Saturday, January 9, 2010

Discovery! (Plöermel)

We started the day with great fanfare (ha ha) and Oliver's discovery of the fantastic fennel (at the Kroger in Greencastle, they sell fennel with the fronds on, so Oliver had not known of the vegetable's great possibilities). Mac and I keep laughing at this picture: Oliver's expectation that it's going to make a sound is so clear on his little focused face. No disappointment that it didn't - I'm sure he could hear the doodlesack sounds in his head (possibly inspired by the awesome Charles playing bagpipe at Steve and Gina's wedding!). Turns out Oliver's fanfare was entirely appropriate - today was an amazing day!

Our mission was to track the itinerary of the Battle of the Thirty - that memorable battle of the War of Breton Succession which, in March of 1351, confronted 30 knights from Josselin (supported by the French king and led by Jean de Beaumanoir) with 30 knights from Plöermel (supported by the English king and led by one Captain Bamborough). It was Beaumanoir himself who had the idea to fight at a halfway point between the two towns, so as to spare the citizens of both towns where the knights were garrisoned. What a nice guy. So they came together, the two groups of 30 knights, at the halfway point between the two towns at 11 in the morning and fought in hand-to-hand combat all day long. Three Bretons died, and many English (but though the Bretons supported by the French won the battle, the English won the war - I'll have to follow up on that and what it meant in the Big Picture of history). So, our plan was to a) go to the church in Josselin and find the fresco depicting the Battle of the Thirty (check - couldn't get good pictures, but it's a cool fresco with rearing horses and everything), b) fight the Battle of the Thirty at the site (Oliver, Mac and Eleanor on the English side, Iris and I on the French), c) go to Plöermel to visit the home base of the English-backed knights, d) go visit the church where the French buried their dead, and e) go find the site where the English buried theirs, which is today marked by a Celtic cross raised in 1951. We only got to finish c) as our adventures took an amazing turn in Plöermel.

The site of the Battle of the Thirty is rather small - enough for 60 guys to go at each other all day long (which, when you think about the suits of armor, the flails, swords and maces is pretty incredible and exhausting). But the monument is mind-blowing. There is a wonderful mystery to be solved here: first of all, it's an obelisk, a favorite emblem of the 19th century (and part of the Egyptomania of the period - Napoleon brought a real one back for Paris, and then everybody had to have one!). Sure enough, this monument is from 1819. So the first questions is: what was going on in 1819 that the 1351 Battle of the Thirty "had" to be commemorated.

And then, the plaque.
Long Live the King
The Bourbons Always
ON the 27th of March 1351, thirty Bretons whose names are inscribed below, fought to save the poor, the laborer, and the artisan, and won against foreigners who, due to sinister divisions, had invaded the land of our Country.
Breton posterity, imitate your ancestors!

Then the names of all thirty knights; then information about the obelisk's construction, that it was built in the reign of Louis XVIII, starting th 11th of July 1819, supported by various local notaries, and blessed by the Bishop of Vannes. DISCUSS! Long live the King, ok, but the Bourbons always? What on earth were the Bourbons doing commemorating the Battle of the Thirty? I feel like I need some History Superhero here to help me out - where would I start to look (calling Uncle Steve, calling Uncle Steve!)? Best thing would be for me to ask around, clearly. Was there a separatist movement in Brittany around 1819? Why did the Bretons need to be reminded to "imitate their ancestors"? And what is this mythologization of the event, that the battle saved "the poor, the laborer and the artisan"? (Although, again, it was awfully nice of Beaumanoir to suggest that they move the battle away from the towns in which they were garrisoned - in that sense, indeed they did save the townspeople).

So we pondered all this for a bit - at least Mac and I did: Eleanor snoozed in the car, Oliver threw snowballs now surrounding pine cones (zing! ow!), and Iris had her plush bunny rabbit leaving footprints in the snow. It's not without some pride (and laughter) that I tell you that we were the only human tracks on the snow all around the column - plenty of deer and rabbit tracks, but we were definitely the only people to have visited the site in a great while. :-)

This entry is running rather long, and I haven't even gotten to the even more astounding part of the day yet. So, in less detail: we made our way to Plöermel, which is absolutely lovely (Bramborough chose well!) and had two things we wanted to see: the astronomical clock from the 19th century and the 15th century church (with carvings described as "comic" which usually means secular themes and bawdy bits!). We never left the astronomical clock. Why? because it was so cool!

Built in 1855 by a professor monk and his students at the Institute of Catholic Instruction (what a class project!). What makes it so cool is that all of the gears and parts are co-ordinated so that the gears tick off the seconds, minutes, and hours here on earth (that's the part to the right where you see the fellow's portrait) and co-ordinate with the rotations of the planets around the sun (the group you see to your left). (If you double-click on the image you get a much bigger image to look at.) So the little earth goes around that sun once a year, and Uranus goes around that sun once every 84 years (so it's only been around once since the clock was built, and will only be going around a second time in 2053!). The other amazing part was that one of the monks (dressed in his civvies, though) was there, and came out and let us into the little glass hut and talked us through all of the gears and parts and mechanisms. Our own private tour! He called out his colleague/fellow brother and was excited because he'd heard us speaking English. His colleague had been the English teacher at the school, and was now retired, and dearly wanted us to see the museum of natural science that was inside. The kids were kind of cranky, and in need of sitting down and a snack, but they were so dear, so of course we said yes.

Behold the wonders that awaited us!!! It was like being in an 18th century Curiosity Cabinet! There were stuffed ant-eaters, elaborate shells, fossils, statues from Uganda and Haïti (mission schools), rocks, turtle shells, cow skulls, butterflies, coins from various countries and times of history, an astoundingly thorough collection of birds' nests from Brittany, whale bones, scarabs, boa skins - the kids were absolutely mesmerized. The whole thing is like a time-capsule: these are the display methods of the earliest Curiosity Cabinets from the 17th century - these provocative juxtapositions, aligning objects from Uganda and rocks from Kamchatka, are no longer in practise in modern-day museums. The Weltanschauung (world view) that it takes to align those things elides peoples with nature in a way that doesn't make sense anymore. The whole collection was housed in England from 1904 to 1972, while the monks were in exile (for complicated political reasons) - I'm keenly curious about the decisions of display here. I've studied displays like this, but never actually seen one. The mind reels, and jumps, and asks unexpected questions with these unusual connections made by the display.

A couple of things left us puzzled: why is there a clipper ship between a fox and that other woodland creature (a skinny badger?)? and what is that little gnome figurine doing in the second case from the right? Yes, that's it, right next to the porcelain squirrel? The monk was gone by the time we got to this case, but man, are we ever curious! We were in there for almost two hours!!! The kids called us here and there and we looked into each and every case.

The viper head in formaldehyde is definitely what impressed Oliver the most - he wanted to be sure that you all saw it!

After all that, a hearty hot chocolate (real chocolate melted in milk - mmmm) and then we were shocked to find out that it was almost 6 p.m.!!! We had a nice chat with the lovely and kind owner of the Salon de Thé (who was so pleased that some Americans were there - do you love this? The preponderance of English in the region have made Americans exotic!) and then we headed home to a dinner of crêpes (you can buy them at the grocery store!) and then bed, sweet bed. What a day!

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