Vicomte Théodore Hersart de la Villemarqué
Breton bardic name: Kervarker
b. July 7, 1815, Quimperlé, Finistère (France)
d. December 8, 1895, castle of Keransker, near Quimperlé
He grew up in Nizon, near Pont-Aven, in the manor house of Plessix. His mother, Countess Marie-Ursule Feydeau de Vaugien, spoke Breton, which influenced the young Villemarqué's later work. He studied at the Ecole des Chartes, after which he spent some time in Paris, acquainting himself with the various intellectuals of the time. However, he grew dissatisfied with what he saw as the crude Parisian life, and left for the Breton countryside. There, he began to collect the folksongs of the local villagers.
In 1838, he sailed for Wales, where he was inspired to begin the Barz Nizon, a druidic group similar to the Gorsedd of Iolo Morgannwg.
In 1839, the twenty-four-year-old Villemarqué published Barzaz Briez, his collection of Breton folksongs. Though at one time thought to be a complete forgery, it is now believed to have been based on real Breton folksongs greatly embellished by Villemarqué--a not unusual practice for the time.
In 1846, he was honored as a member of the National Order of the Legion of Honor, and in 1859, at the age of 41, was made a member of the Academy of Inscriptions and Belle-Lettres.
He was a correspondant with Jacob Grimm, with whom he shared an interest in collecting oral tales. While Grimm and his brother are generally credited with faithfully collecting the folktales of their fellow Germans, Villemarqué was criticized for his own work.
By 1869, he was chastized by François-Marie Luzel for his lack of scholarly methods in collecting the Breton folksongs; some accused him of writing the songs himself in Breton, while others claimed he didn't even know Breton, but wrote the pieces in French and had someone else translate them. However, in Donatien Laurent's 1989 work Aux sources du Barzaz Breiz, Villemarqué's notebooks were examined, and proved that he did not invent the songs. However, not unlike even the Brothers Grimm, he did heavily edit and even at times rewrite some of the songs--a not uncommon practice in 19th century folklore collection.
In 1876, he founded the Société archéologique du Finistère, spending most of his time in his native Quimperlé, where the Vicomte died.
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Mary Jones © 2004