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The gwerz of Louis Le Ravallec

March 15, 2021


This is my translation of ethnologue Donatien Laurent’s seminal study of the gwerz of Louis Le Ravallec. A gwerz is a ballad form belonging to the oral traditions of Britanny. Laurent’s article was published in 1967 in the journal Arts et traditions populaires. This is a partial translation, of pages 19-32 of his article. My thanks to Presses Universitaires de France for permission to publish this translation on my blog.

Laurent, Donatien. “La gwerz de Louis le Ravallec”. Arts et Traditions populaires, no. 1. (January-March 1967): 19-79. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41001390

The translation

The informed reader, leafing for the first time through an anthology of the Breton-language songs known as gwerziou and soniou […], is struck from the outset by certain characteristics that distinguish them from folk songs in French. The latter, as P. Coirault has demonstrated, present us with excessively typified characters with no real-life civil status, within a general setting that is summarily traced. Breton songs, by contrast, depict specific, clearly identified characters, within a familiar, carefully delineated framework. To a French folk song’s “wounded soldier returned from battle”1 or its “damsel in her garden,” the Breton song responds with “Marie Le Masson of Paimpol in Goëlo” or “Annette Le Bail of Saint-Norvez.”2 The French folk song’s characters are anonymous heroes in universal circumstances; in Breton songs, they are named individuals, engaged in concrete, richly detailed actions.

Among these Breton songs, the gwerziou represent a particularly original expressive form, being “[s]omber songs, fantastic, tragic, recounting tales of apparition, murder, infanticide, of deathly duels, betrayal, kidnappings and violence of all sorts”3 […]. They comprise a distinctive class of Breton songs from oral tradition, and as such deserve some elucidation4.

The contents of the gwerziou are in general real events, or held to be such, whose tragic nature or moral significance is highlighted by their composers via simple yet effective techniques. Some of these gwerziou have been transmitted from generation to generation without any loss of their emotive force, the latter stemming at least as much from their “truth” as from the vibrancy of their form. Without the possibility of dating the event reported in the gwerz or of knowing the information that the first composers had at their disposal, it is usually difficult to figure out if the sung narrative owes more to a faithful memory of the event or to an imaginative reworking. Nevertheless, every so often, a clearer picture emerges. Such is the case with the gwerz of Louis Le Ravallec: not only have I been able to retrieve, date and situate the precise facts that inspired this gwerz, I have also, to an extent, been able to evaluate the information that its composer must have had, and trace its transmission over the centuries.

This gwerz tells of Louis Le Ravallec, a young man of Langonnet who, returning one evening from the pardon5 of neighboring Saint-Fiacre in Le Faouët, was murdered by his companions. It also tells of how the relics of Saint Barbara that he carried upon his person preserved him from death for a long while.

There are at present two published versions of this gwerz. […]I was fortunately able to find three other versions that remain in unpublished, manuscript form. […]

These five texts provided me with valuable information for the study of the evolution of the gwerz over time, and I began to research what the folk tradition had retained of the affair in the region where it had taken place, and in areas nearby. Since 1962, I have thus been able to find, in the course of a search that was neither systematic nor exhaustive, some fifty-odd people capable either of singing a fairly complete version of the gwerz and of commenting on it, or of furnishing intriguing details about the tragic event.

I soon realized that although the best-known version of this gwerz–that of the Barzaz-Breiz–belonged to a controversial anthology, the gwerz itself was nevertheless based on a real event regarding which the oral tradition continued to preserve many memories. In 1963 I had the good fortune to discover, at the departmental archives of Morbihan, the complete case file of the criminal proceedings against the suspected murderers of Louis Le Ravallec. I thus realized that the affair dated back to the beginning of Louis XV’s reign in the early 18th century. The original investigation into the case had lasted four years but brought little to light. The copious file, containing the depositions of forty-four witnesses, reveals the state of information and the diverse rumors that circulated back then. I also went through various other handwritten sources: cadasters, notarial deeds and, above all, parish registers, extremely well preserved by the commune of Le Faouët. These furnish precious details about the families involved in this tragic event.

This article sets out the results of my research and seeks to derive insights from them. I shall first present, as succinctly as possible, my findings regarding what the criminal proceedings tell us about the affair. In the second part, I shall compare that information with testimonies collected in the present, preserved and transmitted within the oral tradition. I shall then present and analyze the actual gwerz with which my research began, and which forms its core. Given the nature of the material that I have collected, the fundamental question informing this study is that of the memor(ial)ization of an event within the ancient peasant milieu of Lower Brittany. I shall focus to a greater extent on the special–and, as we shall see, essential–role of the gwerz in this process, rather than on its particular aesthetic characteristics.

The Criminal Proceedings

The Departmental Archives of Morbihan contain a voluminous file of 534 handwritten pages, classified under file number 2944 of Series B, with the heading:

Criminal proceedings investigated and initiated by the Jurisdiction and Barony of Le Faouët, at the behest of the procureur fiscal6 of the same, and continued in the court and Seneschalty of Hennebont at the behest of the Crown Prosecutor [Monsieur le Procureur du Roy], plaintiff and accuser


Noel Le Houarner, Laurent Rousseau, Michel Guillemot and Jean Le Houarner, all defendants and accused of the murder of Louis Ravallec [sic], the aforementioned Noel Le Houarner having requested the ratification of letters of remission for said homicide.

The file contains 95 documents, the first three of which indicate that on April 26, 1732, Germain Tetrel, a peddler of Le Faouët, was fishing in the river Ellé, at the bottom of a large meadow near the Barregan mill, when he discovered the corpse of a drowned man that had washed up on the bank. The owner of the field, who came running immediately, recognized it as the body of a young man of Langonnet, Louis Le Ravallec, who had been missing for twelve days, and whose whereabouts were being sought. His father, Maurice Le Ravallec, had questioned those of his son’s friends who had been with the young man on his last day, but in vain; he was searching the ponds of the area. As soon as he was informed, the wretched father went to Barregan and spent the night by his son’s body. The very next morning, on April 27, he went to the town of Langonnet to seek legal advice from the seneschal under whose jurisdiction the town fell. He was thus not present in the early afternoon of that day, when the corpse was fished out, the report on this being the second document in the file. The seneschal of Le Faouët, Guy Marie de Chemendy […], the son and substitute of the procureur fiscal, Jacques Nicolas Borré, accompanied by the sworn surgeon, Maître Jacques Charpentier, the clerk, a notary who served as a Breton interpreter, and two sergeants were present. Having arrived at the bottom of the meadow, they found:

“a large number of people who had assembled there from all over; and, having approached […] having found and seen the corpse, fully dressed, lying face down in the water, with its back outside the water and its head on the edge of said meadow, its upper jacket rolled up over the back; and, having had the body pulled up onto the meadow and turned over, having noted that said corpse was large in stature, with black hair and beard, probably around thirty years of age, without a cap, clad in a shirt and two jackets–a doublet of red serge and a doublet of canvas on top of that–gray serge breeches, with cloth stockings and gaiters on the legs, and sabots on the feet; and, having examined the corpse, we did not find any external cause, because, having undressed it completely, having ordered said Charpentier to conduct an autopsy and open it up in order to ascertain the cause of death, and he having performed this in our presence, these […] he showed us, and, having seen that the said corpse had no wound anywhere on the exterior body, apart from a general swelling…” […].

At the end of a long autopsy report, the sworn surgeon concluded that, not having found “any wound, fracture or break nothing could have caused the death of the said Louis Le Ravallec but drowning due to having fallen or having been thrown into the water, which I attest and report to be true…” […].

This report was formally contradicted by the deposition of one Anne Le Piouff, a spinner, who was present at Barregan when the corpse was retrieved from the river. She stated that, having undressed the corpse at the behest of the procureur fiscal, she saw:

“two wounds that seemed to her to be knife cuts, one on the right side and the other on the neck on the same right side; and that, there was something small embedded in the hole in the neck which she tried to pull out, but that it was so sticky and deeply embedded that she could not pull it out; that the lower abdomen and all parts were swollen and completely black; that the shoulder appeared to her to be dislocated on the same right side, the arm merely dangling, as if it were held in place by nothing but skin; that the left side of the head was also injured, and the skin open unto the skull; that the surgeon merely glanced at the head and, having cut off all the hair, made an incision around the chest and the stomach so as to open up the corpse, and then left it…”

Anne Le Piouff further stated that before the body was buried, she sought out the surgeon and “told him to pay attention to everything, and to look at the entire corpse because she saw wounds and bruises, and that there was even blood on the corpse’s shirt; and that the said surgeon withdrew saying: ‘Well, that is nothing!’”

Anne Le Piouff did not make this deposition until three years after the event. It was, sadly, too late to confront the surgeon with it as he had died in November 1733. When the judges of Hennebont, before whom the case had been brought at the request of the victim’s father, asked her why she had not made a deposition earlier, she replied: “that she had been told that she would certainly be summonsed to testify, and that she therefore did not have to submit her name […] and that, nevertheless, to her knowledge, she had not been hitherto summonsed…” […]. In fact, the judges of Le Faouët seem to have carefully avoided soliciting her testimony. […] This is the first contradiction of many in this case.

Maurice Le Ravallec apparently had good reason to think his son’s death had not been accidental. He filed a complaint on April 27 at Gourin with a view to making the procureur fiscal of Le Faouët institute legal proceedings. He submitted this complaint in the form of a “denunciation” (dénoncy), thereby adopting a procedure that the circumstances permitted him to select, and which had him financially covered irrespective of the outcome of the proceedings […]. Below is the text […]:

Denunciation submitted to the procureur fiscal at the behest of Maurice Le Ravallec.

April 27, 1732.

Regarding that which has come to the knowledge of Maurice Le Ravallec, small landowner, residing in the village of Portzcoeul [sic] in the parish of Langonnet: that on Easter Tuesday, one Louis Le Ravallec, his son, went to the gathering at Saint-Fiacre in the parish of Le Faouët to hear the sermon, as is customary on that day at said Saint-Fiacre; and that, after having heard the sermon, one Yves Broustal, of the village of Kerly near Saint-Fiacre in said Le Faouët, invited the said Louis Le Ravallec and several others to dine at his house, to which invitation Louis Le Ravallec assented; and after having dined at the house of the said Broustal, he set off homeward; and, before he arrived at the village of Penfel in said Le Faouët, there must have been some sort of dispute with malign consequences, for he was heard to cry out and beseech Saint Barbara for protection, and this after the sun had set, at which time according to hearsay, a voice was also heard calling in lugubrious tones, twice: ‘Thomas, Thomas’; and, forthwith, a man was seen to flee by the wide road; and from that moment, nobody has been able to find out what became of Louis Le Ravallec, apart from the rumors that he had been killed on coming from Kerly near Penfel, and that his corpse had been transported and hidden. The officers of Justice may well imagine the grief of Maurice Le Ravallec, father of the deceased, who was unable to find his child until the twelfth day after the latter’s death, and that through a fisherman whom he did not know otherwise named Germain, of the city of Le Faouët, who found the body yesterday at around three o’clock in the afternoon on the great river of Baregant [sic]; and since Maurice Le Ravallec, father of the deceased, is not in a position to meet the costs needed for the prosecution of such a major crime, he submits this denunciation before the Justice system, adjuring Maître René Gabriel Borré, procureur fiscal of Le Faouët to discharge his duties as expected; that the corpse of the said Le Ravallec had been found within the jurisdiction of the Barony of Barregant [sic], on account of which monitories be obtained so as to arrive at the evidence mentioned above; and, towards this, I the undersigned, Joseph Buisson, huissier audiencier [a Justice official] of the royal seat of Gourin [siège royal de Gourin] and residing in the city and parish there, at the behest of said Maurice Le Ravallec, residing as stated above, do certify having declared to the aforementioned Right Honorable Borré, procureur fiscal of Le Faouët, that said Maurice Le Ravallec does not wish to seek criminal indemnification [être partie civile] …

The judges of Le Faouët note in the report on the retrieval of the corpse that “Maurice Le Ravallec, father, did not present himself to identify the said corpse and request its inhumation although he had been informed the previous evening.” They ordered that the corpse and all vestiges of clothing be loaded onto a cart and taken to the Le Faouët prison while awaiting Maurice Le Ravallec’s deposition. This deposition was made the next day before the seneschal of Le Faouët, who summonsed Maurice Le Ravallec and showed him his son’s corpse for identification. However, the father refused to accept the corpse and abandoned it to the Justice system for the latter to have it buried, which was done the following day in the cemetery of Le Faouët. If I focus here on this fact, which is, after all, a mere detail, it is because the absence of Maurice Le Ravallec at the retrieval of the corpse, and the burial of the young man outside his home parish, seem to have marked popular sentiment profoundly. We shall see that traces of this event are to be found as often in certain versions of the gwerz as in the commentaries accompanying them […].

On the morning of that very same day, April 28, the judges heard: Yves Broustal of the village of Kerly, in whose home Louis Le Ravallec had his last dinner; Jacques Prat, also of Kerly, who had received one of young Le Ravallec’s friends for dinner; and that friend himself, Noel Le Houarner, of Villeneuve-Lohéac in Langonnet. It was in the latter’s company that Loeizik left Kerly to return home to Porsqueul, Loeizik being the diminutive of Loeiz (or Louis) regularly used in the gwerz to invoke its hero. We learn thus that about an hour before sunset, Louis Le Ravallec went to fetch Noel Le Houarner from the house of Jacques Prat. A quarter of an hour later, since they were still at Kerly, Yves Broustal told them either to hurry up and leave or to spend the night at his place. However, Loeizik replied that “he could not do that for fear of what his mother might say …” They therefore departed. As they were leaving the village, however, they met Charles Troboul (we shall see below the significance of this information), who took them to his father Sébastien Troboul’s place for a drink of cider. A short while later, they finally departed for Langonnet.

From Noel Le Houarner we learn little: he acknowledged having left Kerly with Loeizik but, being “a wine lover, he did not know what became of the said deceased, Ravallec, and was not aware of any quarrel that the deceased may have had with anyone…” […].

Very few witnesses presented themselves spontaneously in the days that followed, and their depositions did not help the investigation. Thus, on May 15, following standard procedure, the procureur fiscal, at the behest of the judges of Le Faouët, requested the Bishop of Quimper to send out monitories through the parishes of Le Faouët, Langonnet, and the parish of Le Saint […], enjoining all those who knew anything about the circumstances of the death of Louis Le Ravallec to testify, under pain of the Church’s censure. In this request, the procureur fiscal summarizes the results of his investigation and adds: “Certain individuals have speculated that the horse that carried the said deceased in the river after his death could equally serve another purpose …” […]. I am at a loss as to how to interpret this enigmatic statement, which could be an allusion to certain threats aimed at discouraging possible witnesses in advance. A few days later Monsignor Hyacinthe de Ploeuc granted the monitories.

Although the monitories were read over three consecutive Sundays at Langonnet and Le Faouët, they only convinced one new witness to present himself. This was F. L. Hellou, master tailor at Le Faouët, whose deposition concerned rumors and not the facts themselves […]. Furthermore, the judges waited a year to collect his deposition! The monitories were followed a year later by a new publication of “last comminations” [réagraves], threatening recalcitrant witnesses with the horrors of excommunication. This time, two people submitted their names at Langonnet, though none did so at Le Faouët. These testimonies brought nothing new to the case.


On August 27, 1733, the procureur fiscal had Noel Le Houarner arrested, “charged […] with having committed or participated in the homicide of Louis Le Ravallec” […]. However, the order was only given on September 9, and when four sergeants went the next day to the village of Villeneuve-Lohéac where Le Houarner lived they found only his mother, who said she did not know where her son had gone.

Thus, on January 8, 1734, Maurice Le Ravallec addressed a new petition “to our Lords of Parlement” [the High Court] to the effect that:

“all the land cries for vengeance for this most terrible homicide, that has been effectively sanctioned in the absence of any punishment meted out by the judges. We may rest assured that all that they have done thus far will serve only to prove their collusion with the accused. The witnesses who have been heard avow that the facts have not been reported as they had declared them. One person could scarcely countenance having seen money change hands towards undermining the investigation into this affair…”

Consequently, Maurice Le Ravallec requested that the affair be sent before the judges of Hennebont or of the presidial court of Quimper, or “a jurisdiction other than that of Gourin in which Maître Borré, procureur fiscal of Le Faouët, serves as the substitute for the Crown Prosecutor …” […].

This was, in effect, what was decided, and on June 17, 1734, the procureur fiscal of Hennebont, Vincent Laigneau, upon receiving the enforcement orders of the proceedings from the judges of Le Faouët, declared himself to be “extremely surprised to find the said enforcement orders so poorly drafted […] so that no faith could be accorded to such procedures so devoid of form and authenticity…” […]

The new procureur fiscal proved more zealous than his colleague in Le Faouët: a mere fifteen days after he received the enforcement orders of the proceedings, Noel Le Houarner was arrested. Four months had not sufficed for the judges of Le Faouët to find the latter! Le Houarner was incarcerated in the prisons of Hennebont where the jailer, François Poullain, promised that he would keep “a good and sure guard [over him], and feed him the King’s bread.” […]

Two days later, on July 2, Noel Le Houarner was interrogated, without much success: according to his account, he and Louis Le Ravallec had traveled together without speaking to each other as far as the field that overlooked the cross of Penfel. He had, however, continued alone as far as the cross and had paid no heed to what became of his companion.

In March 1735, Noel Le Houarner obtained letters of remission from King Louis XV. On May 12, he submitted a petition to the judges of Hennebont, requesting them to “ratify the said letters,” so that he might benefit from them. In this petition, he takes up once more his narrative of the events of that Easter Tuesday evening. However, this time, curiously enough, he agrees to many things that he had previously denied or concealed. Thus it is that he recognizes–for the first time–that Louis Le Ravallec had accompanied him to the cross and had wished to stop there. However, he had wanted to continue on his way, so that “they quarreled and wrestled and dealt each other several blows, after which, the petitioner left the said Le Ravallec, who seemed to turn back and take the road to Kerly…”. However, he “did not believe he had dealt him any blow that could have caused his death…” […].

On July 9, after a final interrogation, the judges of Hennebont ratified the King’s letters of remission and freed Noel Le Houarner, ordering him to “offer the sum of six livres towards prayers to the Lord by the Capucins of Hennebont, for the soul of said deceased, Louis Ravallec, and towards payment for the expenses of this court, [he] was to pay 792 livres, 12 sols, and 2 deniers” […].

The criminal proceedings would not make much more progress: on August 29, 1736, after a fresh series of confrontations and a final interrogation that yielded nothing new, the four remaining accused–Laurent Rousseau, Michel Guillemot, Yves and Jean Le Houarner […]–were absolved and declared innocent.

After four years of proceedings, the mystery remained unsolved: on the evening of the pardon, had Louis Le Ravallec been murdered or had he drowned accidentally while returning home drunk? The witnesses had, as a rule, been very circumspect. When confronted, all persisted with affirmations that contradicted each other. Without offering complete credence to Maurice Le Ravallec’s accusations against the judges of Le Faouët, it is clear that the latter were scarcely diligent in their attempts at elucidating the affair, and that many points remained obscure that could have been clarified with a few additional hearings or confrontations of witnesses.

This translation was written in the context of a master’s thesis submitted at ESIT in 2021. My thanks to Mary-Ann Constantine, specialist in Celtic Studies and Breton folklore, who generously gave of her time and whose comments on this translation improved it enormously.

Bibliographic references mentioned in the French text and in this translation

Constantine, Mary-Ann. Breton Ballads. Aberystwyth: CMCS Publications,1996.

Crubaugh, Anthony, “Local Justice and Rural Society in the French Revolution.” Journal of Social History 34, no. 2 (winter 2000): 327-350. Accessed September 21, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1353/jsh.2000.0141

Luzel, Françoise-Marie. Gwerziou Breiz-Izel: chants populaires de la Basse-Bretagne.2 vols. Lorient: Éditeur Corfmat. 1868-1874.

  1. Translator’s note: All translations of references and footnotes are by the translator unless noted otherwise. ↩︎

  2. Luzel, Gwerziou Breiz-Izel, vol. 2, 1874, 151, 269. ↩︎

  3. Chants sombres, fantastiques, tragiques, racontant des apparitions surnaturelles, des assassinats, des infanticides, des duels à mort, des trahisons, des enlèvements et des violences de toutes sortes.” (Luzel, Gwerziou Breiz-Izel, vol. 1, 1868, vi.) ↩︎

  4. Translator’s note: The Breton term gwerz (and its plural form gwerziou) remain untranslated here, with a view to indexing the categorical specificity of the genre among oral traditions. The songs themselves are often described as ballads, being a form of “traditional narrative poetry in the Breton language” (Constantine, Breton Ballads, 1). ↩︎

  5. Translator’s note: The pardon is a Catholic pilgrimage performed in Brittany on the feast days of particular patron saints wherein an indulgence, or pardon of sins, is granted to the penitent pilgrim. ↩︎

  6. Translator’s note: The term procureur fiscal is retained untranslated here, with a view to indexing the specificity of the office. Under the Ancien Regime, the procureur fiscal combined the roles of officer of the law with that of tax collector for the local Lord or Seigneur (Crubaugh, “Local Justice and Rural Society,” 327). ↩︎