her taciturn ways. She never spoke to any one, and no one knew anything of her history. She never said a word to us boys, but her haggard and wild look made a deep and painful impression upon us. I have often thought since of this enigma, though without being able to decipher it; but I obtained a clue to it eight years ago, when my mother, who had attained the age of eighty-five without loss of health, was overtaken by an illness which slowly undermined her strength.

My mother was in every respect, whether as regarded her ideas or her associations, one of the old school. She spoke Breton perfectly, and had at her fingers’ ends all the sailors’ proverbs and a host of things which no one now remembers. She was a true woman of the people, and her natural wit imparted a wonderful amount of life to the long stories which she told and which few but herself knew. Her sufferings did not in any way affect her spirits, and she was quite cheerful the afternoon of her death. Of an evening I used to sit with her for an hour in her room, with no other light–for she was very fond of this semi-obscurity–than that of the gas-lamp in the street. Her lively imagination would then assume free scope, and, as so often happens with old people, the recollections of her early days came back with special force and clearness. She could remember what Treguier and Lannion were before the Revolution, and she would describe what the different houses were like, and who lived in them. I encouraged her by questions to wander on, as it amused her and kept her thoughts away from her illness.

Upon one occasion we began to talk of the hospital, and she gave me the complete history of it. “Many changes,” to use her own words, “have occurred there since I first knew it. No one need ever feel any shame at having been an inmate of it, for the most highly respected persons have resided there. During the First Empire, and before the indemnities were paid, it served as an asylum for the poor daughters of the nobles, who might be seen sitting out at the entrance upon cane chairs. Not a complaint ever escaped their lips, but when they saw the persons who had acquired possession of their family property rolling by in carriages, they would enter the chapel and engage in devotions so as not to meet them. This was done not so much to avoid regretting the loss of goods, of which they had made a willing sacrifice to God, as from a feeling of delicacy lest their presence might embarrass these _parvenus_. A few years later the parts were completely reversed, but the hospital still continued to receive all sorts of wreckage. It was there that your uncle, Pierre Renan, who led a vagabond life, and passed all his time in taverns reading to the tipplers the books he borrowed from us, died; and old Systeme, whom the priests disliked though he was a very good man; and Gode, the old sorceress, who, the day after you were born, went to tell your fortune in the Lake of the Minihi; and Marguerite Calvez, who perjured herself and was struck down with consumption the very day she heard that St. Yves had been implored to bring about her death within the year.”[1]

“And who,” I asked her, “was that mad woman who used to sit under the screen, and of whom Guyomar and myself were so afraid?”

Reflecting a moment to remember whom I meant, she replied, “Why, she was the daughter of the flax-crusher.”

“Who was he?”

“I have never told you that story. It is too old-fashioned to be understood at the present day. Since I have come to Paris there are many things to which I have never alluded…. These country nobles were so much respected. I always considered them to be the genuine noblemen. It would be no use telling this to the Parisians, they would only laugh at me. They think that their city is everything, and in my view they are very narrow-minded. People have no idea in the present day how these old country noblemen were respected, poor as they were.”

Here my mother paused for a little, and then went on with the story, which I will tell in her own words.

[Footnote 1: I may perhaps relate all these anecdotes at a future time.]



“Do you remember the little village of Tredarzec, the steeple of which was visible from the turret of our house? About half a mile from the village, which consisted of little more than the church, the priest’s house, and the mayor’s office, stood the manor of Kermelle, which was, like so many others, a well-kept farmhouse, of very antiquated appearance, surrounded by a lofty wall, and grey with age. There was a large arched doorway, surmounted by a V-shaped shelter roofed with tiles, and at the side of this a smaller door for everyday use. At the further end of the courtyard stood the house with its pointed roof and its gables covered with ivy. The dovecote, a turret, and two or three well-constructed windows not unlike those of a church, proved that this was the residence of a noble, one of those old houses which were inhabited, previous to the Revolution, by a class of men whose habits and mode of life have now passed beyond the reach of imagination.

“These country nobles were mere peasants,[1] but the first of their class. At one time there was only one in each parish, and they were regarded as the representatives and mouthpieces of the inhabitants, who scrupulously respected their right and treated them with great consideration. But towards the close of the last century they were beginning to disappear very fast. The peasants looked upon them as being the lay heads of the parish just as the priest was the ecclesiastical head. He who held this position at Tredarzec of whom I am speaking, was an elderly man of fine presence, with all the force and vigour of youth, and a frank and open face; he wore his hair long, but rolled up under a comb, only letting it fall on Sunday, when he partook of the Sacrament. I can still see him–he often came to visit us at Treguier–with his serious air and a tinge of melancholy, for he was almost the sole survivor of his order, the majority having disappeared altogether, while the others had come to live in towns. He was a universal favourite. He had a seat all to himself in church, and every Sunday he might be seen in it, just in front of the rest of the congregation, with his old-fashioned dress and his long gloves reaching almost to the elbow. When the Sacrament was about to be administered he withdrew to the end of the choir, unfastened his hair, laid his gloves upon a small stool placed expressly for him near the rood screen, and walked up the aisle unassisted and erect. No one approached the table until he had returned to his seat and put on his gauntlets.

“He was very poor, but he made a point of concealing it from the public. These country nobles used to enjoy certain privileges which enabled them to live rather better than the general mass of peasants, but these gradually faded away, and Kermelle was in a very embarrassed condition. He could not well work in the fields, and he kept in doors all day, having an occupation which could be followed under cover. When flax has ripened, it is put through a process of decortication, which leaves only the textile fibre, and this was the work which poor old Kermelle thought that he could do without loss of dignity. No one saw him at it, and thus appearances were saved; but the fact was generally known, and as it was the custom to give every one a nickname he was soon known all the country over as ‘the flax-crusher.’ This sobriquet, as so often happens, gradually took the place of his proper name, and as ‘the flax-crusher’ he was soon generally known.

“He was like a patriarch of old, and you would laugh if I told you how the flax-crusher eked out his subsistence, and added to the scanty wage which he received for this work. It was supposed that as head of the village he had special gifts of healing, and that by the laying on of his hands, and in other ways, he could cure many complaints. The popular belief was that this power was only possessed by those who had ever so many quartering, of nobility, and that he alone had the requisite number. On certain days his house was besieged by people who had come a distance of fifty miles. If a child was backward in learning to walk or was weak on its legs, the parents brought it to him. He moistened his fingers in his mouth and traced figures on the child’s loins, the result being that it soon was able to walk. He was thoroughly in earnest, for these were the days of simple faith. Upon no account would he have taken any money, and for the matter of that the people who came to consult him were too poor to give him any, but one brought a dozen eggs, another a flitch of bacon, a third a jar of butter, or some fruit. He made no scruple about accepting these, and though the nobles in the towns ridiculed him, they were very wrong in doing so. He knew the country very well, and was the very incarnation and embodiment of it.

“At the outbreak of the Revolution he emigrated to Jersey, though why it is difficult to understand, for no one assuredly would have molested him, but the nobles of Treguier told him that such was the king’s order, and he went off with the rest. He was not long away, and when he came back he found his old house, which had not been occupied, just as he had left it. When the indemnities were distributed some of his friends tried to persuade him to put in a claim; and there was much, no doubt, which could have been said in support of it. But though the other nobles were anxious to improve his position, he would not hear of any such thing, his sole reply to all arguments being, ‘I had nothing, and I could lose nothing.’ He remained, therefore, as poor as ever.

“His wife died, I believe, while he was at Jersey, and he had a daughter who was born about the same time. She was a tall and handsome girl (you have only known her since she has lost her freshness), with much natural vigour, a beautiful complexion, and no lack of generous blood running through her veins. She ought to have been married young, but that was out of the question, for those wretched little starvelings of nobles in the small towns, who are good for nothing, and not to be compared with him, would not have heard of her for their sons. As a matter of etiquette she could not marry a peasant, and so the poor girl remained, as it were, in mid-air, like a wandering spirit. There was no place for her on earth. Her father was the last of his race, and it seemed as if she had been brought into the world with the destiny of not finding a place for herself in it. Endowed with great physical beauty, she scarcely had any soul, and with her instinct was everything. She would have made an excellent mother, but failing marriage a religious vocation would have suited her best, as the regular and austere mode of life would have calmed her temperament. But her father, doubtless, could not afford to provide her with a dowry, and his social condition forbade the idea of making her a lay-sister. Poor girl, driven into the wrong path, she was fated to meet her doom there. She was naturally upright and good, with a full knowledge of her duties, and her only fault was that she had blood in her veins. None of the young men in the village would have dreamt of taking a liberty with her, so much was her father respected. The feeling of her superiority prevented her from forming any acquaintance with the young peasants, and they never thought of paying their addresses to her. The poor girl lived, therefore, in a state of absolute solitude, for the only other inhabitant of the house was a lad of twelve or thirteen, a nephew, whom Kermelle had taken under his care and to whom the priest, a good man if ever there was one, taught what little Latin he knew himself.

“The Church was the only source of pleasure left for her. She was of a pious disposition, though not endowed with sufficient intelligence to understand anything of the mysteries of our religion. The priest, very zealous in the performance of his duties, felt no little respect for the flax-crusher, and spent whatever leisure time he had at his house. He acted as tutor to the nephew, treating the daughter with the reserve which the clergy of Brittany make a point of showing in their intercourse with the opposite sex. He wished her good day and inquired after her health, but he never talked to her except on commonplace subjects. The unfortunate girl fell violently in love with him. He was the only person of her own station, so to speak, whom she ever saw, and moreover, he was a young man of very taking appearance; combining with an attitude of great outward modesty an air of subdued melancholy and resignation. One could see that he had a heart and strong feeling, but that a more lofty principle held them in subjection, or rather that they were transformed into something higher. You know how fascinating some of our Breton clergy are, and this is a fact very keenly appreciated by women. The unshaken attachment to a vow, which is in itself a sort of homage to their power, emboldens, attracts, and flatters them. The priest becomes for them a trusty brother who has for their sake renounced his sex and carnal delights. Hence is begotten a feeling which is a mixture of confidence, pity, regret, and gratitude. Allow priests to marry and you destroy one of the most necessary elements of Catholic society. Women will protest against such a change, for there is something which they esteem even more than being loved, and that is for love to be made a serious business. Nothing flatters a woman more than to let her see that she is feared, and the Church by placing chastity in the first place among the duties of its ministers, touches the most sensitive chord of female vanity.

“The poor girl thus gradually became immersed in a deep love for the priest. The virtuous and mystic race to which she belonged knew nothing of the frenzy which overcomes all obstacles and which accounts nothing accomplished so long as anything remains to be accomplished. Her aspirations were very modest, and if he would only have admitted the fact of her existence she would have been content. She did not want so much as a look; a place in his thoughts would have been enough. The priest was, of course, her confessor, for there was no other in the parish. The mode of Catholic confession, so admirable in some respects, but so dangerous, had a great effect upon her imagination. It was inexpressibly pleasing to her to find herself every Saturday alone with him for half an hour, as if she were face to face with God, to see him discharging the functions of God, to feel his breath, to undergo the welcome humiliation of his reprimands, to confide to him her inmost thoughts, scruples, and fears. You must not imagine, however, that she told him everything, for a pious woman has rarely the courage to make use of the confessional for a love confidence. She may perhaps give herself up to the enjoyment of sentiments which are not devoid of peril, but there is always a certain degree of mysticism about them which is not to be conciliated with anything so horrible as sacrilege. At all events, in this particular case, the girl was so shy that the words would have died upon her lips, and her passion was a silent, inward, and devouring fire. And with all this, she was compelled to see him every day and many times a day; young and handsome, always following a dignified calling, officiating with the people on their knees before him, the judge and keeper of her own conscience. It was too much for her, and her head began to go. Her vigorous organization, deflected from its proper course, gave way, and her old father attributed to weakness of mind what was the result of the ravages wrought by the fantastic workings of a love-stricken heart.

“Just as a mountain stream is turned from its course by some insuperable barrier, the poor girl, with no means of making her affection known to the object of it, found consolation in very insignificant ways: to secure his notice for a moment, to be able to render him any slight service, and to fancy that she was of use to him was enough, and she may have said to herself, who can tell? he is a man after all, and he may perhaps be touched in reality and only restrained from showing that he is through discipline. All these efforts broke against a bar of iron, a wall of ice. The priest maintained the same cool reserve. She was the daughter of the man for whom he felt the greatest respect; but she was a woman. Oh! if he had avoided her, if he had treated her harshly, that would have been a triumph and a proof that she had made his heart beat for her, but there was something terrible about his unvarying politeness and his utter disregard of the most potent signs of affection. He made no attempt to keep her at a distance, but merely continued steadfastly to treat her as a mere abstraction.

“After the lapse of a certain time things got very bad. Rejected and heartbroken, she began to waste away, and her eye grew haggard, but she put a restraint upon herself, no one knew her secret! ‘What,’ she would say to herself,’ I cannot attract his notice for a moment; he will not even acknowledge my existence; do what I will, I can only be for him a _shadow_, a phantom, one soul among a hundred others. It would be too much to hope for his love, but his notice, a look from him…. To be the equal of one so learned, so near to God, is more than I could hope, and to bear him children would be sacrilege; but to be his, to be a Martha to him, to be his servant, discharging the modest duties of which I am capable, so as to have all in common with him, the household goods and all that concerns a humble woman who is not initiated in any higher ideas, that would be heavenly!’ She would remain motionless for whole afternoons upon her chair, nursing this idea. She could see him and picture herself with him, loading him with attentions, keeping his house, and pressing the hem of his garment. She thrust away these idle dreams from her but after having been plunged in them for hours she was deadly pale and oblivious of all those who were about her. Her father might have noticed it, but what could the poor old man do to cure an evil which it would be impossible for a simple soul like his so much as to conceive.

“So things went on for about a year. The probability is that the priest saw nothing, so firmly do our clergy adhere to the resolution of living in an atmosphere of their own. This only added fuel to the fire. Her love became a worship, a pure adoration, and so she gained comparative peace of mind. Her imagination took quite a childish turn, and she wanted to be able to fancy that she was employed in doing things for him. She had got to dream while awake, and, like a somnambulist, to perform acts in a semi-unconscious state. Day and night, one thought haunted her: she fancied herself tending him, counting his linen, and looking after all the details of his household, which were too petty to occupy his thoughts. All these fancies gradually took shape, and led up to an act only to be explained by the mental state to which she had for some time been reduced.”

What follows would indeed be incomprehensible without a knowledge of certain peculiarities in the Breton character. The most marked feature in the people of Brittany is their affection. Love is with them a tender, deep, and affectionate sentiment, rather than a passion. It is an inward delight which wears and consumes, differing _toto caelo_ from the fiery passion of southern races.

The paradise of their dreams is cool and green, with no fierce heat. There is no race which yields so many victims to love; for, though suicide is rare, the gradual wasting away which is called consumption is very Prevalent. It is often so with the young Breton conscripts. Incapable of finding any satisfaction in mercenary intrigues, they succumb to an indefinable sort of languor, which is called home-sickness, though, in reality, love with them is indissolubly associated with their native village, with its steeple and vesper bells, and with the familiar scenes of home. The hot-blooded southerner kills his rival, as he may the object of his passion. The sentiment of which I am speaking is fatal only to him who is possessed by it, and this is why the people of Brittany are so chaste a race. Their lively imagination creates an aerial world which satisfies their aspirations. The true poetry of such a love as this is the sonnet on spring in the Song of Solomon, which is far more voluptuous than it is passionate. “Hiems transiit; imber abiit et recessit…. Vox turturis audita est in terra nostra…. Surge, amica mea, et veni.”

[Footnote 1: What grand _landwehr_ leaders they would have made! There are no such men in the present day.]



My mother, resuming her story, went on to say:–

“We are all, as a matter of fact, at the mercy of our illusions, and the proof of this is that in many cases nothing is easier than to take in Nature by devices which she is unable to distinguish from the reality. I shall never forget the daughter of Marzin, the carpenter in the High Street, who, losing her senses owing to a suppression of the maternal sentiment, took a log of wood, dressed it up in rags, placed on the top of it a sort of baby’s cap, and passed the day in fondling, rocking, hugging, and kissing this artificial infant. When it was placed in the cradle beside her of an evening, she was quiet all night. There are some instincts for which appearances suffice, and which can be kept quiet by fictions. Thus it was that Kermelle’s daughter succeeded in giving reality to her dreams. Her ideal was a life in common with the man she loved, and the one which she shared in fancy was not, of course, that of a priest, but the ordinary domestic life. She was meant for the conjugal existence, and her insanity was the result of an instinct for housekeeping being checkmated. She fancied that her aspiration was realized and that she was keeping house for the man whom she loved; and as she was scarcely capable of distinguishing between her dreams and the reality she was the victim of the most incredible aberrations, which prove in the most effectual way the sacred laws of nature and their inevitable fatality.

“She passed her time in hemming and marking linen, which, in her idea, was for the house where she was to pass her life at the feet of her adored one. The hallucination went so far that she marked the linen with the priest’s initials; often with his and her own interlaced. She plied her needle with a very deft hand, and would work for hours at a stretch, absorbed in a delicious reverie. So she satisfied her cravings, and passed through moments of delight which kept her happy for days.

“Thus the weeks passed, while she traced the name so dear to her, and associated it with her own–this alone being a pastime which consoled her. Her hands were always busy in his service, and the linen which she had sewn for him seemed to be herself. It would be used and touched by him, and there was deep joy in the thought. She would be always deprived of him, it was true, but the impossible must remain the impossible, and she would have drawn herself as near to him as could be. For a whole year she fed in fancy upon her pitiful little happiness. Alone, and with her eyes intent upon her work, she lived in another world, and believed herself to be his wife in a humble measure. The hours flowed on slowly like the motion of her needle; her hapless imagination was relieved. And then she at times indulged in a little hope. Perhaps he would be touched, even to tears, when he made the discovery, testifying to her great love. ‘He will see how I love him, and he will understand how sweet it is to be brought together.’ She would be wrapped for days at a time in these dreams, which were nearly always followed by a period of extreme prostration.

“In course of time the work was completed, and then came the question, ‘What should she do with it?’ The idea of compelling him to accept a service, to be under some sort of obligation to her, took complete possession of her mind. She determined to steal his gratitude, if I may so express myself; to compel him by force to feel obliged to her; and this was the plan she resolved upon. It was devoid of all sense or reason, but her mind was gone, and she had long since been led away by the vagaries of her disordered imagination. The festivals of Christmas were about to be celebrated. After the midnight mass the priest was in the habit of entertaining the mayor and the notabilities of the village at supper. His house adjoined the church, and besides the principal door opening on to the village square, there were two others, one leading into the vestry and so into the church, and another into the garden and the fields beyond. Kermelle Manor was about five hundred yards distant, and to save the nephew–who took lessons from the priest–making a long round, he had been given a key of this back door. The daughter got possession of this key while the mass was being celebrated, and entered the house. The priest’s servant had laid the cloth in advance, so as to be free to attend mass, and the poor daft girl hurriedly removed the tablecloth and napkins and hid them in the manor-house. When mass was over the theft was detected at once, and caused very great surprise, the first thing noticed being that the linen alone had been taken. The priest was unwilling to let his guests go away supperless, and while they were consulting as to what to do, the girl herself arrived, saying, ‘You will not decline our good offices this time, Monsieur le Cure. You shall have our linen here in a few minutes.’ Her father expressed himself in the same sense, and the priest could not but assent, little dreaming of what a trick had been played upon him by a person who was generally supposed to be so wanting in intelligence.

“This singular robbery was further investigated the next day. There was no sign of any force having been used to get into the house. The main door and the one leading into the garden were untouched and locked as usual. It never occurred to any one that the key intrusted to young Kermelle could have been used to commit the robbery. It followed, therefore, that the theft must have been committed by way of the vestry door. The clerk had been in the church all the time, but his wife had been in and out. She had been to the fire to get some coals for the censers, and had attended to two or three other little details; and so suspicion fell on her. She was a very respectable woman, and it seemed most improbable that she would be guilty of such an offence, but the appearances were dead against her. There was no getting away from the argument that the thief had entered by the vestry door, that she alone could have gone through this door, and that, as she herself admits, she did go through it. The far too prevalent idea of those days was that every offence must be followed by an arrest. This gave a very high idea of the extraordinary sagacity of justice, of its prompt perspicacity, and of the rapidity with which it tracked out crime. The unfortunate woman was walked off between two gendarmes. The effect produced by the gendarmes, with their burnished arms and imposing cross-belts, when they made their appearance in a village, was very great. All the spectators were in tears; the prisoner alone retained her composure, and told them all that she was convinced her innocence would be made clear.

“As a matter of fact, within forty-eight hours it was seen that a blunder had been committed. Upon the third day, the villagers hardly ventured to speak to one another on the subject, for they all of them had the same idea in their heads, though they did not like to give utterance to it. The idea seemed to them not less absurd than it was self-evident, viz., that the flax-crusher’s key must have been used for the robbery. The priest remained within doors so as to avoid having to give utterance to the suspicion which obtruded itself upon him. He had not as yet examined very closely the linen which had been sent from the manor in place of his own. His eyes happened to fall upon the initials, and he was too surprised to understand the mysterious allusion of the two letters, being unable to follow the strange hallucinations of an unhappy lunatic.

“While he was immersed in melancholy reflection, the flax-crusher entered the room, with his figure as upright as ever but pale as death. The old man stood up in front of the priest and burst into tears, exclaiming: ‘It is my miserable girl. I ought to have kept a closer watch over her and have found out what her thoughts were about, but with her constant melancholy she gave me the slip.’ He then revealed the secret, and within an hour the stolen linen was brought back to the priest’s house. The delinquent had hoped that the scandal would soon be forgotten, and that she would revel in peace over the success of her little plot, but the arrest of the clerk’s wife and the sensation which it caused spoilt the whole thing. If her moral sense had not been entirely obliterated, her first thought would have been to get the clerk’s wife set at liberty, but she paid little or no heed to that. She was plunged in a kind of stupor which had nothing in common with remorse, and what so prostrated her was the evident failure of her attempt to move the feelings of the priest. Most men would have been touched by the revelation of so ardent a passion, but the priest was unmoved. He banished all thought of this remarkable event from his mind, and when he was fully convinced of the imprisoned woman’s innocence he went to sleep, celebrated mass the next morning, and recited his breviary just as if nothing had happened.

“That a blunder had been committed in arresting this woman then became painfully evident, as but for this the matter might have been hushed up. There had been no actual robbery, but after an innocent woman had been several days in prison on the charge of theft, it was very difficult to let the real culprit go unpunished. Her insanity was not self-evident, and it may even be said that there were no outward signs of it. Up to that time it had never occurred to anyone that she was insane, for there was nothing singular in her conduct except her extreme taciturnity. It was easy, therefore, to question her insanity, while the true explanation of the act was so incredible and so strange that her friends could not well bring it forward. The fact of having allowed the clerk’s wife to be arrested was inexcusable. If the taking of the linen had only been a joke, the perpetrator ought to have brought it to an end when a third person was made a victim of it. She was arrested and taken to St. Brieuc for the assizes. Her prostration was so complete that she seemed to be out of the world. Her dream was over, and the fancy upon which she had fed and which had sustained her for a time had fled. She was not in the least violent but so dejected that when the medical men examined her they at once saw what was the true state of the case.

“The case was soon disposed of in court. She would not reply a word to the examining judge. The flax-crusher came into court erect and self-possessed as usual, with a look of resignation on his face. He came up to the bar of the witness-box and deposited upon the ledge his gloves, his cross of St. Louis, and his scarf. ‘Gentlemen of the jury,’ he said. ‘I can only put these on again if you tell me to do so; my honour is in your hands. She is the culprit, but she is not a thief. She is ill.’ The poor fellow burst into tears, and his utterance was choked with them. There was a general murmur of ‘Don’t carry it any further.’ The counsel for the Crown had the tact not to enter upon a dissertation as to a singular case of amorous physiology and abandoned the prosecution.

“The jury, all of whom were in tears, did not take long to deliberate. When the verdict of acquittal was recorded the flax-crusher put on his decorations again and left the court as quickly as possible, taking his daughter back with him to the village at nightfall.

“The scandal was such a public one that the priest could not fail to learn the truth in respect to many matters which he had endeavoured to ignore. This, however, did not affect him, and he did not ask the bishop to remove him to another parish, nor did the bishop suggest any change. It might be thought that he must have felt some embarrassment the first time that he met Kermelle and his daughter. But such was not the case. He went to the manor at an hour when he knew that he would find Kermelle and his daughter at home, and addressing himself to the latter he said: ‘You have been guilty of a great sin, not so much by your folly, for which God will forgive you, but in allowing one of the best of women to be sent to gaol. An innocent woman has, by your misconduct, been treated for several days as a thief, and carried off to prison by gendarmes in the sight of the whole parish. You owe her some sort of reparation. On Sunday, the clerk’s wife will be seated as usual in the last row, near the church-door; at the Belief, you will go and fetch her and lead her by the hand to your seat of honour, which she is better worthy to occupy than you are.”

The poor creature did mechanically what she was bid, and she had ceased to be a sentient being. From this time forth, little was ever seen of the flax-crusher and his family. The manor had become, as it were, a tomb, from which issued no sign of life.

The clerk’s wife was the first to die. The emotion had been too much for this simple soul. She had never doubted the goodness of Providence, but the whole business had upset her, and she gradually grew weaker. She was a saintly woman, with the most exquisite sentiment of devotion for the Church. This would scarcely be understood now in Paris, where the church, as a building, goes for so little. One Saturday evening, she felt her end approaching, and her joy was great. She sent for the priest, her mind full of a long-cherished project, which was that during high mass on Sunday her body should be laid upon the trestles which are used for the coffins. It would be joy indeed to hear mass once again, even in death, to listen to those words of consolation and those hymns of salvation; to be present there beneath the funeral pall, amid the assembled congregation, the family which she had so dearly loved, to hear them all, herself unseen, while all their thoughts and prayers were for her, to hold communion once again with these pious souls before being laid in the earth. Her prayer was granted, and the priest pronounced a very edifying discourse over her grave.

“The old man lived on for several years, dying inch by inch, secluded in his house, and never conversing with the priest. He attended church, but did not occupy his front seat. He was so strong that his agony lasted eight or ten years.

“His walks were confined to the avenue of tall lime-trees which skirted the manor. While pacing up and down there one day, he saw something strange upon the horizon. It was the tricolour flag floating from the steeple of Treguier; the Revolution of 1830 had just been effected. When he learnt that the king was an exile, he saw only too well that he had been bearing his part in the closing scenes of a world. The professional duty to which he had sacrificed everything ceased to have any object. He did not regret having formed too high an idea of duty, and it never occurred to him that he might have grown rich as others had done; but he lost faith in all save God. The Carlists of Treguier went about declaring that the new order of things would not last, and that the rightful king would soon return. He only smiled at these foolish predictions, and died soon afterwards, assisted in his last moments by the priest, who expounded to him that beautiful passage in the burial service: ‘Be not like the heathen, who are without hope.’

“After his death his daughter was totally unprovided for, and arrangements were made for placing her in the hospital where you saw her. No doubt she, too, is dead ere this, and another sleeps in her bed at the hospital.”


It was not until I was well advanced in life that I began to have any souvenirs. The imperious necessity which compelled me during my early years to solve for myself, not with the leisurely deliberation of the thinker, but with the feverish ardour of one who has to struggle for life, the loftiest problems of philosophy and religion never left me a quarter of an hour’s leisure to look behind me. Afterwards dragged into the current of the century in which I lived, and concerning which I was in complete ignorance, there was suddenly disclosed to my gaze a spectacle as novel to me as the society of Saturn or Venus would be to any one landed in those planets. It struck me as being paltry and morally inferior to what I had seen at Issy and St. Sulpice; though the great scientific and critical attainments of men like Eugene Burnouf, the brilliant conversation of M. Cousin, and the revival brought about by Germany in nearly all the historical sciences, coupled with my travels and the fever of production, carried me away and prevented me from meditating on the years which were already relegated to what seemed like a distant past. My residence in Syria tended still further to obliterate my early recollections. The new sensations which I experienced there, the glimpses which I caught of a divine world, so different from our frigid and sombre countries, absorbed my whole being. My dreams were haunted for a time by the burnt-up mountain-chain of Galaad and the peak of Safed, where the Messiah was to appear, by Carmel and its beds of anemone sown by God, by the Gulf of Aphaca whence issues the river Adonis. Strangely enough, it was at Athens, in 1865, that I first felt a strong backward impulse, the effect being that of a fresh and bracing breeze coming from afar.

The impression which Athens made upon me was the strongest which I have ever felt. There is one and only one place in which perfection exists, and that is Athens, which outdid anything I had ever imagined. I had before my eyes the ideal of beauty crystallised in the marble of Pentelicus. I had hitherto thought that perfection was not to be found in this world; one thing alone seemed to come anywhere near to perfection. For some time past I had ceased to believe in miracles strictly so called, though the singular destiny of the Jewish people, leading up to Jesus and Christianity, appeared to me to stand alone. And now suddenly there arose by the side of the Jewish miracle the Greek miracle, a thing which has only existed once, which had never been seen before, which will never be seen again, but the effect of which will last for ever, an eternal type of beauty, without a single blemish, local or national. I of course knew before I went there that Greece had created science, art, and philosophy, but the means of measurement were wanting. The sight of the Acropolis was like a revelation of the Divine, such as that which I experienced when, gazing down upon the valley of the Jordan from the heights of Casyoun, I first felt the living reality of the Gospel. The whole world then appeared to me barbarian. The East repelled me by its pomp, its ostentation, and its impostures. The Romans were merely rough soldiers; the majesty of the noblest Roman of them all, of an Augustus and a Trajan, was but attitudinising compared to the ease and simple nobility of these proud and peaceful citizens. Celts, Germans, and Slavs appeared as conscientious but scarcely civilised Scythians. Our own Middle Ages seemed to me devoid of elegance and style, disfigured by misplaced pride and pedantry, Charlemagne was nothing more than an awkward German stableman; our chevaliers louts at whom Themistocles and Alcibiades would have laughed. But here you had a whole people of aristocrats, a general public composed entirely of connoisseurs, a democracy which was capable of distinguishing shades of art so delicate that even our most refined judges can scarcely appreciate them. Here you had a public capable of understanding in what consisted the beauty of the Propylon and the superiority of the sculptures of the Parthenon. This revelation of true and simple grandeur went to my very soul. All that I had hitherto seen seemed to me the awkward effort of a Jesuitical art, a rococo mixture of silly pomp, charlatanism, and caricature.

These sentiments were stronger as I stood on the Acropolis than anywhere else. An excellent architect with whom I had travelled would often remark that to his mind the truth of the gods was in proportion to the solid beauty of the temples reared in their honour. Judged by this standard, Athens would have no rival. What adds so much to the beauty of the buildings is their absolute honesty and the respect shown to the Divinity. The parts of the building not seen by the public are as well constructed as those which meet the eye; and there are none of those deceptions which, in French churches more particularly, give the idea of being intended to mislead the Divinity as to the value of the offering. The aspect of rectitude and seriousness which I had before me caused me to blush at the thought of having often done sacrifice to a less pure ideal. The hours which I passed on the sacred eminence were hours of prayer. My whole life unfolded itself, as in a general confession, before my eyes. But the most singular thing was that in confessing my sins I got to like them, and my resolve to become classical eventually drove me into just the opposite direction. An old document which I have lighted upon among my memoranda of travel contains the following:–

_Prayer which I said on the Acropolis when I had succeeded in understanding the perfect beauty of it_.

“Oh! nobility! Oh! true and simple beauty! Goddess, the worship of whom signifies reason and wisdom, thou whose temple is an eternal lesson of conscience and truth, I come late to the threshold of thy mysteries; I bring to the foot of thy altar much remorse. Ere finding thee, I have had to make infinite search. The initiation which thou didst confer by a smile upon the Athenian at his birth I have acquired by force of reflection and long labour.

“I am born, O goddess of the blue eyes, of barbarian parents, among the good and virtuous Cimmerians who dwell by the shore of a melancholy sea, bristling with rocks ever lashed by the storm. The sun is scarcely known in this country, its flowers are seaweed, marine plants, and the coloured shells which are gathered in the recesses of lonely bays. The clouds seem colourless, and even joy is rather sorrowful there; but fountains of fresh water spring out of the rocks, and the eyes of the young girls are like the green fountains in which, with their beds of waving herbs, the sky is mirrored.

“My forefathers, as far as we can trace them, have passed their lives in navigating the distant seas, which thy Argonauts knew not, I used to hear as a child the songs which told of voyages to the Pole; I was cradled amid the souvenir of floating ice, of misty seas like milk, of islands peopled with birds which now and again would warble, and which, when they rose in flight, darkened the air.

“Priests of a strange creed, handed down from the Syrians of Palestine, brought me up. These priests were wise and good. They taught me long lessons of Cronos, who created the world, and of his son, who, as they told me, made a journey upon earth. Their temples are thrice as lofty as thine, O Eurhythmia, and dense like forests. But they are not enduring, and crumble to pieces at the end of five or six hundred years. They are the fantastic creation of barbarians, who vainly imagine that they can succeed without observing the rules which thou hast laid down, O Reason! Yet these temples pleased me, for I had not then studied thy divine art and God was present to me in them. Hymns were sung there, and among those which I can remember were: ‘Hail, star of the sea…. Queen of those who mourn in this valley of tears …’ or again, ‘Mystical rose, tower of ivory, house of gold, star of the morning….’ Yes, Goddess, when I recall these hymns of praise my heart melts, and I become almost an apostate. Forgive me this absurdity; thou canst not imagine the charm which these barbarians have imparted to verse, and how hard it is to follow the path of pure reason.

“And if thou knewest how difficult it has become to serve thee. All nobility has disappeared. The Scythians have conquered the world. There is no longer a Republic of free citizens; the world is governed by kings whose blood scarcely courses in their veins, and at whose majesty thou wouldst smile. Heavy hyperboreans denounce thy servants as frivolous…. A formidable _Panbaeotia_, a league of fools, weighs down upon the world with a pall of lead. Thou must fain despise even those who pay thee worship. Dost thou remember the Caledonian who half a century ago broke up thy temple with a hammer to carry it away with him to Thule? He is no worse than the rest…. I wrote in accordance with some of the rules which thou lovest, O Theonoe, the life of the young god whom I served in my childhood, and for this they beat me like a Euhemerus and wonder what my motives can be, believing only in those things which enrich their trapezite tables. And why do we write the lives of the gods if it is not to make the reader love what is divine in them, and to show that this divine past yet lives and will ever live in the heart of humanity?

“Dost thou remember the day when, Dionysodorus being archon, an ugly little Jew, speaking the Greek of the Syrians, came hither, passed beneath thy porch without understanding thee, misread thy inscriptions, and imagined that he had discovered within thy walls an altar dedicated to what he called the Unknown God? Well, this little Jew was believed; for a thousand years thou hast been treated as an idol, O Truth! for a thousand years the world has been a desert in which no flower bloomed. And all this time thou wert silent, O Salpinx, clarion of thought. Goddess of order, image of celestial stability, those who loved thee were regarded, as culprits, and now, when by force of conscientious labour we have succeeded in drawing near to thee, we are accused of committing a crime against human intelligence because we have burst the chains which Plato knew not.

“Thou alone art young, O Cora; thou alone art pure, O Virgin; thou alone art healthy, O Hygeia; thou alone art strong, O Victory! Thou keepest the cities, O Promachos; thou hast the blood of Mars in thee, O Area; peace is thy aim, O Pacifica! O Legislatress, source of just constitutions; O Democracy[1] thou whose fundamental dogma it is that all good things come from the people, and that where there is no people to fertilise and inspire genius there can be none, teach us to extricate the diamond from among the impure multitudes! Providence of Jupiter, divine worker, mother of all industry, protectress of labour, O Ergane, thou who ennoblest the labour of the civilised worker and placest him so far above the slothful Scythian; Wisdom, thou whom Jupiter begot with a breath; thou who dwellest within thy father, a part of his very essence; thou who art his companion and his conscience; Energy of Zeus, spark which kindles and keeps aflame the fire in heroes and men of genius, make us perfect spiritualists! On the day when the Athenians and the men of Rhodes fought for the sacrifice, thou didst choose to dwell among the Athenians as being the wisest. But thy father caused Plutus to descend in a shower of gold upon the city of the Rhodians because they had done homage to his daughter. The men of Rhodes were rich, but the Athenians had wit, that is to say, the true joy, the ever-enduring good humour, the divine youth of the heart.

“The only way of salvation for the world is by returning to thy allegiance, by repudiating its barbarian ties. Let us hasten into thy courts. Glorious will be the day when all the cities which have stolen the fragments of thy temple, Venice, Paris, London, and Copenhagen, shall make good their larceny, form holy alliances to bring these fragments back, saying: ‘Pardon us, O Goddess, it was done to save them from the evil genii of the night,’ and rebuild thy walls to the sound of the flute, thus expiating the crime of Lysander the infamous! Thence they shall go to Sparta and curse the site where stood that city, mistress of sombre errors, and insult her because she is no more. Firm in my faith, I shall have force to withstand my evil counsellors, my scepticism, which leads me to doubt of the people, my restless spirit which, after truth has been brought to light, impels me to go on searching for it, and my fancy which cannot be still even when Reason has pronounced her judgment. O Archegetes, ideal which the man of genius embodies in his masterpieces, I would rather be last in thy house than first in any other. Yes, I will cling to the stylobate of thy temple, I will be a stylites on thy columns, my cell shall be upon thy architrave and, what is more difficult still, for thy sake I will endeavour to be intolerant and prejudiced. I will love thee alone. I will learn thy tongue, and unlearn all others. I will be unjust for all that concerns not thee; I will be the servant of the least of thy children. I will exalt and natter the present inhabitants of the earth which thou gavest to Erechthea. I will endeavour to like their very defects; I will endeavour to persuade myself, O Hippia, that they are descendants of the horsemen who, aloft upon the marble of thy frieze celebrate without ceasing their glad festival. I will pluck out of my heart every fibre which is not reason and pure art. I will try to love my bodily ills, to find delight in the flush of fever. Help me! Further my resolutions, O Salutaris! Help, thou who savest!

“Great are the difficulties which I foresee. Inveterate the habits of mind which I shall have to change. Many the delightful recollections which I shall have to pluck out of my heart. I will try, but I am not very confident of my power. Late in life have I known thee, O perfect Beauty. I shall be beset with hesitations and temptation to fall away. A philosophy, perverse no doubt in its teachings, has led me to believe that good and evil, pleasure and pain, the beautiful and the ungainly, reason and folly, fade into one another by shades as impalpable as those in a dove’s neck. To feel neither absolute love nor absolute hate becomes therefore wisdom. If any one society, philosophy, or religion, had possessed absolute truth, this society, philosophy, or religion, would have vanquished all the others and would be the only one now extant. All those who have hitherto believed themselves to be right were in error, as we see very clearly. Can we without utter presumption believe that the future will not judge us as we have judged the past? Such are the blasphemous ideas suggested to me by my corrupt mind. A literature wholesome in all respects like thine would now be looked upon as wearisome.

“Thou smilest at my simplicity. Yes, weariness. We are corrupt; what is to be done? I will go further, O orthodox Goddess, and confide to you the inmost depravation of my heart. Reason and common sense are not all-satisfying. There is poetry in the frozen Strymon and in the intoxication of the Thracian. The time will come when thy disciples will be regarded as the disciples of _ennui_. The world is greater than thou dost suppose. If thou hadst seen the Polar snows and the mysteries of the austral firmament thy forehead, O Goddess, ever so calm, would be less serene; thy head would be larger and would embrace more varied kinds of beauty.

“Thou art true, pure, perfect; thy marble is spotless; but the temple of Hagia-Sophia, which is at Byzantium, also produces a divine effect with its bricks and its plaster-work. It is the image of the vault of heaven. It will crumble, but if thy chapel had to be large enough to hold a large number of worshippers it would crumble also.

“A vast stream called Oblivion hurries us downward towards a nameless abyss. Thou art the only true God, O Abyss! the tears of all nations are true tears; the dreams of all wise men comprise a parcel of truth; all things here below are mere symbols and dreams. The Gods pass away like men; and it would not be well for them to be eternal. The faith which we have felt should never be a chain, and our obligations to it are fully discharged when we have carefully enveloped it in the purple shroud within the folds of which slumber the Gods that are dead.”

[Footnote 1: [Greek: ATHAENAS DAEMOKRATIAS], Le Bas. I. 32nd Inscrip.]


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.

[Footnote 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.]

[Footnote 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).]


Everything, therefore, predisposed me towards romanticism, not in form, for I was not long in understanding that this is a mistake, that though there may be two modes of feeling and thinking there can be but one form of expressing these feelings and thoughts–but towards romanticism of the mind and imagination, towards the pure ideal. I was an offshoot from the old idealist race of the most genuine growth. There is in the district of Goelo or of Avangour, on the Trieux, a place called the Ledano, because it is there that the Trieux opens out and forms a lagoon before running into the sea. Upon the shore of the Ledano there is a large farm called Keranbelec or Meskanbelec. This was the head quarters of the Renans, who came there from Cardigan about the year 480, under the leadership of Fragan. They led there for thirteen hundred years an obscure existence, storing up sensations and thoughts the capital of which has devolved upon me I can feel that I think for them and that they live again in me. Not one of them attempted to hoard, and the consequence was that they all remained poor. My absolute inability to be resentful or to appear so is inherited from them. The only two kinds of occupation which they knew anything of were to till the land or to steer a boat on the estuaries and archipelagos of rocks which the Trieux forms at its mouth. A short time previous to the Revolution, three of them rigged out a bark, and settled at Lezardrieux. They lived together on the bark, which was for the best part of her time laid up in a creek of the Ledano, and they sailed her when the fit took them. They could not be classed as bourgeois, for they were not jealous of the nobles: they were well-to-do sailors, independent of every one. My grandfather, one of the three, took another step towards town life; he came to live at Treguier. When the Revolution broke out, he showed himself to be a sincere but honourable patriot. He had some little money, but, unlike all others in the same position as himself, he would not buy any of the national property, holding that this property had been ill-gotten. He did not think it honourable to make large profits without labour. The events of 1814-15 drove him half mad.

Hegel had not as yet discovered that might implies right, and in any event he would have found it difficult to believe that France had been victorious at Waterloo. The privilege of these charming theories, of which by the way I have had rather too much, were reserved for me. On the evening of March 19th, 1815, he came to see my mother and told her to get up early the next morning and look at the tower. And surely enough he and several other patriots had during the night, upon the refusal of the clerk to give them the keys, clambered up the outside of the steeple at the risk of breaking their necks a dozen times over and hoisted the national flag. A few months later, when the opposite cause was triumphant, he literally lost his senses. He would go about in the street with an enormous tricolour cockade, exclaiming: “I should like to see any one come and take this away from me,” and as he was a general favourite people used to answer: “Why, no one, Captain.” My father shared the same sentiments. Taken by the English while