Memoirs of a Breton Peasant

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Seven Stories Press, 2004 - Biography & Autobiography - 431 pages
A fascinating document of an extraordinary life, Memoirs of A Breton Peasant reads with the liveliness of a novel and bristles with the vigor of an opinionated autodidact from the very lowest level of peasant society. Brittany during the nineteenth century was a place seemingly frozen in the Middle Ages, backwards by most French standards; formal education among rural society was either unavailable or dismissed as unnecessary, while the church and local myth defined most people's reasoning and motivation. Jean-Marie Déguignet is unique not only as a literate Breton peasant, but in his skepticism for the church, his interest in science, astronomy and languages, and for his keen--often caustic--observations of the world and people around him.

Born into rural poverty in 1834, Déguignet escapes Brittany by joining the French Army in 1854, and over the next fourteen years he fights in the Crimean war, attends Napoleon III's coronation ceremonies, supports Italy's liberation struggle, and defends the hapless French puppet emperor Maximilian in Mexico. He teaches himself Latin, French, Italian and Spanish and reads extensively on history, philosophy, politics, and literature. He returns home to live as a farmer and tobacco-seller, eventually falling back into dire poverty. Throughout the tale, Deguignet's freethinking, almost anarchic views put him ahead of his time and often (sadly, for him) out of step with his contemporaries.

Déguignet's voluminous journals (nearly 4,000 pages in total) were discovered in a farmhouse in Brittany a century after they were written. This narrative was drawn from them and became a surprise bestseller when published in France in 1998.

 

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Contents

The Story Behind This Story
11
Translators Note
19
Maps
20
Chronology
21
Authors Apostrophe to the Reader
23
THE BEGGAR BOY 18341853
25
That pestilent sewer the Rue Vili
28
My third accident
29
The fierce mountain men of Kabylia
212
From Algiers to Vera Cruz
219
Three thousand leagues from France
220
1866
224
Gorgeous orgies
227
Social questions
228
The enemy was upon us
230
So we were run out
233

Prayers and catechism
34
Those characters we used to call wild men
36
Horsemovers and wolfkillers
41
Stories and legends
45
Potato death
49
The legend of the Black Cat Ar has du
50
My first Communion
56
My fourth mortal accident
59
The Revolution of 1848
61
At the Quimper hospice
63
The idlerkings of Lower Brittany
68
Terrible and cruel noblemen
71
The Midsummer Nights festival
73
Extraordinary visitors
76
At deaths door for the fifth time
80
A professor of agriculture
84
We would have orgies
87
Superstitions
88
Gwerz de KěrIs The Ballad of KěrIs
90
Learning to write
95
A regular domestic servant
98
Observing the moon
101
Learning French
103
The Breton saints
108
The first telegraph line
112
At the recruitment office
113
THE SOLDIER 18531868
119
This barracks looked less cheerful
121
Tu faraï un bounn soudart Youll make a good soldier
123
All i heard was foul language
126
You asked for it so now march or die doing it
128
At the Sathonay camp
133
A volunteer for the Crimea
136
Malta
139
The terrain was strewn with shells
141
The battle of Sevastopol
144
Scurvy dysentery and typhus
147
My learned teacher
149
Two good enemies
151
The whirlwind
154
The horrible black plague
155
Jerusalem Pilgrimage
158
Our turn to embark
169
Marshal de Castellane
171
Napoleon III at Châlons
173
Long live Italy Long live France
176
Viva nostri liberatori
178
Triumphal entrance
181
Great battle great victory
185
The agreements between the two imperial rogues
192
Demobilization at Tréport
194
I was discharged to ErguéGabéric
197
I was off to see a new country
200
I recited Dantes lines to him
202
The Arabs caught sight of me and cried out in terror
204
Now i was a schoolmaster
208
Long expedition
211
In Mexico City
238
The last of the Mexican bullets
241
I started telling stories
244
The Breton and the Corsican get along fine
247
Promoted to sergeant
249
The hermit beelover
250
To my old Brittany I shall return
252
Long live the Emperor
254
THE FARMER 18681882
257
The prodigal rich man
259
The great pardon of Kerdévot
261
I shall set up an apiary
265
She was a daughter of Kernoas
271
My dreams of freedom were over
281
Betrothal meats
285
The sacrifice is to take place in a few days
291
The wedding feast lasted two days
305
A few hours of supreme happiness
311
My newfangled ways
314
The good motherinlaw would grumble
318
His little god locked up in a box
323
My farming follies
325
Long live the republic Down with the priests
327
Heavens fire
334
I have fattened you for fifteen years and now you put me out
336
The rumor of my death reached Toulven before I did
339
Fortyeight years old and halfcrippled
344
IV PERSECUTED 18821905
351
The national insurance company
353
Delirium tremens
360
My tobacco shop
362
The fine lady
365
The big day
368
So things went along rather nicely
372
There probably never will be a woman without vice or fault
374
This blow could only have come from the parish
380
A am run out of Pluguffan
381
Taking my children
385
And I began to write the story of my life
388
My son is buried
391
The ErguéGabéric paper mill
394
Thankless child
396
That great Breton Regionalist Union
400
It is the twentieth century and I am still alive
401
These stupid proletarians
402
A month with no food
403
Pistigoù
405
I resolve to kill myself
406
Declared a madman idiot fool
409
The decree expelling the nuns
413
A short treatise on beekeeping
418
The drunkards room
424
At the library
425
I have seen my name shining amid literary luminaries
427
It is time to end
429
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About the author (2004)

Born in 1834 to landless farmers in Brittany, the young JEAN-MARIE DÉGUIGNET was sent out several times a week as a child to beg for his family's food. After spending his adolescence as a cowherd and a domestic, he abandoned the province for a soldier's life, avid for knowledge of the wider world. Having grown up speaking only Breton, Déguinet taught himself Latin, French, Italian and Spanish and read broadly in history, philosophy, politics and literature during his travels. He was sent to fight in the Crimean war, to attend Emperor Napoleon III's coronation ceremonies, to support Italy's liberation struggle, and to defend the hapless French puppet emperor Maximilian in Mexico. Eventually Déguinet returned home to Brittany, where he worked as a farmer and tobacconist before falling back into poverty. He died in 1905.

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