Wednesday, 13 December 2017

The incumbent of Saint-Lyphard

"Saint-Lyphard sous la Révolution", Son et Lumière performed in July 2016.
Lenotre devoted a chapter to the sole survivor of the first noyade,  the abbé Julien Landeau, former rector of Saint-Lyphard, a small town north of the Loire in the marshes of Brière.  The narrative is of interest not only for its testimony to the drowning but for the details of Landeau's subsequent life of hiding in these remote marshlands, where the Revolution was only vaguely understood and impacted little on the daily life of the peasantry.

A native of Queniquen in Guérande,  Landeau had been born in 1745 and ordained in 1770.  At the outbreak of the Revolution, he was vicaire of the parish of Moisdon, but in August 1789 he moved to Saint-Lyphard.  In February 1790 his parishioners unanimously elected him as mayor of the township with his vicaire, Jean Gougeon acting as his secretary and substitute. However, since he declined to take the oath to the Civil Constitution of Clergy, he was obliged after a few months to resign his mayorial office.  In December 1791 the department ordered all non-jurors to be taken to detention in Nantes.  Landeau continued to fulfil his ministry clandestinely, and now went into hiding,  but he was eventually discovered and in February 1793 taken to in the prison of the Carmelites, where he rejoined his brother Jacques, also a priest.   In August he was transferred to the galliot Thérèse, thence to the Petits capuchins, and finally on board the Gloire.  On the fateful night of 16th-17th December he was among the handful who escaped  death in the waters of the Loire:

The abbé  Landeau escapes drowning

At that very hour one of the ninety priests, and one only, having escaped the "drowning," was wandering through the streets of Nantes in terror of being recaptured, and horrified at what he had witnessed. It was the abbé Julien Landeau, incumbent of Saint Lyphard.

When in his turn he had been taken out of the galliot, tied to an old monk and lowered into the lighter, he found that the rope which secured his arm to that of his fellow might easily be unfastened. The two united their efforts, got rid of the manacle, and waited anxiously.

From the motion of the lighter the abbé Landeau soon realised that the heavy craft was going down-stream. He heard the mallet blows which opened the ports; in gushing torrents the waters poured in, gurgling and unceasing, overwhelming in a mass the maddened and unwary victims, lifting them up and dashing them against each other in a terrible hubbub of cries, floating bodies, and suffocation.

The abbé was a skilful swimmer: taking in tow the old man whom the ruffians' choice had made his brother in the death-struggle, he fought his way out of the dreadful turmoil. Groping in the murk of whirling water, and thrusting aside the contorted bodies, he reached a port-hole or scupper, and at length came out on the surface of the river. Lamberty's boat was there, quite close at hand. The priest of Saint- Lyphard's saw the ruffians grappling with their boat-hooks, and holding under water those quivering wretches whom, like himself, a desperate effort had carried out of the lighter, and heard the heavy blows of the oars falling on their heads.

Escaping from the hideous melee, he swam with his right hand, and with the other upheld his inert fellow. Soon he was far away, in the full flow of the Loire, panting with exertion, alone on that heaving expanse. What should he do? Try to reach the bank? Would he not find there other ruffians on the alert, it might be, or timorous fishermen, who would refuse to help him? Or should he swim with the current as long as might be and ground in some osier-bed or on some sandbank, where he might take breath? And afterwards? Would he, for that matter, have strength to keep up so long? The weight of his fellow paralysed his movements. In the icy water, which blinded and choked him, the old monk, groaning at his last gasp, urged the swimmer not to persist, but to save himself alone and let him die. Yet Landeau persevered, though each valiant stroke exhausted him, his strength began to fail, and his burden stopped all progress. He felt the clutching hands of the old man unclasp as he resignedly relaxed his hold, and, yielding to his fate, allowed himself to sink.

Thus lightened, the abbé found relief by floating on his back, and permitted the stream to carry him whither it would, when suddenly through the void and stillness a sound of voices reached his ears. He turned round in the water and saw the outline of a boat gliding through the night, and heard the men who manned it chatting among themselves. He struck out till he came alongside, seized the gunwale, and in an imploring voice begged for help. One of the men, astonished, leant over and asked him who he was.

" A priest that they have just thrown in to drown."

There was a brief consultation between the boatmen, while Landeau, all a-tremble, over-heard their parley.

"Bah' said one," he's a 'black cowl.' There will be enough of his kind left."

"My friends," cried another, "if he were an enemy's dog we should not consent to let him perish. Let us save him. " 

The swimmer was forthwith grappled, drawn from the water and hoisted on board the barge, but scarcely was he seated beside the boat men than these rough men took fright at the half-dead man, dripping, shivering, and at the last gasp. Already the fame of Carrier was spreading baseness, as miasmas spread pestilence. After some debate the boatmen rowed towards the right bank, and landing, left the wretch on the sand, explaining that they had done enough for him, and that he would have to get out of the scrape without their help.

Thus left alone the abbé Landeau tried to find his bearings. In the middle of November the nights are long, and it was still very far from earliest dawn. He saw, however, that he had come to land near the hamlet of Roche Maurice, about a league down-stream from Nantes. Shivering with cold, almost naked, and fainting with hunger and weariness, the first thing he needed was to find a shelter. But to whom could he apply? Would not asking for help mean self-betrayal ?  No matter, he was at the end of his energies; approaching a hovel, he knocked, but the door remained closed. He dragged himself towards another dwelling. There his call was heard, some peasants received him with cordiality, and gave him clothes and food and seated him before a good fire. The abbé began to breathe more freely; little by little the awful nightmare faded away. 

 Dawn was approaching, what should be his next course ? The peasants who had taken him in were growing alarmed; they too were frightened. They were glad, they said, to have succoured him, and would be still more so to keep him, but the villages were infested by patriots, and the next house which he had visited first, but which luckily had not been opened to him, was inhabited by one of the most ardent of these. M. le Curé must understand that, for his own sake as much as for that of his hosts, he could not stay where he was; every one must look to his own safety, so he must leave before day-light. For that matter they would not abandon him, their daughter went every day to Nantes to take the milk of her cows ; she knew a worthy woman there, Mme. Lamy, who, like the abbé, came from Queniguen. No doubt she would be willing to shelter the priest for some days, and would busy herself with placing him in safety.

Sejourn in Nantes

The incumbent of Saint-Lyphard thanked his hosts.  They consented, out of charity, to let him keep a pair of breeches, a jacket, and some clogs; they furnished him with a basketful of vegetables and bade him adieu. Thus accoutred the priest was shown to the door, and with a wary and alert eye, trying to disguise his alarm and affecting the air of a market-gardener on his way to the city market, he took the road to Nantes.

He reached the centre of the town without mishap, was received at Mme. Lamy's at the Port-au-vin, went to earth there, and from his refuge sent a letter to one of his brothers living at Queniguen near Guérande, who came to Nantes, wearing the broad hat, the white jacket and loose breeches of the marshmen of the peninsula, to look for the incumbent, bringing with him an outfit like his own. When, in order to leave the town, they had to pass the guard. the abbé Landeau, on whom that awful night had left its mark in a morbid timidity, took alarm at seeing soldiers grouped by the door of the guard-house. He was taken with a violent trembling that he could not check; he was like to be noticed and questioned, and would not be able to answer. His brother, who had kept his full presence of mind, pretended to be taking home a drunken man. He scolded his companion, pushed him about, gave a great cut with the whip on the quarters of the mule the abbé was riding, and went off at a trot. The two fugitives thus cleared the dangerous passage without mishap.

In Queniguen -  narrowly misses being recaptured

The vicar of Saint-Lyphard spent the whole winter at Queniguen. It is a hamlet lying on the edge of salt-marshes. There he had two hiding-places, one in his brother's house, where he lay smothered under a truss of hay, and the other in a hollow west of the village. At night he went about the country bearing the consolations of his ministry to the faithful.  No one in that secluded spot had an idea of what was going on in France. Save for the patrols, who sometimes turned up unexpectedly to make a search at some farm that had been pointed out to the vigilance of the patriots, no stranger ventured into this haunt of the dead.  Often enough the abbé saw himself on the verge of being taken: he cherished an instinctive and only too well-founded terror of the '' Blues." But none the less he went all over the Guérande district, carrying consolation to the dying or sprinkling the newly born. The record of baptisms was inscribed by means of a nail on a brass plate which was buried in some field, to be recovered in better days.

One evening at Queniguen some peasants were gathered at the house of the curé's brother, to take part in a night mass which he was making ready to celebrate. He had already withdrawn the sacred vessels from their hiding-place and arranged the simple accessories, when some one took alarm at a sound of footsteps in the village. Beware! It was the Guérande National Guard. In a moment the house was surrounded; the peasants hastily put the preparations for the rite out of sight, the candlesticks returned to their place on the chimney-piece, the chalice was stowed on the top of a dresser. As for the abbé, he had rushed to the steps of the barn, reached his usual lurking-place, and slipped under the hay. The soldiers broke into the house, and called loudly for the " calotin " (frocked gentleman) they were harbouring. They rapped the walls with their butt-ends and rummaged the stable, making a great pother and threatening to burn everything. One of them, raising his eyes, saw the chalice perched on the top shelf of the dresser. What a surprise! He said nothing, but casting a glance to see that none of his comrades were watching, gave the incriminating article a shove with the tip of his musket, and hid it behind the bulge of the piece of furniture.

The search of the barn was meanwhile proceeding. The "Blues" sounded the piled-up forage with their sabres or bayonets, whose points more than once touched the fugitive. One of the soldiers discovered his presence in that way. The man slipped in among the hay, making believe to search vigorously, reached the priest, seized his arm, said in a low tone, " Don't stir," and going back to his comrades assured them there was no one there, and that nothing remained for them but to withdraw.

His return to Saint-Lyphard

The abbé Landeau was saved; but he could not reckon on the recurrence of such a piece of luck, all patriots not being so merciful as the National Guards of Guérande. For a long time he had been wishing to make his way to Saint-Lyphard, which he had not seen since his arrest in 1791. He knew that he was beloved there, and could devote himself to his parishioners without too much danger. Two brothers, Charles and Jean Deniaud, offered to receive him. The latter lived in the hamlet of Kerbriant, while the former had a small farm at Kergonan, both places scarcely a league from Saint-Lyphard, and remote from any main road.

Saint-Lyphard is a village of some importance, on the outskirt of the Grande Brière, a vast expanse of marsh, beneath which a druidical forest lies submerged, whose trees still stand unseen, buried in the slime up to their topmost boughs; and still bent, men say, by the breath of the west wind, which has not blown on them for over a thousand years. During two days only of the year the Brièrons— as the dwellers on the shore of this sea of mud are called— are authorised to rummage in the mire and dig out these tree-trunks, twelve or fifteen centuries old, and as hard and black as ebony.  During a week the people of La Brière are also licensed to extract peat from these vast swamps, which they retail in "turf," a fuel in use throughout Lower Brittany. The rest of the time the folks fish in the ponds for leeches, eels, and pike, or busy themselves with rearing geese and cattle. For La Brère is at once a sea and a grazing tract. In winter it is a lake four leagues in length and five in breadth, with little depth of water, without waves or ripples. In fine weather the soil dries somewhat, and sheep and cows can graze on it without sinking in too far. A stranger would run great risk in venturing upon this treacherous surface, but the Brièrons know its geography, and float over it with as much certainty as they can walk; so that it is not uncommon to see one of their punts apparently gliding over a green meadow, while close by comes a pedestrian, staff in hand, who seems to walk on the water. La Brière is like a congealed sea and, so to speak, without horizon. No scenery is more affecting in its melancholy; the eye is disconcerted by this boundless level, whose dimensions it cannot gauge, and which, at eventide, assumes the aspect of a disc of lead bossed here and there with the black gnarlings of heaps of peat.

On the Saint-Lyphard side, at the promontory of Pierre Fendue, it is impossible to tell where solid ground finishes and marsh begins. The "Blues," as may be imagined, did not venture on to this quaking area, which for a native well versed in its treacheries offered the safest of hiding-places. A hundred metres from the verge a man lying on the grass of this watery steppe is invisible. The abbé Goujon [Gougeon], vicar of Saint-Lyphard, who had remained in those parts since the outbreak of the Revolution, thanks to his perfect knowledge of the marsh, had thrown out all pursuers. M. Landeau was delighted to see him once more and to share his life of adventure.

Whenever the approach of a patrol was signalled they took to the marsh, made for a pile of turfs or a field of reeds, crouched there, and remained till the soldiers were gone. In winter the curé went back to the house of the brothers Deniaud, or mayhap sought a refuge less distant from La Brière. One of his parishioners, Jean Lebeau, who had sent one of his boys to the Vendean army, acted as his guide. Followed at a distance by the priest he would go up to a house, knock at the window and ask, " Are there any strange sheep in the fold ?"

Kerhinet historic village
The hamlet of Kerhinet was bought by the parc naturel régional de Brière in the 1970s.  It comprises eighteen traditional cottages, thatched with reeds, together with two abread ovens, a well and a washing place. One of the cottages has a  reconstructed 18th-century interior.

Such was the catchword agreed upon. The peasants answered "yes" or ''no" as it might be; in the latter case the door was opened, and the curé found a refuge for the night either among the hay or in the pig-shed, unless for greater safety they opened for him the double bottom of the manger, usually standing in the living room, and in which they put fodder for the beasts, who from the adjoining stable thrust their horned heads through great holes made in the panel, so as to get at the crib. Some of these old houses are still to be shown at Kerloumet in the Saint-Lyphard district.  They have huge roofs thatched with La Brière rushes, and embellished to the ridge with a pretty plant bearing pink cups and called "birds' vine." They show you also in the village, cheek by jowl with the house of the present vicar, the old vicarage in which the abbé Landeau lived, a decent old cottage built of grey stone and with narrow windows. Not seldom during the course of his roving life must he have cast a glance of regret and longing at that rustic abode which once was his own. He was destined never to enter it again.

Death of the abbé Landeau

Plate from Lenotre
The Terror had long since come to an end, but non-juring priests were still outlawed. Incessant dread, misery, and nights spent in the marsh broke down the vigorous health of the vicar of Saint-Lyphard. He died, tended by his faithful curate, at Charles Demand's on June 24, 1799, aged fifty-five. His flock, who were not unaware of his story and looked on this sole survivor of the drowning of the priests as a miracle, wished ardently to keep his remains in the village cemetery. But Kernogan, where his death took place, is in the district of Guérande, so it was to Guérande that his body would be carried and thrown into the common ditch, according to the regulations then in force. To avoid such profanation they played a last trick with the abbé in his death; they carried his corpse by night to the hamlet of Crutier, scarcely a hundred metres from Kernogan, but forming part of the Commune of Saint-Lyphard.  It was laid, so the story runs, in the bed of an old man at death's door, whom they carried off to Kernogan, where he died. The exchange having been thus effected, the common ditch of Guérande was not deprived of a body, while the cemetery of Saint-Lyphard resumed its rights to that of the abbé Landeau.  Hence it was that the death was announced at Crutier and the priest buried close to his old church. 

Tomb of the abbé Landeau
When in more recent times [in 1872] that church was pulled down and the cemetery removed they laid his honoured remains in the chapel of the new God's acre. That chapel is a sort of grotto, excavated under a bluff surmounted by a Calvary. The abbé Landeau's grave adjoins that of M. Goujon, his curate and successor. From the crest of the bluff, which you mount by a steep path, the eye ranges over the whole of La Brière, which begins at this point. The vicar of Saint-Lyphard — his memory will live as long as men remember the "noyades " of Nantes — lies on the margin of this sleeping ocean, a sea without flood, or tide, or current, as if the element to which Carrier committed his victims here shared the eternal repose of the priest whom the Loire refused to receive.

 Note: It is from the abbé Landeau's own account that the recital of these occurrences has been preserved — a narrative recorded by his nephew, of the same name, incumbent of Muzillac, and published in Notices sur les confesseurs de la foi dans le diocèse de Nantes pendant la Révolution, by the abbé Briand (vol. ii. p. 597 et seq.).


G. Lenotre, Tragic episodes of the French Revolution in Brittany (1912), p.68-82

See also:

"Julien Landeau - Recteur et Maire de Saint-Lyphard", Archives de Saint-Lyphard

Here is a blog with a nice set of photographs of Saint-Lyphard and the surrounding area:

In July 2016 the abbé Landeau was the subject of a son et lumière production created by local author Patrick Roussel.
"Saint-Lyphard sous la Révolution, Son et Lumière  30 & 31 Juillet 2016" [photos]

No comments:

Post a comment