Several years ago, a friend dropped off a book for me to read. Translated from the original French and titled The Memoirs of a Breton Peasant, it sat on a shelf for many months before I finally cracked the cover, but I’m glad I did. I’ve read myriad memoirs and this one is high on my list of favorites. Written by a man born into abject poverty, the book serves as an exceptional illustration of the hardships, aspirations, superstitions, feats, and frustrations of someone living on the bottom rung of Breton (or perhaps even French) society in the 19th century.
Below, is an excellent summary and illustrated review that I read last year on one of my favorite French history blogs, Bonjour from Brittany. I hope this post will inspire you to read the book, but if you don’t have time, this write-up is the next best thing.
Memoirs of a Breton Peasant
A fascinating insight into the popular mentalities of 19th century Brittany as seen through the critical eyes of a remarkable man; sometime beggar, soldier, farmer, bar keeper, tobacconist and paranoid vagrant. This autobiography is an absorbing account of a “long lifetime of poverty, slavery and persecution” and one that I would recommend.
The book constitutes the memoirs of a remarkable man: Jean-Marie Déguignet who was born into abject poverty in the small town of Guengat, a few miles west of the city of Quimper in July 1834. The Prefect of Finistère noted at the time that the town’s population “eats poorly, is puny and withered”. He was born just as his tenant farmer father, ruined by a series of failed harvests, was evicted from his farm. In lieu of back rent, the family of seven were forced to leave everything they owned behind and moved to a hovel in Quimper with “a bit of straw, an old cracked cauldron, eight bowls and wooden spoons”.
After two years, with the malnourished children suffering ill health, the family moved to a small cottage on the other side of Quimper where his father eked out an existence as a day labourer. Sadly, the privations of the previous two years proved fatal to two of his siblings; “two angels in Heaven to intercede with God” on behalf of the still growing family, his parents told him.
When he was six or seven, he was kicked in the head by a horse that had been roused to anger by a bee sting. This gave him a wound that left a large scar on his temple and which suppurated for many years but he also believed the injury “contributed to the remarkable development of my mental capacities”. Begging for his meals at the farms of the locality, he would sometimes be given work as a cowherd. At nine years of age, he joined other children in learning their prayers and catechism at the home of a local seamstress. It was here that he also learned to read; there being no school in the village until 1854.
Here too, he learned some rather less edifying lessons, recounting how once the prayers and catechism were completed, the teacher and her woman friends would take turns masturbating the village idiot. If it was a day when he had not followed the children to the cottage, “the women would amuse themselves with the children, some of whom were already quite grown-up. All this with no shame or discomfort … the spinster herself, our teacher, was considered a saintly woman. […] Our Breton priests do not see much harm in these little natural things, any more than they see in drunkenness; they see much more in the moral and scientific instruction given by laymen”.
Other peculiar but popular activities, undertaken between adults, were noted by Déguignet: “The women’s favourite game was […] usually done in the big days of work, when the best men were involved in laborious tasks such as clearing the land for burning. After the noon meal, the men would take a nap around the farmyard; when the women found one isolated and sleeping soundly on his back, they tackled him four or five at a time, each jumped on an arm or a leg so that the man could not move. The fifth woman would then unbutton the breeches and fill them with mud or cow dung; it was called laka ar c’hoz and did no harm to the victim, but the other game was worse; here the woman who remained free prepared a large split stick which she opened with her two hands as one opens a trap and sprung it onto the poor victim’s penis. It was called lakad ar woaskeres and it was done openly in front of everyone, in front of groups of children who applauded and laughed aloud. […] I saw these games everywhere in various parts of Lower Brittany”.
In 1844, his mother agreed that he would be able to contribute more to the family’s upkeep by devoting his attentions to begging full-time. After a six week apprenticeship with an old female beggar, he felt able to go solo but often returned home empty handed, having been robbed by other, more indolent, beggars. The potato blight of 1845 reduced the family’s circumstances still further; most poor people relied heavily on the humble potato for their meal, sometimes it constituted the only meals of the day. With the crop rotten, many went hungry; in 1846 over four per cent of the town’s population died, effectively of starvation. Thankfully, such deprivations were mitigated by a bumper buckwheat harvest that year.
In early 1851, he was able to reduce his reliance on begging for his sustenance when he became a cowherd on a model farm at Kerfeunteun near Quimper and it was here he practised writing and learned to speak French. “As soon as I was in the fields with cows, I took my pencil, a white sheet of paper and I tried to form letters. I quickly discovered that it would be more difficult to learn writing than it was to learn reading. My head learned what it heard and saw but my hand was not as skilled as my head. Used to handling heavy tools, it was not used to handling a pencil”.
A few years later, in 1854, after a brief spell as a domestic servant on the mayor’s farm in the same commune, he enlisted into the army, seeing service with the 26th Regiment in the latter stages of the Crimean campaign. With the cessation of hostilities and awaiting repatriation to France, he took the opportunity to visit Jerusalem and was very disillusioned by what he found, particularly in relation to the division and animosity evident between the various Christian Churches present there and the “shameful commerce, profanation of nature, common sense and of reason” that he witnessed.
Déguignet’s fourteen years of military service included several spells of active duty; times that he also used to acquaint himself with a knowledge of Italian and Spanish. In 1859-60, he served in the 26th Regiment as part of the Franco-Piedmontese force fighting against the troops of the Austrian Empire in Lombardy. Having re-enlisted into the 63rd regiment, he served in pacification operations in Algeria in 1862-65 and subsequently volunteered to join the French military expedition to Mexico in defence of Emperor Maximilian in 1865-67. Demobilised the following year, he returned to Ergué-Gabéric with hopes of farming a smallholding and keeping bees in the Odet Valley.
“When I described (in 1868) my plan to live in the Odet Valley, my uncle told me the valley was still haunted by ghosts and korrigans and that the old groac’h (witch) still ruled there. He said he had seen her many times. In those times, everyone had seen ghosts, miserable souls caught in some swamp, in a nook of an old house or in the hollow of a tree trunk”.
Unfortunately, he was unable to show his contempt for such superstitions by realising his dreams of a move to the Odet Valley. His homecoming as an eligible bachelor made him prey to his needy friends and relatives and he very quickly found himself pressured into a marriage with a widowed farmer’s daughter from nearby Toulven in October 1868. She was nineteen, “strong and beautiful” and, now married, responsible for her mother and younger siblings. Their family farm had been badly neglected but, in time, Déguignet seems to have successfully turned it into an efficient and profitable enterprise.
In 1879, a beggar burnt down the farm in an attempt to conceal a theft, his drunken wife and the local priest loudly proclaimed that the fire was Heaven sent; punishment for his blasphemies and lack of faith. The arsonist, apparently a friend of the local priest, was not charged; an inaction that affirmed Déguignet’s belief in the corrupt power of the clergy. However, he was taken aback by the kindness of his neighbours who donated linen and kitchen goods to replace those lost to the flames: “Even the seigneurs at the chateau, my mortal enemies, gave us many things; most importantly, they gave us the essentials of shelter and beds”. Having lost none of his herd or any farm equipment, Déguignet resolved to continue farming.
Unfortunately, his reputation locally as an anti-clerical, republican agitator proved his undoing when it came time to renew the lease on his farm and his truculent opinions and quarrelsome nature made it impossible to secure a tenancy elsewhere in the parish. Unfortunately, just as he faced eviction, he was run over by his own cart and subsequently bedridden for over two months.
During his incapacity, his wife leased a bar in Quimper at twice its value, Déguignet was certain that it “would not last six months, even if her alcoholic insanity let her live that long”. With his wife drinking away the bar’s meagre income, he took a position selling insurance to farmers around Quimper; he no longer being healthy enough for farm work. His wife lived longer than he forecast but it was not too long before he noted: “I saw that it was all over. My wife had fallen from moderate madness into furious madness, we had to tie her up and two days later the doctor told me that she had to be taken to the asylum else she would certainly commit some misfortune”. With his wife’s early death in 1883, Déguignet was left to bring up their four surviving children alone.
Later that year, he was able, as an ex-serviceman, to secure a licence to sell tobacco in Pluguffan but, echoing his knack of alienating people in Toulven, after three years, his tenancy agreement was cancelled and other possibilities for renting a shop were thwarted by the pressure applied by the local priest. He left Pluguffan in 1892 and spent the rest of his life lodging in attics in and around Quimper; sleeping on a bed of straw, surviving on a diet of black bread and potatoes. A failed suicide attempt in April 1902 saw Déguignet compulsory placed into the care of the lunatic asylum in Quimper where he was diagnosed with persecution mania. Discharged after a few months, he would undergo repeated stays until his death there in August 1905.
Although reared amidst what he called the ignorance and superstition of a deeply religious rural Brittany, the demobbed sergeant who returned to Brittany was not the young cowherd who had left; years of travel, interactions with diverse groups of people and a voracious appetite for knowledge had changed him forever. He was now a confirmed atheist and free-thinker, who rejected the religious and superstitious world in which he had been brought up. A rationalist, he described himself as “a republican of the most advanced sort and in religion a freethinker, a philosophic friend of all humanity … the declared enemy of all gods, who are only imaginary creatures and priests who are only charlatans and knaves”. He felt that he was separated from his countrymen by two crucial factors: his exposure to the wider-world and having been kicked in the head by a horse as a child.
Déguignet’s intimate understanding of his countrymen meant that he was well aware of the challenges and limitations of rural Breton society, of which he was a keen observer. He was critical of those who had children without the means to support them and was honest enough to acknowledge this was a failing that he himself shared: “There was one wrong I blame myself for, a wrong that many commit unthinkingly. I knew I had committed a grave fault in bringing creatures into this world before I was sure there was a place for them and that I could give them the means to survive here”.
Alienated from his children, whom he believed had turned against him under the influence of his former in-laws, he was hurt that his eldest son did not invite him to his wedding in 1900 but barely mentions the deaths of the five children that predeceased him.
Although he considered his stoicism a virtue, he deplored the fatalism of his fellows and their seeming acceptance that little could be done by the common people, who he described as ignorant, dull witted and cowardly, to help themselves. Sometimes, his observations are more balanced, even prescient when he highlights the social changes likely to arise from the increased canning of food and the unemployment sure to follow the march of mechanisation. He also denounced the excessive felling of ancient woodland.
Déguignet held strident anti-establishment views which he attributed to his superior cognitive capabilities and seems to have never knowingly missed an opportunity to denigrate the clergy and officialdom. His anti-clerical views are particularly trenchant and his memoirs are littered with invective bemoaning the superstitious grip they held over the people. For Déguignet, tolerating the opinions of others was not a consideration: “Let us rid humankind of all these scoundrels, swindlers, liars, idlers, infectious parasites, vampires, bloodsuckers, deceivers and thieves” being typical of his views.
In his writing, Déguignet’s anguish is plain and he appears to revel in his misery, seeing it as the inevitable price to be paid for his non-conformity and independent thought. He often seems to blame the misfortunes of his life on others and this is particularly noticeable in the latter half of his memoirs. He sees conspiracies against him everywhere; orchestrated by the priests, the town hall, landowners, business rivals, his in-laws and even his own children. He does not seem to consider that his vociferous antagonising of people who held contrary views to his own might not always serve his best interests in managing relationships with others. Déguignet described himself as a man “always quicker to forgive than condemn” but there is precious little evidence in his memoirs to support this.
Déguignet criticised those lately interested in Breton culture and folklore as “monarchisto-Jesuitico-clericoco-Breton regionalists” and claimed that: “Your goal would be to lock the poor people of Brittany into their primitive old traditions, their barbaric language, their foolish beliefs, so that … you can go on forever exploiting them, sucking from them as much juice as possible”. He was amused by what he regarded as the naivety of the nation’s folklorists, reserving particular scorn for the Breton folklorist Anatole Le Braz, whom he believed had reneged on a promise to publish his memoirs. He claimed that the collectors of local folklore had been duped by imaginative locals eager to exchange stories for a few drinks.
One particular target was the old tales, collected by Le Braz, featuring the Ankou, the Breton personification of death. To Déguignet, the only explanation for the Ankou “comes from the same source as all Breton legends; Christian missionaries and their successors, Catholic priests. Ankou comes from the word anken, ankrez, which means anxiety, fear; a word which very well characterises the executor of high divine works”. While this theory of a post-Christian origin for the Ankou has been proposed by others, his comments on the festivals of Saint-John (24 June) and Saint-Peter (29 June) celebrated in 19th century rural Brittany are more intriguingly unique.
“When I read the stories of these researchers of Breton legends, I am more and more certain that they have seen nothing of what they report and that they have been mystified and misled in everything by clever drunkards. I do not see anything in their accounts which conforms to reality. Thus one of them, speaking of the feast of Saint John, says that the peasants gather around a fire in the evening to say graces and that it is called tantad. No, that is not how it was. […] There were two fires and thus two nocturnal feasts not one; the first is, Tan San Yan in whose honour it was lit and the other, five days later, was called Tan San Per. These nocturnal feasts often lasted from sunset until midnight.
We announced the feast by gunshots, then loud blows on large copper basins and we played music there that I never saw played anywhere else. We put a basin on a tripod then took two very long meadow rushes and placed them across the basin at the bottom of which we put water. Then, a milkmaid would take these rushes that another held on the edge of the basin and pull on them by sliding her fingers all the way, as she would have pulled on the teats of a cow. The basin would start to tremble on the tripod, then two or three other women holding keys suspended from threads put them in contact with the interior of the basin. These keys of different sizes made different notes by their vibration on the edge of the bowl. All this made extraordinary music which could be heard from one end of town to the other, especially when, in the large villages, several basins of different size and thickness were used”.
The only contemporary description of Déguignet we have comes from Anatole Le Braz, who met him in December 1897: “A man of about sixty years, still very lively in appearance and manner, fairly small, short legged with hulking shoulders, the classic type of Quimperois peasant, dressed in the local style and bearing all the external markers of such a man, except for one detail instead of the shaven face of his fellows, he let his tow-coloured beard grow freely and it bristled his face with its untended brush. He wore wooden clogs and his clothes were worn but clean.
There was a certain bitter harshness to his voice. Great was my surprise to hear a peasant from Lower Brittany speak with such casual disrespect about beliefs that may be the most profoundly rooted in the heart of the race. He saw my amazement and, levelling upon me the clear gaze of his grey eyes hooded by a canopy of thick brows, said: Ah, well, you see I am a peasant who has moved about a good deal, whereas the others have stayed put”.
It was towards the end of his life, between 1898 and 1905, that Déguignet, out of boredom and frustration, re-wrote and expanded his memoirs which he introduced thus: “I know that at my death there will be no one, neither kin nor friend, to come shed a few tears over my grave or to say a few words of farewell to my poor corpse. I imagined that, if my writings should fall into the hands of strangers, they might win for me a little of that kindly feeling I have sought in vain throughout my lifetime”.
The publication of Déguignet’s autobiography has a long history behind it. In 1897, Anatole Le Braz secured from the author, the rights to publish his memoirs which were eventually serialised in the weekly literary magazine Revue de Paris in 1904-5. However, these edited extracts only took Déguignet’s story up to 1861 and it was not until 1962 that a local historian managed to trace Déguignet’s grand-daughter and, to his delight, discovered a second manuscript of the memoirs along with a collection of poems and writings on philosophy and mythology. In the following year, extracts from these works were published by the historian Louis Ogès in the Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of Finistère. An appeal for more information in 1984 was answered by Déguignet’s great-grandson whose family had retained the notebooks and their 4,000 pages of closely written text.
Deciphering and editing these works proved a challenge; written mainly in French, the text is littered with writing in Breton, Italian, Spanish and Latin. In 1998, a heavily edited account of Déguignet’s life story was published as Memoires d’un Paysan Bas-Breton; a complete edition, Histoire de Ma Vie: L’Intégrale des Mémoires d’un Paysan Bas-Breton, over twice the length of the initial book, appeared in 2001. The 1998 French edition was translated into English by Linda Asher and published as The Memoirs of a Breton Peasant in 2004.
There is no more fitting way to end this post than to leave the last words to Déguignet and his final journal entry, dated 6 January 1905: “I end by wishing mankind the power, or rather the will, to become true and good human beings capable of understanding one another and getting on together in a society that is noble and happy”.