Chateaubriand's memoirs, V, 2

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book V - Chapter 2
Constitution of the States of Brittany – The meeting of the States



Paris, September 1821. (Revised December 1846)

The States of Brittany were more or less varied in form, like all the feudal States of Europe which they resembled. The kings of France acquired the rights of the Dukes of Brittany. The marriage contract of Duchess Anne, of 1491, not only gifted Brittany, as part of her dowry, to the crown of Charles VIII and Louis XII, but it stipulated a transaction which led to the end of a disagreement going back to the time of Charles de Blois and the Comte de Montfort. Brittany claimed that daughters inherited the duchy; France maintained that the succession only passed through the male line; and that when the latter failed, Brittany, like a vast fiefdom, had to return to the crown. Charles VIII and Anne, then Anne and Louis XII, mutually yielded their rights or pretensions. Claude, daughter of Anne and Louis XII, who became the wife of François I, left the Duchy of Brittany to her husband at her death. François I, following the plea by the States assembled at Vannes, united, by public edict at Nantes in 1532, the Duchy of Brittany to the crown of France, guaranteeing the Duchy its freedoms and privileges.

At that time, the States of Brittany met each year; but in 1630 their meeting became biannual. The governor proclaimed the opening of the States. The three orders assembled, according to rank, in a church or in the halls of a monastery. Each order deliberated separately: there were three private gatherings with various storms blowing, which became a combined hurricane when the clergy, nobility and third estate came together. The Court blew on the discord, and in that narrow battlefield as in a greater arena, talent, vanity, and ambition were at play.

The Capuchin friar, Le Pere Grégoire de Rostrenen, in the dedication to his Dictionnaire français-breton, speaks, in this way, to our Lords of the Breton States:

‘If it was not acceptable for a roman orator to praise the august assembly of the Roman Senate, is it right for me to venture to eulogise your august assembly, which recreates for us so worthily the idea of what the ancient and the new Rome possessed of majesty and respectability?’

Rostrenen shows that Celtic is one of the primitive languages which Gomer, Japhet’s eldest son, brought to Europe, and that the later Bretons, despite their size, are descended from giants. Unfortunately, the Breton children of Gomer, for a long time separated from France, have allowed some of their old titles to perish: their charters, to which they gave too little importance compared with their ties to the common history, too often lack that authenticity on which the decipherers of title-deeds for their part set far too high a price.

The meeting of the Breton States was a time of galas and balls: one dined with Monsieur the Commandant, one dined with Monsieur the President of the Nobility, one dined with Monsieur the President of the Clergy, one dined with Monsieur the Treasurer of the States, one dined with Monsieur the Intendant of the Province, one dined with Monsieur the President of the Parliament: one dined everywhere: and one wined! Sitting at the long refectory tables Du Guesclin ploughmen, Duguay-Trouin sailors could be seen, old guardsman’s steel blades at their sides or little boarding-cutlasses. All the gentlemen attending the States in person resembled nothing more than a Polish Diet, Poland on foot, not on horseback, a Diet of Scythians, not Sarmatians.

Unfortunately, they enjoyed themselves too much. The balls continued. Bretons are noted for their dancing and the tunes to which they dance. Madame de Sévigné has described our political junkets among the moors, like those feasts of fairies and sorcerers that take place at night on the heather:

‘Now you shall have,’ she writes, ‘news of our States, and pay the price of being a Breton. Monsieur de Chaulnes arrived on Sunday evening, with all the noise Vitré can manage: on Monday morning he wrote me a letter; I responded to it by going to dine with him. We ate at two tables in the same room; there were four covers to each table; Monsieur occupied one, and Madame the other. The food was excessive, they carried away whole platters of roast meat; and for the pyramids of fruit it was necessary to raise the height of the doorways. Our forefathers never anticipated this sort of thing, since they did not even understand the need to make doorways taller than themselves….After dinner, Messieurs de Locmaria and Coëtlogon danced marvellous passe-pieds and minuets with two Breton ladies, with an air that courtiers could not approach: they demonstrated Bohemian and Bas-Breton steps with charming delicacy and exactness…There is gaming, fine eating, freedom day and night, attracting the whole of society. I had never seen the States before; it’s a very fine thing. I do not think there is a provincial gathering that has as grand an air as this one; it should be the case, at least, since there is not a single person at war or at court; only the little standard-bearer (Monsieur de Sévigné, the son) who may return one day like the others…An infinity of gifts, pensions, repairs to the roads and towns, fifteen or twenty great tables, continual gaming, balls eternally, plays three times a week, a great show: there you have the States. I omitted the three or four casks of wine that have been consumed.’

Bretons have found it hard to excuse Madame de Sévigné for her mockery. I am less severe; but I dislike the fact that she says: ‘You speak to me very amusingly of our efforts. We are no longer so broken: one day in eight suffices to maintain justice. It is true that hanging now seems a refreshing change to me.’ That is to take the flippant language of the Court too far: Barrère speaks of the guillotine with the same lightness. In 1793, the drownings at Nantes were spoken of as republican marriages: popular despotism reproduced the facile style of royal despotism.

The Parisian snobs, who accompanied the King’s gentlemen to the States, related that we country squires lined our pockets with tinplate so as to carry Monsieur the Commandant’s fricasseed chicken home to our wives. They paid dearly for that raillery. A certain Comte de Sabran was left dead in the square not so long ago, in exchange for his unpleasant remarks. This descendant of troubadours and Provençal kings, tall as a Swiss, was killed by a little hare-courser from Morbihan, no higher than a Laplander. This Ker yielded nothing to his adversary in point of genealogy: if Saint Elzéar de Sabran was a close relative of Saint Louis, Saint Corentin, the great-uncle of the noble Ker, was Bishop of Quimper under King Gallon II, three hundred years after Jesus-Christ.