Brittany, July 2016
I believe the the Bretons are a proud people. They have a good right too be, as only ‘celtic’ people in France, they are in a unique position with a very specific culture and history. Last week we saw how traditions were revived and kept alive with the Festou-Noz, this week we will see a celebration of Medieval history at the Fête de Remparts in Dinan.
How do you keep history alive? They manage very well in Dinan, every two years, a grand medieval festival is organised all through the city, attracting over 100.000 visitors. I believe their secret lies in three important ingredients:
The festival is organised on different locations around the ancient defensive walls and in the medieval heart of the city, which keeps the medieval feeling in between the different activities that are organised. Every location hosts some activities loosely based on the theme ‘body and soul’ and at the market square in the middle of the centre ville there is a huge medieval market. For the locations around the walls you need a bracelet, the city center is open for all.
All through the city, there is a network of speakers, playing all sorts of medieval music, from sacred to secular. Every now and than, a man with the best story telling skills ever, keeps all visitors up to date on what is happening on the different sites. Every step you take, every minute you are present on the site, you are reminded that you are on a festival!
This one is absolutely essential: if you dress up in a medieval costume, you can enter all sites for free. This is not only amazing for all the locals, who now do not have to pay for the festival that is happening right in front of their houses, but it also makes the line between organisation and visitor very vague. This is essential because it makes the festival of everyone, rather than feeling you are walking through a museum to learn something.
Medieval is by the way very loosely interpreted, we just borrowed some medieval looking clothes from the theater society at our University, but we have also seen people dressed up in a more fantasy style, and people walking around in jute sacks. Other people, however make a great effort and come in wonderful medieval dresses or with their face painted to look like a truly medieval shepherd, living in the fields and mud.
3. A Festival
Finally, the Fête the Remparts is a festival, a celebration rather than a learning experience. There are lot’s of stands where you can order traditional and not so traditional food and drinks. Our host Maëlle and her housemates had told us we should absolutely have some ‘Galette sausice’, a sort of dark pancake wrapped around a sausage, and that cidre was typically Breton, although we would never get better cidre than the home made one we were pourred on our night of arrival, so that were the first things we tried. There are big picnic tables everywhere, so you just join another group of people at a table to have your breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Besides the stands and the picnic tables, also the market enhances the festival feeling. Everything is somewhat medieval and the sellers are dressed up beautifully, but it is mostly the perfect place to buy all sorts of stuff you really like and absolutely do not need.
Next, there is all sorts of theater. There are big plays of about 45 minutes, several ‘tournois’, demonstrations of armor and groups of people walking through the city pretending to be going to wedding, there was a group vikings, etc.
We went to one of the bigger plays, which we of course did not really understood, but
sitting on the grass and just watching the performance was god anyways.
On one of the locations, there was a small group of men, singing the following song:
They directed a whole verse at me, and from the responses of people around me already noticed it probably was a bit of a dirty song, but of course I did not understand a word of it, so I asked them to explain. They got all shy, but one guy gave it a try, and explained: ‘We are asking girls, why don’t you make love to me….’ he paused for a moment, wanting to add a word but not knowing how, so he just slapped his butt.
I have to say I was slightly surprised, as I thought it was rather explicit for a medieval song, but than again, France is the country of love, so who knows what was going on 500 years ago. Someone else, however, jumped in to help and added the word ‘naked’ to finish the sentence, or maybe to save me from a different explanation. I still don’t know so if anyone understands what they are singing, feel free to translate and let me know!
We mostly went to the different musical ensembles and dancing workshops and demonstrations, where it was not necessary to know a lot of French. The first day ended with a grand ball at the parking place next to the market, where dances were briefly explained and after danced (they were usually stepping to the left and right, and turning around every now and than) by a huge group of people. Most dances were in circles, and there usually was one circle in the center, consisting of about forty people and three or four bigger circles around them. I think almost 75% of the people was dressed up and the focus was not so much on ‘proper’ medieval dancing, as it was on having fun with dancing together.
The weekend finished with a ‘pavane nocturne’, where everyone somehow involved with the festival walked through the streets. Already hours before it started, people were waiting on the sides of the streets to have the best spots, and you could almost feel the excitement in the air…
I did not record the defilé itself, as I was a little to busy enjoying the moment, there were lot’s of beautiful costumes, instrumental ensembles, dancers, songs everyone sang along to, actors, fire jugglers and many, many more interesting acts passing by, and in between the celebrating people and in the against the dark sky of the night, it was almost magical. Again, better go and visit the festival yourself to experience it all, the next one will be in 2018!
* This experience was part of musical journey, of which you can find some more infomration here.