Saturday, March 13, 2010

Get Ready to Play! (Suscinio)

Huge adventure day, but first! Our weekly dairy companions: the big slab coming out at us is a return to le Prince des Gruyères, the Beaufort cheese (soooo smooth, and then, so sharp: mellow and alert... like a good prince?); continuing counter-clockwise, we have a Broucaou, a perfect combination of sheep and goat cheese; and the last is a Darley Fermier, apparently from the same farm that produces the Hirel Fermier (in the Côtes d'Armor region), and it's named after the farmers, the Darleys! It smells earthy and tastes strong - like a good cheese should! :-)

Strengthened, nay, emboldened by our hearty cheeses, we took off for the Château de Suscinio - 13th century construction, favorite hunting lodge of the Dukes of Brittany, cruelly abandoned when Brittany became part of France in 1532, a ruin by the late 17th century, then lovingly and painstakingly restored to the grand pile of stones you see today starting in 1965. The people who run it now are part of the same team that do the Village of the Year 1000, and they're really great and meticulous about both their pedagogy and their style: never too much text, but lots of tools to help you imagine the past; a pared down visual style (no period furniture, more of an emphasis on the architecture), but a staff that is full of information if you just ask. For example, did you know that the moat (not visible in this picture, sorry) used to be fed by the sea? Indeed, the ocean was just over the hill behind where this picture was taken - Mac so badly wants to walk along Breton beaches in winter-time (it was not to be today (too cold, too late by the time we were done rampaging through the castle), but oh it will happen).

The heralded treasure of Suscinio are these incredible (and incredibly early) ceramic tiles, which were found in the chapel built on the other side of the moat. It burned at some point, but was excavated in the 1970s and furnished the history of ceramics with a huge surprise: where tiles of this sort were thought to only have come about in the 15th century, it turns out that here at Suscinion, we have examples from the late 13th-century. These were all over the chapel and I wonder if they were for the dukes' entertainment or the monks who kept the chapel going. :-) Here's one little dragon for you, but there were so many fantastic creatures (some of them very reminiscent of manuscript marginalia) that I wish I could show you all of them.

I'll just show you the fellow who has become a bit of an icon for Suscinio (which, by the way, means above the swamp). He's certainly dignified enough to be above it all, with his late 13th-century hair cut, his fine-lipped mouth, and his curved eyes. He seems to be an isolated portrait (not of any one person, more of a type) of an aristocratic figure. This tile has been placed in what had been the banquet room (complete with window for serving dishes, which the girls really enjoyed pretending around). This was quite a hunting lodge: duchess suite, duke suite, ducal chapel, main banquet hall, main receiving hall. It fascinated the kids that women hunted in the Middle Ages as well (cf. the May and August calendar illuminations of the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry from 1410 - Wikipedia says that May is a procession, but it looks more like a hunt (trumpets, just outside a forest - where the hunting is best) to me.

When you leave the Eastern Hall (as Oliver is seen here doing at a run) you walk along this terrific parapet with a view of the swamp that lets you imagine what this area was like when it was surrounded by forest on three sides, and the sea by the fourth. It was good to be the duke.

One of the very best things about the restoration process at Suscinio is that they allowed some ruins to remain. This watch tower on the parapet, for example, once had a roof and, to our right, you can see the remainders of a fireplace. I always find those poignant, thinking of these ruins of hearths as places where people used to warm themselves, as places of comfort and homecoming, and now, of course, just empty and cold. The kids didn't get swept up in any of this, happily battling knights up and down the parapet instead. But it's in the Western Hall, which you enter on the other end of the parapet, that the biggest Romance of the Ruin surprise came.

I'm going to use one of Mac's marvelous black and white shots here to drive the point home. It's here that you start to understand the grinding catastrophe that is time on a grand castle. Once the roof is gone, then everything is vulnerable to the elements. What had been three floors of grand halls and rooms become shells and echoes. See the fireplace at the top of the image? Yes, I do think of the conversations that took place near it, the children who fell asleep before it, the intrigues that were developed in its dancing light. I think it's brilliant that they're restored the East Hall, but left the West Hall a ruin. Not a complete ruin...

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the castle was used as a rock quarry for local building projects. You can see that they took all of the nice granite window casings outs, and that they had started to do a pretty good number on the tower to the left. That's the Eastern Hall before they started the restoration - no wonder it was a 30-year project. They've clearly patched up the windows in the Western Hall as well, but that's about it. The strange irony (if not creepiness) to all this is that the Golfe du Morbihan, within which Suscinio sits, is an ornithological reserve, and the castle itself has (somewhat bizarre but) extensive displays on birds in several rooms. But the only bird we saw, and we saw it in great quantity, was the humble pigeon - they've completely taken over the Western Hall and I'll confess that we were in and out of there rather quickly. It was only brave Mac who went back and took a bunch of pictures and endured the nerve-wracking cooing of plotting pigeons. Gives it atmosphere, I guess!

This is where the visits ends, in the courtyard which faces north to the left of the picture and south to the right. The other pleasure of the East Hall is that it faces the ocean - so we could dream (as we were invited to by the excellent pedagogical material) of the duke and duchess (separate bedrooms on separate floors, but connected by a hidden staircase!) waking up and seeing the ocean before their hunt. The kids ran around the courtyard plenty, replacing what would have been the hub-bub of servants and domesticated animals running around the courtyard in the Middle Ages.

We were rational, enthusiastic but calm, creatures... until we got to the bookshop/giftshop. It was, bar none, the best I've ever seen on a site like this: wonderful, highly specific books on medieval Brittany (I picked up on entitled L'Orient des Bretons au Moyen Age by one Jean-Christophe Cassard that I'm wildly excited about reading), incredible books and activities for kids. So, yes, we picked out a book, and a how-to-draw book for a certain knight and a certain princess, and all was well. And then...

... we saw this. The Combat of the Thirty board game. !!! We were smitten! We completely geeked out! There was no stopping us! We are now the proud owners of "Le Combat des Trentes; jeu de stratégie" - although, as Mac points out (and I should point out that Mac plays some pretty intensely complicated war board games involving Napoleon and, I think the 3rd Crusade) a combat which pits 30 men against 30 other men in an open field can hardly be construed as incredibly strategic - these guys just went at each other for a day during the War of Breton Succession. No matter! The game looks awesome: each and every one of the knights involved is named (as they are on the Wikipedia page link above) and you win by playing your knights with a combination of Force cards (one of them is "Love of God" - awesome!) and Mission cards (more complicated, have to figure those out). You no longer need wonder about our Saturday nights. And dear friends, you are hereby duly warned, that you will be invited to play when you come over to our house in Greencastle, as we will undoubtedly be eating crêpes, drinking cider, listening to Breton music and playing "The Combat of the Thirty" to keep Brittany alive in our hearts. Aaaaaah! Here, you can start studying the rules:

Having said all that in total nerd ecstasy, I would like to share one last realization about said Combat of the Thirty. It's becoming more and more interesting to me as a piece of celebrated, communal memory in Brittany. It has many attributes of the heroic Middle Ages: Jean de Beaumanoir (of Josselin, fighting on the side supported by the French who were aiding Charles de Blois in his bid for the ducal throne) persuades Robert Bamborough (located in Ploermel, himself British and supporting Jean de Monfort's bid) to fight each other with 30 of their men in an open field, thereby sparing the two towns the ravages of battle and siege. Chivalrous! A good, clean emotion! But then it gets a little tricky to know whom to champion: the literature seems to emphasize the French side (Beaumanoir, coming out of Josselin, supporting Charles de Blois), and indeed the French won this battle. But the French crown was interested in supporting Charles of Blois because Charles of Blois had agreed to have Brittany become a fief of France if he won. If you're a fan of Breton independence (which you might recall Anne de Bretagne fought for until her dying breath, and which the French actually did not succeed in defeating until 1532), you might not be so enthusiastic about Beaumanoir and Blois. But who's going to root for the British on French soil? And yet, Bamborough was, in many ways, fighting for Breton independence, in that Jean de Montfort absolutely refused to have Brittany be a part of the French crown. Jean de Monfort went on to win the throne, with the help of the British, and Brittany stayed independent another 181 years - no small feat in the face of the ever-expanding French crown. Ok, a rather long and possibly boring realization, but I do think that the commemoration of this battle has some rather troubled allegiances running beneath it. Of the War of Breton Succession, which the British won, only this small (literally, only 60 men!) battle, which the French won, is commemorated to any degree. The commemoration of the Combat of the Thirty starts to form an interesting contrast to another commemoration of French power over Brittany: the ruin of the castle of Suscinio, which stood as a reminder of the end of the Dukes of Brittany's rules until the 1960s. I might be getting closer to understanding that 19th-century column raised on the site of the Combat of the Thirty as a monument to French unity, and a reminder to Bretons (ever (and sometimes still) thinking of their independence from the French nation*) to think of themselves as French first. The inscription on the column "Breton posterity, imitate your ancestors"! makes more sense when imitating your ancestors meant being chivalrous in the service of the guy who wants Brittany to join France rather than stay independent! Well, we'll see how all of this plays out (ha ha!) in our game. I have a good, thick rule book to read while Mac does research in Germany these next two weeks!

* Mac points out the incredibly tricky fact that the Nazis were aided by Breton separatists during WWII. It's all of a complex mix, of course - there's the Museum of the Breton Resistance (those who died at the hands of the Nazis for being in the French Resistance) in Saint-Marcel, a town half an hour from here.

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