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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Tribute of Noménoë

By Hersart de la Villemarqué (1815–1895)

  • Cornouaille Dialect

    Translation of William Sharp

  • NOMÉNOË, the greatest king whom Brittany has had, pursued the work of his country’s deliverance, but by means different from his predecessors’. He opposed ruse to force; he feigned to submit to the foreign domination, and by these tactics succeeded in impeding an enemy ten times superior in numbers. The emperor Charles, called the Bald, was deceived by his demonstrations of obedience. He did not guess that the Breton chief, like all politicians of superior genius, knew how to wait. When the moment for acting came, Noménoë threw off the mask: he drove the Franks beyond the rivers of the Oust and of Vilaine, extending the frontiers of Brittany to Poitou; and taking the towns of Nantes and Rennes from the enemy, which since then have not ceased to make part of the Breton territory, he delivered his compatriots from the tribute which they paid the Franks (841).
  • “A remarkably beautiful piece of poetry,” says Augustin Thierry, “and one full of details of the habits of a very ancient epoch, recounts the event which determined this grand act of independence.” According to the illustrious French historian, “it is an energetically symbolic picture of the prolonged inaction of the patriot prince, and of his rude awakening when he judged the moment had come.” (‘Ten Years of Historical Studies,’ 6th ed., page 515.)

  • I
    The golden grass is mown; it has misted suddenly.

    —To battle!—

    It mists,—said, from the summit of the mountain of Arez, the great chief of the family:

    —To battle!—

    From the direction of the country of the Franks, for three weeks more and more, more and more, has it misted,

    So that in no wise can I see my son return to me.

    Good merchant, who the country travels o’er, know’st thou news of Karo, my son?—

    Mayhap, old father of Arez; but how looks he? what does he?—

    He is a man of sense and of heart; he it was who went to drive the chariots to Rennes,

    To drive to Rennes the chariots drawn by horses harnessed three by three,

    Divided between them, they that carry faithfully Brittany’s tribute.—

    If your son is the tribute-bearer, in vain will you await him.

    When they came to weigh the silver, there lacked three pounds in every hundred;

    And the steward said: Thy head, vassal, shall complete the weight.

    And drawing his sword, he cut off the head of your son.

    Then by the hair he took it, and threw it on the scales.—

    At these words the old chief of the family was like to swoon:

    Violently on the rock he fell, hiding his face with his white hairs;

    And his head in his hands, he cried with a moan:—Karo, my son, my poor, dear son!

    Followed by his kindred, the great tribal chief set out;

    The great tribal chief of the family approaches, he approaches the stronghold of Noménoë.—

    Tell me, head of the porters,—the master, is he at home?

    Be he there, or not there, God keep him in good health!—

    As these words he said, the lord to his dwelling returned;

    Returning from the hunt, preceded by his great playful dogs,

    In his hand he held his bow, on his shoulder carried a boar,

    And the fresh blood, quite warm from the mouth of the beast, flowed upon his white hand.

    Good day, good day to you, honest mountaineers! first of all to you, great tribal chief:

    What news is there, what wish you of me?—

    We come to know of you if a law there be; if in the sky there is a God, and in Brittany a chief.—

    In the sky there is a God, I believe, and in Brittany a chief if I can.—

    He who will, he can; he who can, drives the Frank away—

    Drives away the Frank, defends his country, avenges it and will avenge it.

    He will avenge the living and dead, and me and Karo my child,

    My poor son Karo, beheaded by the excommunicated Frank;

    Beheaded in his prime, and whose head, golden as millet, was thrown into the scales to balance the weight!—

    And the old man began to weep, and his tears flowed down his gray beard,

    And they shone as the dew on a lily, at the rising of the sun.

    When the lord saw this, a bloody and terrible oath he swore:—

    By this boar’s head and the arrow which pierced it, I swear it:

    Before I wash the blood from my right hand, I shall have washed my country’s wound!

    Noménoë has done that which no chief e’er did before:

    He went to the shores of the sea with bags to gather pebbles,

    Pebbles to tender as tribute to the steward of the bald king.

    Noménoë has done that which chief ne’er did before:

    With polished silver has he shod his horses, and with reversèd shoes.

    Noménoë has done that which chief ne’er did before:

    Prince as he is, in person to pay the tribute he has gone.—

    Open wide the gates of Rennes, that I make entry in the town:

    With chariots full of silver, ’tis Noménoë who is here.—

    Alight, my lord; enter the castle; and leave your chariots in the coach-house;

    Leave to the equerry your white horse, and come and sup above.

    Come to sup, and first of all to wash: there sounds the water-horn; do you hear?—

    I will wash in a moment, my lord, when the tribute shall have been weighed.—

    The first bag to be carried (and it was well tied),

    The first bag which was brought, of the right weight was found.

    The second bag which was brought, also of right weight was found.

    The third bag that they weighed:—Aha! aha! this weight is not right!—

    When the steward this saw, unto the bag his hand he extended;

    Quickly he seized the cords, endeavoring to untie them.—

    Wait, wait, Sir Steward, with my sword I will cut them.—

    Hardly had he finished these words, that his sword leaped from the scabbard,

    That close to the shoulders the head of the Frank bent double it struck,

    And that it cut flesh and nerves and one chain of the scale beside.

    The head fell in the scale, and thus the balance was made.

    But behold the town in uproar:—Stop, stop the assassin!

    He escapes, he escapes! bring torches! let us run quickly after him.—

    Bring torches! ’twould be well: the night is black, and frozen the road;

    But I greatly fear you will wear out your shoes in following me,

    Your shoes of blue gilded leather: as to your scales, you will use them no more;

    You will use no more your golden scales in weighing the stones of the Bretons.

    —To battle!—


    This traditional portrait of the chief whose political genius saved Breton independence is no less faithful, from its point of view, than those of history itself. Thus, Augustin Thierry did not hesitate to place it in the gallery which contemporaneous history has preserved to us, and which he has so admirably restored. The latter proves by its general spirit, if by no precise feature, the exactitude of the anecdote. Before the time of Noménoë, for at least ten years, the Bretons had paid tribute to the Franks; he delivered them from it: that is the real fact. The tone of the ballad is in harmony with the epoch.
    As the head of the Frank charged to receive the tribute falls in the scales, where the weight is lacking, and the poet cries with ferocious joy, “His head fell in the scale, and thus the balance was made!” one remembers that a few years ago, Morvan, the Lez-Breiz of the Breton tradition, said, trembling with rage, “If I could see him, he would have of me what he asks, this king of the Franks: I would pay him the tribute in iron.”
    In regard to the epic song with which the liberator of Brittany inspired the national Muse, the satirical song composed in the Abbey of St. Florent against Noménoë is opposed. The Frankish monks of the shores of the Loire could not pardon him the destruction of their monastery; and to avenge themselves, they invented the following fable which they chanted in chorus:—

  • “IN that time lived a certain man called Noménoë:
  • Of poor parents he was born; his field he plowed himself;
  • But hidden in the earth an immense treasure he encountered;
  • By means of which among the rich many friends for himself he made;
  • Then, clever in the art to deceive, he began himself to raise;
  • So that, thanks to his riches, he finished by dominating all,” etc.

  • QUIDAM fuit hoc tempore
  • Nomenoius nomine;
  • Pauper fuit progenie;
  • Agrum colebat vomere;
  • Sed reperit largissimum
  • Thesaurum terra conditum;
  • Quo plurimorum divitum
  • Junxit sibi solatium.
  • Dehinc, per artem fallere,
  • Cœpit qui mox succrescere,
  • Donec super cunctos, ope
  • Transcenderet potentiæ, etc.

  • Poor Latin, poor rhymes, poor revenge.