Brittany formed an important stage on the journey to Compostela for medieval pilgrims travelling from Ireland and southern England or even further afield. The main points of entry were Le Conquet on the Atlantic coast in the west, and on the Channel coast, St-Pol-de-Léon and Locquirec in Finistere, Paimpol in Côtes d’Armor and Mont St-Michel, which is now in Normandy but was once within the Breton boundary before the course of the river Couesnon changed. The number of arrivals was significant. At the Abbaye de Beauport at Paimpol you can still see the huge reception room, made necessary by the hordes of pilgrims disembarking at the port below.
There are many manifestations of Saint James or Saint-Jacques as he is known here, in various religious contexts in Brittany. He is perhaps most familiar from his appearance with the other apostles in the statuary of church porches. It was conventional to show six of these saints on each side inside the porch, above the stone benches where the church council used to meet. He is recognisable by the symbolic shell – the scallop is an important item in the Breton diet – on his large hat and the pilgrim’s staff he holds.
He is occasionally the patron of churches, as at Locquirec, where a Grand Pardon of St-Jacques and St Kirec is held each year on July 25th, with mass followed by a procession carrying the saints’ banners, and a blessing of boats. The cult of St Jacques here possibly only dates from the 18th century, however, at a time when local unofficial saints like Kirec were commonly replaced by luminaries of the Catholic church. Some think that St Jacques was chosen because the scallop shell already appeared in the coats of arms of two noble families in the area.
At the other end of the scale is a tiny chapel by the junction of the Vilaine river and the Nantes-Brest canal near Redon, a shrine for pilgrims coming and going via by the river route across eastern Brittany.
There is a specific Breton Saint Jacques association for modern pilgrims, which concentrates on the spiritual aspect of the journey as well as providing practical guidebooks for the various routes. This organisation offers a lot of useful information (in French) on their website – www.saint-jacques-compostelle-bretagne.fr.
Each possible itinerary across Brittany today involves a combination of footpath, Green Way,(former railway tracks and canal towpaths), and road walking. Many historic towns are en route according to the chosen point of entry. A contemporary pilgrim arriving by ferry at Roscoff can pick up a southern route via Morlaix and Quimperlé, or from St-Malo connect with the Chemin du Mont St-Michel to pass through the capital Rennes.
Several routes merge at Redon, a busy commercial town on the Nantes-Brest canal, with an attractive old port area. Here a stele on the quayside records its role as a traditional staging post for the Compostela trail when river travel was common. From this point pilgrims moved on to Nantes on the Loire and then south for the long journey to St-Jean-Pied-du-Port.
Another long-distance religious pilgrimage trail in Brittany is that of the Tro Breizh, a route of over 600kms connecting the cathedrals of the traditional seven founding saints, Pol, Corentin, Brieuc, Tugdual, Patern, Malo and Samson. In medieval times this journey was expected to be carried out once in a lifetime to ensure entry into heaven. An association today is working on reviving the walk with new signage and better routed paths (www.trobreiz.com).
The Saints Shore Way in Brittany will be a newly promoted route from 2013 using the existing spectacular coastal path between Roscoff and Lannion, with detailed information specifically written for British visitors, including a major theme of the arrival of numerous holy men during the Dark Ages who became the Breton saints after founding religious sites and settlement.