The Land of Holy Wells – 1
by Tristan Gray Hulse
St Meiriadog was a Welsh monk but he is now almost totally forgotten in his native land. Early in his career he and his companions left Wales and travelled to Cornwall. Meiriadog founded the church at Camborne, where a holy well, St Meriasek’s, survived until the mid-19th century. Experiencing opposition to their mission, the group travelled on to Brittany, where a string of ecclesiastical foundations across the country bear witness to his influence. Meiriadog – in Brittany, S. Mériadek – died at Stival, in the Morbihan, c. 570 A.D.
In March 1993 I spent several days in Brittany, following, as it were, in the footsteps of S. Mériadek, visiting the various sites still bearing his name. I began on the north coast in the tiny village of S. Jean-du-Doigt, near Morlaix. This is where Mériadek first landed after leaving Britain, and the beautiful wooded area just inland is still called Traoun Mériadek, Meiriadog’s Valley. But the village itself is now called S. Jean-du-Doigt – ‘St John of the Finger’ – in honour of the most important of the relics housed in its splendid church, which is claimed to be the index finger-bone of St John the Baptist. According to its legend, the relic was brought to Brittany by a soldier returning home from the wars, in the mid-fifteenth century. As he crested the steep hill immediately to the east of the village, in sight of the church (at that time, still dedicated to S. Mériadek), the bells began to ring of their own accord, and a spring of water burst forth at his feet. The miracles were taken as showing that St John wanted his finger to remain there, and the church and village were renamed in its honour. The cult of the relic took off after it had cured the Duchess Anne, the future queen of France, of progressive blindness; while the cult of S. Mériadek declined. The miraculous spring was built around with masonry, and incorporated into the developing cult of St John. It still flows on the hilltop, with a wonderful view of the valley, and out to sea. It is found in a small walled oblong courtyard built into the hillside. Stepped stiles permit access on either side, while keeping out the cattle. The courtyard is paved, and narrow stone seats run along the inside of the walls. The spring rises in a stone basin at the far end, below a niche in the wall, and runs along a narrow channel into another basin in the centre of the courtyard (see plan). This arrangement is common at Breton holy wells, and can be observed at many of the far less well-preserved wells of Britain. It is intended to protect the purity of the source, while providing facilities for washing or bathing the sick. Until recently the niche sheltered a statue of St John the Baptist, a rude but appealing and typical example of the religious folk art of Brittany. Many wells, wayside shrines, and churches were formerly graced with these touching images; but ‘folk art’ has become fashionable and collectible in France, and they have been stolen in large numbers. S. Jean-du-Doigt was one of the victims of such designer theft.
The same school of folk art carved the tall granite calvary which still stands on the hillside behind the well, on a large triangular green. The major Pardon (the traditional Breton pilgrimages to S. Jean-du-Doigt takes place each year on the Sunday following St John’s feast on 24 June. In the late afternoon, after Vespers in the church, a procession is formed, headed by ‘le petit S. Jean’, a small boy dressed as St John the Baptist and leading a lamb on a ribbon. (He is always the first local boy to be born in the year, five years before each successive Pardon). Carrying statues and banners, and the relics of the Finger and the skull of S. Mériadek (enclosed in a magnificent 15th-century silver head-shaped reliquary: after the procession people are blessed by having it placed on their heads, as it is believed it will protect them from headaches for the coming year), the procession slowly climbs the steep hill and gathers around the Well of the Finger. On the green behind the calvary a huge bonfire has been constructed; and after the pilgrimage prayers are concluded, water is taken from the well in a large silver bucket, and sprinkled on the bonfire (called the ‘tantad’) in blessing. Lastly, the fire is lighted, and the ecclesiastical part of the Pardon is over. The relics and banners are returned to the church, and the pilgrims gather around the tantad for a night of feasting and dancing.
The Finger Well is not the only holy well in S. Jean-du-Doigt. In Brittany the churchyard is called the ‘enclos’, the ‘enclosure’ (exactly paralleling the Welsh place-name element ‘llan’, which has the same meaning). The parish churches tend to be large, and often of great architectural and artistic distinction; but often the enclos will contain other features, sometimes of equal artistic or architectural merit – subsidiary chapels, calvaries, ossuaries, triumphal archways leading into the enclos, and/or holy wells. These imposing groupings of buildings, often exquisitely carved in granite, are particularly a feature of churches which are the special foci of pilgrimages. All the above features are found in the enclos of S. Jean-du-Doigt, but in a land of holy wells, the Fountain of St John, as it is called, is unique. Its base is an enormous circular basin of stone, perhaps 12 feet in diameter, and almost 5 feet high. From its centre rises a 15 feet high hollow column, gradually tapering and supporting a further three basins, diminishing in size towards the top: all of delicately carved granite. At the summit is a bronze image of God the Father, His right hand extended in blessing. The water flows out below His feet into the uppermost basin, and from thence through a dozen spouts carved as cherubs’ heads into the second basin. This, pattern is repeated at each successive stage. In the water in the third basin stands a bronze image of Christ, with, on a square plinth just above, St John the Baptist in the act of baptising Him. Six heads are carved around the rim of the largest basin, through the mouths of which the water formerly poured. Now, all but one of the mouths are closed, and the water falls into a single stream into a low square stone basin. This makes for easier access to the well water, for the Fountain of St John is still in use, and while I was there an old lady came to bathe her eyes, soaking her handkerchief and squeezing the water over her face. There was a prosaic quality about her actions, as if the right was the most natural thing in the world – but then, in her culture, it still is. Four times a year, the innate holiness of the water is as it were ‘topped up’ by bringing St John’s finger bone to the well and solemnly dipping it into the water. The waters are particularly used for the treatment of eye ailments of all sorts.
Brittany is a land of holy wells. Each parish has at least one, and often many more. It is true that this pattern is repeated throughout much of Britain; but it is equally true that the similarity ends there. In Britain so many of our sacred wells are ruined, neglected, or totally destroyed; but in Little Britain (as Brittany was originally called, because of its settlement in the early Middle Ages by British Celts) their cults, no less than their material structures, are still largely intact. Each has its own special use and ritual, many are the objects of annual Pardons as well as of more personal pilgrimages, and most still retain their legends and traditions. There are even new holy wells coming into being, such as that which appeared in the 1950s at the site of the reported apparitions of the Virgin at Kerizinen, in Finistere. Their structures are no less fascinating, and exhibit an extraordinarily rich variety of forms. If some of the remoter Welsh hill villages still have holy wells whose structures closely resemble that of the Well of the Finger, nowhere in Britain can boast of a holy well of such renaissance splendour as is shown by the Fountain of St John. From the point of view of the holy well enthusiast, not the least fascinating thing about Brittany is that it offers a plausible picture of the way the well cult might have developed, if the Reformation had not intervened, in at least those parts of Britain influenced by Celtic culture.
The most influential study of St Meiriadog has been that of Doble, first published in 1934: Gilbert H. Doble, The Saints of Cornwall, Part 1, Truro, 1960, pp. 111-145: ‘Saint Meriadoc, Patron Of Camborne’.
This is substantially supplemented by Charles Thomas, Christian Antiquities of Camborne, St Austell, 1967, pp. 21-40.
Accounts of S. Jean-du-Doigt can be found in almost any guide-book to Brittany. However, much of my information was obtained by letters from and subsequent conversation with the rector of S. Jean, the Abbé Jacques Caroff, to whom I would here like to express my thanks.
A full if romantic account of the S. Jean-du-Doigt Pardon – the ‘Pardon Of Fire’, – as celebrated 100 years ago can be found in Anatole Le Braz, trans. F.M. Gostling, The Land of Pardons, London, 1907, pp.131-197.
For the Camborne well of St Meriasek see Prof. Charles Thomas, ‘Ho1y Wells of Camborne‘, Source 2.
Text & Illustrations © Tristan Gray Hulse (1994)
Designed by Richard L. Pederick (© 1999) | Created 15/11/99