To the Manure Born

David Coward

Jean-Marie Déguignet was born near Quimper, in Brittany, in 1834, the fifth of ten children born to an illiterate tenant farmer. A succession of bad harvests drove the family off the land into the town and at six, Jean-Marie was sent out to beg. He survived fevers, the potato famine of 1845, and a near-fatal accident which happened when he was ‘no taller than a riding-boot’. A kick from a horse left him with a dent in his left temple, which he believed made him ‘different’. To it he attributed his quick intelligence and a spirit of independence which was to prove a mixed blessing. He asked questions and took nothing on trust, but his siblings were happier, he thought, for they existed on a ‘physical and animal’ level and wanted nothing better than to live in luxury and die in a state of grace, ‘so as to go upstairs and keep on living even more luxuriously’. Jean-Marie spent 15 years as a soldier, 14 as a farmer, six as a shopkeeper and finally 16 as a pauper. He died alone in 1905 in a Quimper slum.

Excerpts of Déguignet’s memoirs dealing with his military experiences were published in 1904 and sank without trace. Then, in 1980, 43 school exercise books, laboriously written in self-taught French and studded with Breton words and turns of phrase, were produced miraculously intact by Déguignet’s descendants in response to a newspaper appeal by a local history project. From them, local historians derived a continuous narrative, and the resulting Mémoires were brought out in 1998 by a small Breton publisher. The book proved popular with local readers, and when it was reissued in 2000 it became a national bestseller. Subsequently, other titles have appeared under Déguignet’s name: a book of Breton folk-tales, a selection of his angry poetry (Rimes et révoltes) and the uncut autobiography, Histoire de ma vie (2001). Linda Asher has now given Déguignet a splendidly faithful English voice: pugnacious, tetchy and opinionated.

From the start Déguignet punctures the romantic myth of Brittany, land of dolmens, Arthurian legend and fairies. He regularly went hungry, never had a friend, never enjoyed the affection of his family. Poverty made neighbours unkind. Beggars stole from each other, wreckers lured ships onto the rocks, and teams roamed the countryside stealing horses. Entire families of landless, workless Breton peasants were wiped out by diseases caused by malnutrition and squalid living conditions, which proved resistant to potions, prayers and holy water. Predatory village matrons got up to sexual antics which Déguignet calls ‘natural’ and which the local curé was prepared to tolerate more readily than the moral and scientific teachings of secular educators.

Brittany was the most Catholic, feudal and superstitious province of France. Many had actually seen the devil and they blamed him for every calamity, from pestilence and bad harvests to curdled milk. But by his early teens, Déguignet knew that the real devil wore a cassock. He came to believe that most Breton legends were the invention of priests, who used them to keep people in line. They taught boys and girls catechism Latin, but nothing else. Déguignet learned to read Breton from a seamstress, but the only books available in that language were dull works of pedagogy and lives of saints, which were also part of the clerical conspiracy. Everyone he knew spoke only Breton and they received little news from the outside world.

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